On my last student social work placement in the U.K., I was assessed as not yet competent.
My supervisors wanted to fail me twice. I went through the concerns process twice.
That’s when I started to hear these dreaded words “social work competencies” over and over again.
Maybe that’s you today.
Or you wonder if you are competent enough as a social worker.
Or maybe you’re wondering how you can be more competent as a social worker.
But before we go into that, I want to be clear.
Let’s be clear.
I trained in the U.K.
Whilst you might not be working in England, this article does not only focus on what competencies you are supposed to show.
Some aspects of the article might point to competency frameworks from the U.K., where I trained, and from Singapore, where I practice now.
Rather, it looks to explore 3 key issues:
- Why social work competencies are important
- How one can assess one’s current competencies in social work
- How one can improve one’s social work competencies
The U.K. uses a different framework to assess the competencies of social workers.
It’s called the Professional Capabilities Framework, or PCF.
No matter where you are in the world, you would have a competency framework to assess your own skills as a social worker.
For example, in Singapore, that framework is known as the National Social Work Competency Framework (NSWCF).
The problem isn’t which competency framework you use, but how you use it.
Or whether you even use it.
Ever had the experience?
Where you keep referring to the competency framework in university, and then when you start working…
Suddenly it disappears.
As if it no longer matters.
But it does, doesn’t it? Or not you wouldn’t be reading this article.
You might be here to finish an assignment you need to do for university. Or to fulfil some reflective requirement at your workplace. Or as part of your accreditation as a social worker.
Stick with me for a while.
It will be worth your time 🙂
What are social work competencies?
Competencies are measurable or observable knowledge, skills and behavioural attributes that enable individuals to perform their job responsibilities effectively.
National Social Work Competency Framework (SASW 2015:50)
There are 3 vital aspects to this definition from Singapore’s competency framework.
They are measurable or observable.
Competencies can be codified.
The ingredients that make a social worker, good, can be identified.
What this also means is that you can build on these competencies.
Maybe today, your supervisor may tell you that you are not so good. And you wonder how you might become better.
For years, I struggled with understanding how to grow my social work skills. It felt as if my skills had reached a plateau.
And I was afraid that what Angela Duckworth said, would eventually come true.
They allow social workers to perform effectively.
Chances are, you know great social workers, from those who are not so good.
What is effective social work? Is it the outcomes you achieve for each client? Or is it how quickly you manage to close a case?
Peter Drucker, the famed management guru, once wrote eight practices that differentiates great executives from good ones.
They apply to social work too.
They asked, ‘What needs to be done?’
They asked, ‘What is right for the enterprise?’
They developed action plans.
They took responsibility for decisions.
They took responsibility for communicating
They were focused on opportunities rather than problems.
They ran productive meetings.
They thought and said ‘we’ rather than ‘I’.
Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive
As you begin to look into the competencies, you will see that the competencies relate to these eight practices.
For example, a competency of social workers under the British Association of Social Workers’ (BASW) Professional Capability Framework (PCF) would be to
Why do social work competencies matter?
1. Social work competencies tell you where you are.
Each competency framework comes with clear explanations of the competency you are supposed to show.
For example, under the PCF, there are clear descriptors for each domain. At the end of your last placement, under ‘Skills and Interventions’, you are supposed to (amongst many others):
identify and apply a range of verbal, non-verbal and written methods of communication and adapt them in line with peoples age, comprehension and culture
am able to communicate information, advice, instruction and professional opinion to advocate, influence and persuade
The great thing about these descriptors is that it clearly shows you whether you are there, or not there.
There is no ambiguity.
During my last social work placement, I went through the concerns process twice. This meant that my supervisor was (very) unsure about passing me so that I could work as a social worker.
My tutor gave me some advice.
Ask your supervisor how you can help her be sure of your competencies according to the PCF.
That was a magical question.
Going through the descriptors, line by line, my supervisor pointed out where she was not convinced (yet) of my capabilities.
For you, this might mean that rather than looking at the competency framework as a static document, allow it to inform you about where you are currently.
And how you can move forward.
