How was your year? Tough question, isn’t it?
As you wind down the year and look forward to a new year, what do you remember about this year? What did you overcome? What could you have done better?
Can I tell you a secret?
I don’t have a job. Maybe that’s why you shouldn’t listen to me.
But being without a job has allowed a break, and to think about where we can go from here.
I wanted to share some thoughts on my own year, that hopefully brings you into a brighter year. Whilst this does focus on macro social work, reflecting on some broader trends within the social service sector, it also looks at how you, the individual social worker, can apply some lessons to your own career.
Technology is not always the answer
There’s lots of talk about how we can move to SSA 3.0 and how we can better leverage the technologies that are available to us today.
Yes, and …
maybe there’s also a space to think about how we can better use the technology that’s already on hand. There’s always the tendency to think of technologies in terms of digital technology. We find the latest shiny object, splash a few thousands on it, and then leave it like a white elephant in the office, because few know how to use it effectively.
Perhaps it’s also useful to look at how we can also make use of social technology.
Social technology is a tool that directs people to knowingly or unknowingly take certain actions, and in so doing it has the ability to shape an extremely broad range of human action.
It can be used to reduce coordination costs between people, causing them to work together more effectively towards a goal, but it can also be used to restrict collaboration and action.
There are two areas where social technology may be helpful.
Think of things like your meetings. How can you have more effective meetings that don’t end up wasting everyone’s time?
As a student social worker, I used to wonder why my boss was so picky about basic meeting hygiene. He would insist on having the agenda, having the minutes sent out a day after, and ensuring that the actions were followed up immediately.
What’s the fuss?!
Then I realised how much time meetings could waste.
6 people seated in a meeting for an hour is 6 man-hours.
As social as we all are in the social service sector, more meetings can mean more talk, less action. As much as coordination is important, it’s what happens after the meeting that determines the effectiveness of the meetings.
Here are 3 ways that you can make your meetings more effective.
- Ask yourself: Why are you having this meeting? If you’re disseminating information, can you use a Loom video to tell people about it? Can it be done over email? If you need opinions, can it be done through a shared document? If you need to get consensus, reduce the halo effect by getting participants to vote anonymously on the options presented before that. The best time to have a meeting is when being together will produce better ideas than when being apart.
- Send out an agenda before hand. Always state the purpose of the meeting and then the items to be discussed.
- At the end of the meeting, put aside 10 minutes where you go through
- Decisions reached
- Actions moving forward
- Owners for the respective actions
- What ‘done looks like’ – what does the completed task look like?
This ensures that your meetings reaches the goals you have.
How are you managing the progress of the team in a project? Are you using sophisticated project management software, or is it all in your head?
That’s where social technology can come in.
When you’re managing a project, you want to ensure 3 things:
- People know what they are doing
- People know what others are doing
- People know where they are going
There are many ways you can do this with digital technology, like a kanban board (Trello or Notion are some notable ones).
But the social technology is what can enable the work to be coordinated, so that people are engaged with the project they are doing. If you’ve been in a project team before, you know that your best experiences have been those where you know why you are doing something, and what you are doing.
That’s where a social technology tool like facilitation can make things easier.
According to INIFAC (International Institute for Facilitation),
‘facilitation is the art and science of helping groups to be more effective in their meetings and decision-making.’
The Facilitation Network Singapore 4D Facilitation Model provides a useful frame to think about how to facilitate better meetings. But I’m adapting it for use within project management.
With the use of facilitation tools that allow for a divergence of ideas, and then subsequently a convergence of ideas, this allows for projects to gather the best ideas, and then build subsequent actions moving forward.
Better use of technology may be the answer
What’s your typing speed (you can find out here)? WHAT?!
I’m not kidding. What’s your typing speed? Do you realise how much of your work is done on the keyboard? If you’re not typing faster, you’re not being as productive as someone who is going 70 words per minute.
I raise the example of typing speed because it’s indicative of how little attention we give to the supposedly minute moments of friction that end up costing us in the long run. For example, the microsecond it takes for your standard issue mouse to reach the button at the top. Or the time it takes for you to right-click, copy, and paste, when a couple of shortcuts would have done the trick. Multiply that 5 times a day, 365 days, and you get an idea of the cost in terms of man-hours.
Looking for low-hanging fruit like this, where technology can be used in more effective and efficient ways, is better than learning a new technology platform at everyone and expecting everyone to get up to speed.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t learn how to use the fancy platform that you’ve gotten. But what I’m saying is that the basics – your Microsoft Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Zoom, keyboard, can always be used in more efficient ways. It’s whether you are able to unlock the power of it.
Here are 8 highly leverageable ways you can use from tomorrow.
Our findings indicate that organizational support helps to ease psychological distress.
The idea that the organization cares and is available for consultation and support is a great help to these social workers.
Providing even little incentives goes a long way to boost the staff’s morale and make the challenging work more manageable.
Seng et al. (2021) – Resilience and stress in frontline social workers during the COVID-19 pandemic in Singapore
Seng and his team’s research into the experience of social workers during the pandemic provides useful insights into how organisations can buffer you from the stress of what’s happening around you.
Maybe you’re on the verge of burnout.
When you’re with a great organisation, you feel safe, even when you’re burnt out.
When you’re in a place with poor psychological safety, you end up feeling that you need to protect yourself all the time.
