Thursday, January 15, 2015

Social Work, Sports & Teamwork

I love Social Work. Its essence is about connecting, about reaching out, about recognizing human need as something other than failure, lack of character or being "bad". Social Work, at its best, acknowledges that all human beings are fallible, but also that all human beings have aspirations to be better, whatever form those aspirations may take, however difficult they may be to discern at all. Social Work is about taking judgement out of the equation of whether or not one deserves to have a good life.

But, one of the glaring misses that often manifests in the practice of Social Work is that the principles applied in the service of clients are too often withheld in the management of those delivering service. This is in part because social workers often identify so much as givers, that they struggle with the notion of receiving support, as though life were a zero-sum game, in which receiving would somehow invalidate, or somehow dilute, the quality of their giving. This, of course, is nonsense.

But unfortunately, the business stylings with which Social Work management increasingly constrains itself - in the name of professionalism, efficiency and accountability - can cause it to overlook the sector-specific needs of its work force, succumbing to an accounting method of evaluating the work.

What generated this post are thoughts about Teamwork; about how Teamwork can improve the delivery of social services, but how so many agencies and institutions fail to embrace two of the most useful methodologies inherent in Teamwork, those being: the division of labor and the matching of abilities and interests to the tasks at hand.

This is where Sport comes into the discussion. Professional sports management is substantially about maximizing the effectiveness of talent. Coaching focuses on the development and matching of skills. Social Work management, on the other hand, is often about normalizing and standardizing a work force, partly so as to have a uniform and predictable delivery of services. There are lots of reasons for this, not least of which are the influence of unions and the need to avoid liability. So, while Sports Managers and coaches seek out and build on the unique qualities of athletes, and match them for optimal effectiveness, Social Services managers are more likely to seek to eliminate differences in work styles, and to create predictable norms for its service delivery. Coaches tend to view unique qualities as gifts, to be developed. In competition, these are advantages that catch opponents off guard and disrupt their plans. In social work, unique qualities can undermine consistency in service delivery, and can create expectations that cannot be met.

These differences between the two management approaches are appropriate to the fields to which they apply. And yet ... possibilities are sometimes missed.

In my social work career, I've experienced plenty of very appropriate specialization on the level of job description and duties. For example, a group home I worked in employed several frontline workers to manage the day-to-day activities of residents. In addition, there were managers, an intake coordinator, a case-manager, a life-skills teacher, and a counselor. This level of specialization and division of labor is common in the field. But there was another level of specialization that took place among the frontline workers. One of the staff was into physical fitness, so developed outings and activities that built on this passion. Another person was into cooking and nutrition. A third loved music and movies and organized entertainments. Yet another was passionate about education, books and learning, and was able to form special bonds with residents open to his influence. But the only way this could happen was with the encouragement and support of managers who were willing to allow flexibility in the sharing of duties. The sharing of duties related to the different temperments and interests of the staff spilled over into such things as handling the conflicts that erupted on a daily basis, writing log entries, dealing with parents and teachers and case-workers who phoned and visited the facility, assigning and monitoring chores. Certainly, these were areas of shared responsibility, but in most instances, individuals with particular abilities took disproportionate rolls in areas of their strength and/or interest.

In larger institutions, this type of personalized job functioning is much harder to find. Job descriptions are more standardized, and often, everyone is expected to do everything. What is often lost is the benefit of freeing up the incredible diversity of human personality, skill and passion.

The reason Sports comes to mind is that its focus on Team Achievement generates a perspective from which the development of individual talent is freed from standardization. There's not quite so much need for the human parts to be interchangeable. Role Players who specialize are appreciated for their expertise, and are not relied on for what they cannot do, don't do well, or don't do at all. (Of course, they are compensated accordingly, which, if they lack the required skills, could mean no compensation at all).

I find myself wishing that there was more, explicit currying of talent in social work, or, at least, more acknowledgment that workers are unique and that their development and contribution needn't fit a mold. I'm overstating my case, but to make a point that I think is useful. Human Services work depends on the face-to-face expression of humanity. It depends on staff who bring their full, multi-dimensional selves to work every day, sharing their passion and the richness of their experience. It is the human quality, moreso than the professional, that gives Social Work its heart and vigor. The technical skill and knowledge base that derive from professionalism are able to flourish because of the human connection that the best workers are able to make. And sometimes - only sometimes, mind you - the idiosyncratic is discouraged or squeezed out, where it might be of tremendous value.

Think of your favorite teacher. Chances are - if I'm right - that special teacher in your life was quite different than others, had some unique gifts, was maybe even weird. Most of my favorite teachers were. And I understand that this is precisely where the great risk comes in. One of my best teachers ever was probably a bit psychotic. He sometimes went on rants about conspiracies being hatched against him, and he was a bit too hands on with some of the girls. He was fired, eventually, and should have been. At the same time, he had a talent for teaching that I'll never forget. I'm not suggesting for a moment that such an individual belonged in teaching, or in social work. But I do believe that efforts to prevent such dangers can go too far. And when uniqueness and idiosyncrasies, and personal passions, and imbalances in skill, and expressions of affection are weeded out, it has gone too far.

As the French say, "Vive la Difference!"


1 comment:

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