2. They tell you how to move forward.
Okay, okay, I’ll admit it.
I never opened the social work competencies framework after I graduated from university.
Maybe you’re like me. You don’t know why there’s such a big fuss about competencies.
After all, aren’t they just words on a page? Are they useful?
Don’t think of competencies as a mark-sheet where you score yourself out of a 100. Rather, see it as a guide to help you go beyond 100.
Depending on where you are practising, go through the domain descriptors. Then, ask yourself where you are lacking.
More importantly, look at where you are already doing well. Very well.
Find your strong competencies. Improve on your strengths. Rinse and repeat.
I’m a big proponent of working from your strengths.
Why? At the end of the day, people can say that you need to be all-rounded and improve on your weaknesses.
But your weaknesses and the mistakes you will get wrong is infinite.
Landry reasoned that while the number of wrong ways to do something was infinite, the number of right ways, for any particular player was not.
It was knowable, and the best way to discover it was to look at plays where that person had done it excellently.
Buckingham and Goodall, Why Feedback Rarely Works The Way It’s Supposed To, Harvard Business Review
As Buckingham and Goodall observed, highlighting your pattern of excellence, recognising it, anchoring it, recreating it and refining it, will help you much better in understanding how to move forward.
3. They help you grow your team.
Maybe you’re supervising a newly qualified social worker or a social work student.
That can be overwhelming. You wonder if there can truly be an objective way of assessing how good a social worker is.
After all, aren’t the skills involved in social work, soft skills? How do you evaluate them?
With the competency framework.
But it’s not only evaluating for failure. It’s evaluating excellence.
It’s not finding faults where the social worker has not met the competency framework. It’s finding the pockets of excellence where the social worker has done well.
Catch the moments of excellence where the social worker exceeds what’s expected. Help him to break down what he’s done that is excellent. Help him do it again.
What social work competencies matter?
There are so many different frameworks to assess one’s competencies.
But from my observation of different frameworks, there are three different types of competencies.
Behavioural competencies give you an indication of the expectations of your attitude as a social worker.
Let’s face it.
Social work is extremely pressurising. You can deal with crises all day, everyday…
And the best thing?
It repeats day after day.
When faced with these difficult situations, what anchors you? What helps you to keep sane?
It is the behavioural competency.
The diagram above is drawn from SASW’s behavioural competency framework. But above and beyond things such as envisioning, the key thing is being able to ‘evaluate and energise self’.
As you care for others as a social worker, you need to care for yourself too.
Theory? What theory? I threw that out of the window after university!
My colleague laughed as I asked her what theory was informing her practice.
Yes, it’s true. After university, you might be tempted to throw your theory out of the window too.
I don’t blame you.
I’ve done that too. In the first few months of my social work career, whenever I met a client, I wouldn’t have a plan.
I would tell myself:
Hey, I’m being client-centred. Person-centred. It’s their agenda, not mine.
But this was a cop-out for being lazy. For not using theory to inform my practice or my conceptualisation of what the issue is.
It’s tempting to use your gut instinct as a practitioner. I’m not saying that’s not important.
But it’s important that you inform your practice with evidence as well.
As Research in Practice for Adults (RIPFA) shows below, evidence-informed practice is about triangulating knowledge from different sources to build a better understanding of the clients you work with, and how you can intervene.
Then there are the skills in social work.
The skills you use in counselling someone. Or working across systems. Or of advocating for someone.
There are many skills required in social work.
Not everyone has every skill.
You wouldn’t have every skill required.
So, work from strengths, not weaknesses.
Know your superpower social work skills. Those skills you can do easier than anyone.
If you don’t know what your superpowers in social work are, ask yourself:
- What do people consistently say is great about the work I do?
- What skills come to me easier than anyone else?
- What is the one unique thing I bring to the table in any organisation?
How do you assess your competencies?
To know how to move forward, you first need to know where you are.
Every Singaporean male needs to go through 2 years of National Service. Mine came in the army.
When I was in the army, there was once when I had to learn how to use the compass. Yes, a physical compass.
