Blog #3 Social workers as managers

Are you a manager who is also a social worker?

Are you a social worker who has a manager who is also a social worker?

What do you think a good social worker brings to management – of staff, of teams, of projects?

I first began managing a team in a large, multi-faceted, multi-service organisation when I was quite young, compared with my manager colleagues in the organisation at the time. I had recently completed a postgraduate SW qualification, and completed my first ANZASW competency assessment in my new workplace. My title did not include “social worker”, and the advertisement and job description just asked for a social science qualification. Despite this, I sure used all the “knowledge, skills and education” I had gained as a social worker in this management position. Instead of having a “client centred practice”, I developed a staff centred management style. I learnt how to ask staff what they thought would work, what answers and solutions they had. And then I learnt to advocate for those ideas and the staff who suggested them. I learnt how to network within the organisation to learn how to do all the new tasks that were my responsibility: budgets, recruiting, project management, contracting (as both the contractor and the contractee), annual planning, strategic planning etc. I learnt how to identify supporters and those who were disconnected – both within my team and within the organisation. And I used social work skills and learnt techniques to communicate with all of them so there were positive outcomes for everyone.

I learnt that when I was recruiting, I needed to employ people who were not like me – I needed staff who thought differently, processed differently and who would make our team a circle rather than a triangle or a straight line. Initially when these staff questioned me, I felt challenged and tended to push back (sorry to those people who experienced me as a very new manager – I hope that I learned!!). With time, I found that the staff who challenged me were often the best performers. They could push all of us outside our comfort zones. They could have us think differently and see things in new ways. As in social work, I often learnt the most from my most “difficult” staff – who in the end were not actually difficult, but needed to be heard, and from whom, in that hearing and beginning to understand, I learnt a lot.

I found a couple of excellent mentors who supported me, provided reflective feedback, helped me plan my own development and challenged me when I needed it – a bit like professional supervision, actually.

I took most of what could be called my management activities back to my team. I kept them informed of progress. I asked for their input. I reflected that input back and we would have robust discussions about what and how and when. As I gained experience, I saw that once I ensured they were fully informed, the more I allowed them to question, propose and discuss, the more able they became, the more they pushed their own boundaries and the more they achieved.

It sounds all very “social workey” doesn’t it? What is different between management and social work? It’s all client / staff centred. We need to use the communication style that works for the client / staff, not our own preferred style. So why don’t more social workers move into management positions? If you are a social worker, why don’t you want to be a manager?

Some of the skills I learnt as a manager might not be all relevant to social work, but all of the skills I learnt as a social worker were relevant to management – and that’s more than a lot of professional qualifications can boast.

This video gives a great outline of how “great managers” act. Again it sounds very like the way great social workers act. The video is a review of the book “First, break all the rules” by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman. Another review here.

If you are a manager, do your staff come to you and tell you that what you are doing does not sit well with them? What would you do if they did? And if you have a negative reaction to this, why? How would staff talking to you like this be any different to a client who talks to you about cultural differences and how they would prefer you to interact?

If you are a manager, how do you incorporate the ethics of social work – equality, unity, non-discrimination, client (or in this case staff) participation etc – into your management strategy? How do you communicate this to your non-social work managers, and ensure that your staff’s integrity and “participation in their problem solving” is maintained? Do you personally uphold your staff’s human rights and integrity – and are your staff confident of this?

If you are a manager, do you stand up for social work and your social work staff with other managers or organisations? Do you truly know what your social work staff do on a daily basis, and so can you argue for the essentiality of their work?

It can be very hard to end up stuck in the middle – more senior managers on one side and vociferous, demanding social workers on the other. But isn’t that what social work is about? Or is it just too hard to work that balance? The SWRB Code Of Conduct provides a lot of guidance around how to be a social worker. If managers were to consider their staff to be their clients, managing to work within the Code could be difficult.

If you are a social worker, are you holding your manager who is also a social worker, to ethical standards? What can you do that will support your manager to behave ethically?

If you are a social worker with a manager who isn’t a social worker (which is happening more and more often) how do you explain what you do, why you do it, why what you are doing is different to what a WINZ case manager or a Mental Health support worker does – and why it needs a 4 year professional degree to learn how to do it?

What ideas or scripts do you use when you are asked “What do you actually do?”, “Why do we need social workers?”. How do you measure the work that you do? How do social workers know they have been successful? Social work can be a hugely preventative service. The work that we do here, prevents something negative happening in the future. How do you measure this and how do you show it to your managers? I’ve recently been involved in some Health Infometrics discussions and conferences – and in health, measuring what we do and how long it takes is becoming very important.

I want more social workers in management positions – especially in some of the bigger organisations – because I think social workers should be a driving force behind making our society a better place.

What do you think? What should social workers be doing and saying? What should social work managers be doing and saying? What are the barriers?

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Ngā mihi nui to everyone who is reading, sharing and responding.

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