Through Project Aristotle, the team at Google tried to discover what made high-performing teams, so high-performing. What they realised, together with Amy Edmondson was that the magic sauce was psychological safety. Think of psychological safety as feeling safe enough to make mistakes, and to know that they will be treated as learning opportunities, rather than as occasions to name and shame you.
Is your organisation conducive to you making mistakes, and you learning from them? Let’s face it. This is COVID. No one really knows what’s going to happen. There are going to be bad outcomes from what would traditionally have been a good process.
The question is:
What is your organisation’s tolerance for bad outcomes?
What is the margin of safety in your organisation?
In polymath Don Michael’s book ‘On Learning to Plan – and Planning to Learn’, he writes,
One of the functions organisations perform is to buffer the individual member from the impact of the chaotic interrelation of everything to everything.
Ideally organisations free the member to deal with just so much of the environment as his intellect and psyche permit.
Don Michael, in ‘In Search of the Missing Elephant’ (Triarchy Press 2010)
Each day, professionals come to organisations wanting to do their best work. The organisation can free professionals to do their best work in listening, and therapeutically helping clients. They can protect them from the impact of situations such as COVID, helping professionals to know that the organisation has got it sorted. The organisation will worry about COVID, whilst the professional can worry about the client.
But sometimes, organisations may destroy the spirit of professionals to do their best work. You see professionals lose the passion in their eyes. You hear it in their voice. They start talking about ‘the case’, rather than the person they are helping. They start laughing about morbid situations that happen to clients. They start treating social service as a job.
Just a job.
What started them in the sector, may no longer become the reason they stay in the sector.
Please don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with treating the social services as another job. But you may end up doing an injustice to yourself, because you’re doing emotionally trying work that you may not enjoy. Why do that to yourself?
If you don’t have a reason why, it may be better to take a break and to rediscover that why.
If you’re restarting, quit to find superbosses
There is never a replacement for the superboss. There are the good bosses, the bad bosses, and then the super boss. If you’re starting in your career, find the super boss. ‘Superboss’ is a term introduced by Sydney Finkelstein, in his study of how the best bosses ended up nurturing the talent for the rest of the industry.
If you looked at the top fifty people in these industries, you would find that perhaps fifteen or twenty had once worked for or had been mentored by one or a few talent spawners—or “superbosses,” as I came to call them.
Sydney Finkelstein, Superbosses
Because these superbosses end up spawning the rest of the talent of the sector. They have a way of pushing you beyond your limits. They attract the rest of the talent within the sector to join them. They take on crazy projects, and push the limits of what’s possible.
Find that superboss.
I used to think that it didn’t matter where you worked. After all, the job scope was the same. It was up to you how well you worked. You could have the best boss in the world but not really improve things.
How much could a boss really help?
Then I found my first superboss as a student social worker in England. My manager had the ability to bring together very different personalities, to recognise tension in the room, and defuse it. I remember the time when the relationship between my supervisor and I was extremely tense because she had put me through the concerns procedure twice in two months. The concerns procedure is initiated when your supervisor thinks you will fail.
Naturally, I wasn’t happy. What did my boss do? He sat us down, pointed out how the concerns process was to help me improve, and not to insult me. He laid down some clear markers about how I could improve.
I ended much happier than when I first started.
If you want the best for your career, find the superboss. You won’t regret working for him. If you’re working under someone who’s not helping, here’s my advice.
I know, I know. It sounds horrible.
Shouldn’t you give your boss a chance?
That’s why I would recommend that you quit only after you’ve tried to speak to him/her about it. Arrange a 1-1 and share:
- The struggles you’re facing
- What you need help with
- Practical advice on what you can do to improve the situation
- What you will do in that situation
- What you’re hoping your boss will do for you
Have a conversation like adults.
One month later, if your boss still doesn’t support you in the ways you need, then leave.
Some bosses talk about how it’s your responsibility to change, and to find out how to change. Sure, it is. It’s your responsibility to make the changes required.
Yet you can’t possibly know what are all the things to change. Nor will you know how to change, because you’re struggling with it. That’s why athletes have coaches to help them spot their mistakes, and provide systematic guidelines on how they can change.
But if your boss is:
- not helping you to see your strengths, and how you can play more to those strengths
- abusing you
- not supporting you to see how to improve on those weaknesses
Please leave. Even if you don’t have a job.
I may not have decades of working experience. But I have come to see that the most important relationship you can have is with your boss. And if that relationship is not nurturing, and mutually supportive, there’s little point in staying. You will continue to be unhappy.
I used to think that if I gave the organisation more time, things would improve. I simply needed to get used to it.
My supervisor used to tell me,
Wherever you go, there will be toxic people like this.
True, but there will be different approaches to handling people like this. Some organisations have a ‘no-meanies’ policy, whereby they actively tackle bad behavior from employees by having 1-1 sessions with the employee, telling them clearly about what’s allowed and what’s not.
Other organisations leave it, to the detriment of their own employees.
I used to think that it was just me who faced bosses like that. Then I started hearing about similar bad bosses from friends. I heard about how they dealt with it by leaving.
Leaving isn’t being weak and running away. It’s recognising that at this early stage in your career, you need someone who can nurture you to be your best self. You need someone who can see your strengths, and not just your weaknesses. You need someone who can protect you from the negative influences in the office.
3 months of not having a job in the social services has made me realise that macro social work isn’t just about the big ideas. It’s about the small things. If you strip all the big things away, the policies, the ideas, the politics, what do you have at the heart of social work?
And relationships are what we need to return to.