Not that digital compass on Google Maps.
A physical, hard, heavy compass.
Complete with string to hang around your neck, in case your hands got too tired from carrying it around.
To train us in using the compass (well), we were thrown in the jungle. Asked to find different points in the jungle.
I knew I was lost when I found the signage pointing to a university.
Not the signage pointing me back to our campsite.
Knowing where you are in terms of your social work competencies is vital.
Ask your supervisor.
3 questions for your supervisor can help.
- Where am I in terms of my competencies?
- Where do I need to be?
- How do I get there?
Assess yourself against your competency framework.
Experienced practitioners have thought long and hard about the competencies you’re supposed to show as a social worker.
They have discussed, had many cups of tea, and many bowls of biscuits to come to a consensus on the competency framework you now see.
It might be tempting to use it as a coaster for your mug.
But maybe it’s time to pick it up, peer through the tea stains, and have a good read.
Where do you find yourself lacking in the domain descriptors for each competency?
How do you grow your competencies?
In my second month working as a fully-qualified social worker, I remembered sitting at my desk.
I was supposed to be recording some case notes.
But soon, the internet turned too addictive for me to resist. I started checking through my stock holdings – whether they were up or down. Thinking of some Christmas shopping. Finding great books to read.
Let’s face it.
You’ve been there.
On the lazy Tuesday afternoon, when your manager is out on a home visit, and you start surfing endlessly through the internet.
As my colleague in the U.K. once told me,
When the cat goes out, the mice come out to play.
Unfortunately, here’s the cruel truth.
Watching cat videos on YouTube isn’t going to improve your competencies.
If you follow the flow, you’re not going to flow much as a social worker.
You need to be deliberate about it.
My favourite quote comes from Angela Duckworth, a professor who studies the science of performance. In her great book, Grit, she writes:
Some people get twenty years of experience. Others get one year of experience, twenty times in a row.
Being deliberate is about using the different tools that are available to you to get feedback. For example, you could use:
- Observations by your supervisor
- Discussions with your supervisor
- Recordings of sessions with your client for your own reference and discussion with supervisors
Rousmaniere (et al. 2017) wrote a great book ‘The Cycle of Excellence’. In it, they argue about how therapists can become better.
It might be written for therapists, but as social workers, we have much to learn from it too.
Ever had the distinct feeling that you are continually doing the same thing as a social worker, and don’t feel like you’re growing?
Well, there’s a reason.
It’s because you and I are not intentional about how we are growing.
Change doesn’t happen by chance.
It’s measured, intentional and deliberate.
As Rousmaniere (et al. 2017) show in their diagram below, establishing a cycle of excellence is vital in turning your personal flywheel of excellence.
In helping you move from good, to great.
As seen in the diagram below (Rousmaniere et al. 2017:75), the gap between where you are and where you want to be can be done through 3 mechanisms (observations, client feedback, and simulations).
If you’ve reached the conclusion, pat yourself on the back.
You’ve done very well!
You might wonder who I am to tell you about competencies. Well, the truth is that I’m not a professor. Not a practice educator.
I’m a practitioner.
And I’m a practitioner that has failed a lot.
Out of those failures, I’ve begun to realise that it’s not how many times you fail.
But it’s how many time you try.
Improving your competencies is about knowing where you are, and where you want to go.
It’s about understanding how to get there.
And at the end of the day?
It’s about committing to the change needed, to get there.
BASW (2018) Professional Capabilities Framework for Social Work in England
The 2018 Refreshed PCF – Level Descriptors for All Domains online. Available from: https://www.basw.co.uk/system/files/resources/pcf-student-asye.pdf (Accessed 2 Dec 2020)
Duckworth, A. (2017) Grit: Why passion and resilience are the secrets to success, London: Vermilion
Ministry of Health, Ministry of Social and Family Development and National Council of Social Service (2015) National Social Work Competency Framework. Singapore: Social Service Institute
Rousmaniere, T., Goodyear, R. K., Miller, S. D. and Wampold, B. E. (2017) The Cycle of Excellence, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd