Ivan Douda: A positive manipulator

In 1991 Ivan Douda co-founded the Drop In center, where he is now director and chief psychologist. His answers here offer a glimpse into an organization whose employees face stress, aggression, and ingratitude, and where only the most dedicated last.

With twelve years of hindsight, what would you say is the most difficult thing about running the center?
The first organizational step was the most difficult. We were the first private facility ever in this field. We had to find our way among organizational, legal, and financial matters, and it wasn’t easy. It was also difficult to ensure that we were heading in the right direction, as every organization has an unrestrainable tendency to stray from its original mission. This meant managing psychologists, educators, and other employees to concentrate on the routine, thankless work that we established the institution to perform, instead of undertaking only grand, beautiful activities.

What is the structure of your organization?
We have 25 employees, and our spheres of influence are broken down into several centers. We have two methadone programs, our basic center, the Streetwork program, Mobil Street, a mothers and children program, and a follow-up care center.

Do any common characteristics stand out among people who work in this field?
Absolutely. These people are strongly driven to provide therapy, and they don’t want to work for an ordinary company. Their lives are highly flexible, since they know that we can’t guarantee that anyone will have the job forever. Every year we solicit for money, and sometimes we get more, sometimes less. They get only what’s left over at the end.

To a large degree you depend on sponsors. Is it hard to convince your patrons that money for narcotics users is just as necessary as, say, money for ailing children?
The fact is that sponsors don’t flock to us, because they associate drugs with money laundering and other abuses. In time we discovered that the state is our best sponsor. We offer the state, and Prague in particular, our service, and they buy it. We also have a few other steady sponsors, but they contribute only CZK 100,000 to 200,000, while our annual budget is CZK 14 million. But that’s still not enough. We intend to soon turn to large international companies that we think are no longer leery of dealing with the drug issue.

You are the organization’s driving force. How did you adjust to your managerial role?
As a psychologist I’ve gone through various personality training courses, as well as psychoanalysis. Management is about communicating with people and psychology as well. The problem was different for me. A capable manager should know the laws and rules of negotiating with the authorities. I had to learn this myself. It’s like being thrown off a dock so you’ll learn to swim. Knowing how to deal with people forms the essential basis of all management.

How would you describe the ideal boss?
The ideal boss is fascinated by his work and doesn’t watch the clock. But he shouldn’t waste his subordinates’ time. He should be decisive, firm, concise, and clear, and be able to know the difference between what’s essential and what isn’t. I think the ideal boss is also empathetic, a positive manipulator of sorts. He can be a perfect professional, but if he lacks empathy he can’t be the best.

How did you evolve as a boss?
I have to admit that the older I get the less tolerant I become of inefficiency and complacency. I’ve become rather firm and open, I always try to state my case clearly, and I’m even able to dress people down, which I will do no more than twice and then make it clear that I won’t tolerate the defect a third time. Sometimes I even have to let people go. For example, one person was late for his first day of work; he acted like he was the boss here. He was fired on the spot.

Can you see where you have room for improvement as a manager?
A boss should know his shortcomings, but he shouldn’t discuss them in public, and certainly not with the media (laughs). For example, it took me a while to discover that it’s better to surround myself with people who can do most of the work independently. A few years ago my attitude towards our clients, typical junkies, changed. I used to be angry with them, and I didn’t like them. My work became a routine, and I was burned out. My solution was to keep only a few clients that are public figures, who don’t want to go through our facility, and to focus on the things I felt constituted my mission – training the staff, maintaining contacts, and prevention. I also make sure that the non-stop consultation line is always in operation.

Career highlights
1973 while working as a plumber, started volunteer duties in an anti-alcohol and anti-drug department
1978 graduated from the psychology department at the Charles University School of Philosophy
1976- 1991 worked as a psychologist at Faculty Hospital II in the Center for Drug Dependency
1988 completed a six-week internship on drug issues in the US
1991 together with MUDr. Jiří Presl, founded the Drop In center for the prevention and treatment of drug dependency

Since 1996 field workers, in many cases narcotics users, have been working for you in the Streetwork program. How has this worked out?
A streetworker who uses drugs but can still work at the same time is of great use to us. However, we can hire only a few such people, because we have to keep a sharp eye on them. Some time ago a drug user who was HIV positive worked for us. He lasted three years before he got so heavily into drugs that we had to let him go, unfortunately.

In your vocation it must certainly be frustrating to see the number of drug users constantly rising. How do you encourage and motivate your employees?
This is thankless work. The pressure of lies, fraud, theft, ingratitude, and assaults is crushing – so we ensure structured working hours and a more relaxed regime for our employees. Besides the days when they’re at work, they have a few days a month for self-education; they take training courses, and they visit similar facilities elsewhere. No one could stand constantly working in the out-patient department here for long.

What sort of stressful situations do you face?
The first meeting with a drug user going through withdrawal is highly stressful for new employees. These clients are very irritable and aggressive. They can kick doors down, make big scenes, and scream. Our streetworkers are also exposed to stress when the police “bitch them out” for distributing clean syringes. The complete lack of gratitude places tremendous long-term stress on our workers. It doesn’t work here as it does at typical health care facilities, where the patients praise the doctors and bring them candy. No one gets anything here, except maybe a curse (laughs). Our employees have to be aware that all drug users cheat, steal, lie, and manipulate others. One must accept this as a symptom of the illness and not moralize.

What do you do to relax?
I took up golf this year. As a sport, it imitates the meaning of life. It’s an art and a non-art that involves chance, tenacity, and gentlemanly comportment.

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