You have some superpowers.
The question is:
Do you know them?
As a social worker, you have certain superpowers. Or skills. No one else can use that skill as well as you can.
Yet there might be times when you wonder if that’s true.
Especially when your supervisor asks you why that case note hasn’t been written. Or why the case plan is overdue. Or why you haven’t met that client.
You wonder if you’ve chosen the wrong job. Because your skills don’t seem to match what’s being asked of you in social work.
And the truth is…
Sometimes, it does seem like you can get paid more to do other things, with much less effort.
You might consider quitting, going to a place which can value your skills better. Or remunerate you better.
That’s not wrong.
But before you do that, I would encourage you to read this.
In it, I will suggest some ways you can use your skills more effectively in social work. I will also suggest ways you can create a better fit between your work and your skills.
These are suggestions, not straitjackets.
I don’t have all the answers. But in my social work experience in the U.K., Peru, and China, these are what has worked for me.
Let me say this too.
If you think I’m too young to be giving you advice, you can stop reading this now.
Close the page.
Because if you want a professor to talk to you, you can go to university. I’m not a professor.
If you want someone who has more qualifications, you can go elsewhere.
I’m not a PHD.
I’m a social worker who struggles too.
I don’t have all the answers. But I’m trying my best to share what’s worked.
Writing helps me to process my struggles on how I’ve tried to fit my skillsets into my social work career.
A word of caution
Before you start reading, if you’re looking for some official/national guidelines on the skills needed, there aren’t any here.
These skills are universal. Forcing them into a certain country’s guidelines would be more harmful than helpful.
These social work skills are from the list given by Richard Bolles in his book, What Color is Your Parachute. This is a useful guide on the skills in the jobs we do.
Understand what skills you have.
Before you use your superpower, you need to know your superpower.
The wrong way to think about social work skills
You might skim through this quickly and think: I don’t have all these skills! How can I succeed in social work?
The point is not to have all the skills. The point is to know your skills, and deepen them.
That’s the point.
You don’t have to have all the skills.
But you need to have some skills. And you need to understand them really well.
The mistake you often make in thinking about skills
You might confuse skills with qualities. Social work skills aren’t qualities. For example, leading is a skill.
Confidence is a quality.
Motivating is a skill.
Motivational is a quality.
In thinking about social work skills, ask yourself a simple question:
Is this a verb?
Meaning… Is this an action, or is this a description of my action?
If you don’t think you’re a leader, you’re already leading. You just don’t know it.
When you work initially with a client, you are leading out of the darkness. You are helping them to find a way.
Or if you’re a supervisor, you’re already guiding another social worker to see a better way.
Sometimes social work can feel impossible.
Especially when you’re coordinating between multiple agencies, different people, and various problems.
You might have a knack for that. Some people do this particularly well. They can see the links between different things. They build the connections between these varying things well.
As a student social worker, I was once tasked to work with a teenager. He was everything I wasn’t. He was cool, blond, and handsome.
How could I engage him?
You might find yourself engaging and building rapport with clients easily. Even though they seem difficult initially, you’re able to build trust with them quickly. You are able to get their buy-in.
That’s a superpower.
When I was on my final placement, I remember that I took a psychoanalytic approach to social work within my team. They were not exactly sure if the statutory placement I was in was necessarily the best fit for my skills in counselling.
I was eventually put through the concerns process (twice!) because of my poor fit with the organisation.
Looking back, I realised that in many statutory social work agencies in the UK, counselling is not seen as a necessary skill.
Because more and more of social work is moving towards bureaucracy, where you administer the social policies the government wants you to deliver.
But, counselling is a key skill that is still required in the social work agency today. When people share their deepest struggles with you, they might not necessarily want to know what social policy is going to solve their needs. They might want a listening ear.
Counselling gives us the skills to attend to suffering, whether that be listening, reframing the problem, or probing beneath the surface for further insight.
In times like these, counselling is not needless.
You might be overwhelmed with writing!
Writing case notes, emails, case reports, assessments… sometimes it gets really frustrating!
But writing is a key social work skill because it demands that we are able to express ourselves clearly. Having something in your mind is not the same as putting it out on paper, in writing.
To improve your writing, try this.
Have the habit of writing down your thoughts before bed each night.
If you are like me, there is a chance that your mind is still buzzing from the social work you’ve done during the day.
There might be painful things you’ve experienced that have not been processed. Don’t leave it in your bed.
Take a simple notebook, and jot down your thoughts.
Don’t worry about what it reads like.
Just get it out.
During my final day of placement, I was getting some feedback from a service user.
She told me,
‘What I really appreciated about you was that you listened, you really did listen. I felt like someone was finally listening to me.’
A key social work skill is listening. It doesn’t mean listening to respond, but listening to hear.
You don’t try to think of another response as you process what is being heard, but you listen with the purpose of simply making the other person feel heard.
That is difficult.
Often, we fear that we don’t have a witty response to something said. We fear not responding well enough to what has been shared.
But these fears are unfounded.
Often, listening with the intention of hearing out another person provides more comfort than a clever response can.
Today, why not try this?
Listen to hear, rather than to respond. When asked to respond, repeat what was said to you. ‘I hear you say ….’
Sometimes, being human, and walking with someone through their dark journeys can be more useful than trying to take them out of their dark journey through a clever intervention.
Social workers are essentially problem-solvers of social problems. Just like how doctor solve health problems, social workers solve social problems.
Daily, you solve the problems clients face like homelessness, financial distress, mental distress, with the arsenal of tools at our disposal.
Granted, they might not necessarily be a great arsenal like Man In Black, but at least you have some tools.
Knowing what tools you have in your social work toolbox is key to understanding how to problem-solve better.
For example, some social workers prefer to use the solution-focused brief therapy, whilst others prefer the relationship-based approach.
Whatever approach you use, we can always work on improving it.
Deliberate practice to improve your problem-solving skills comes through regular supervision and recording your own practice.
This way, when you play those clips back, you see how you tend to do certain things that might be unhelpful to our clients.
Follow through or get things done
There are some things in social work that you just need to get done.
Whether you like it or not.
For example, filling out a reimbursement claim for a coffee you had with a client, or filling out the petrol claims form, or typing out the assessment. However dreary it is, you just need to finish it.
You don’t need to get excited about it.
Faced with things like that, you might dissuade yourself from doing it.
It’s called procrastination.
One way I have found useful is to tell myself that I will just do it for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, I will stop.
Also, another useful way to clear senseless, but necessary administrative work is set aside an admin day.
On this day, block out your calendar and clear every little thing that needs to be done.
If you need more ways to focus, you can always check this article.
I used to have presentations as part of our assessments at university. I loved it, but my friends hated it.
As social workers, you would undoubtedly need to speak up in multiagency meetings, when presenting cases, or simply when you have a supervisor meeting. Learning to present one’s thoughts cogently is an essential social work skill that is often missed out in the training of social workers.
To help yourself speak better, try this.
Film yourself speaking about why you joined social work. Watch it, no matter how many times you cringe.
This way, you will know that you have a voice, even though you might not necessarily like your voice.
How to fit social work with your superpower
Remember what you’re good at.
I’ll admit this.
I celebrate myself everyday. No matter how bad the day went.
That may sound narcissistic, but it’s necessary as a social worker. Especially when it can be a thankless job.
Or when there is negative feedback from your supervisor about substandard work.
Despite this, there are times when people do praise you.
As you look back, can you remember:
- What do people say is good about the work you do?
- What is one thing you do that no one else does as easily?
- What is one unique superpower that you bring to organisations?
There’s something special about you.
But the question is:
Do you see it?
That’s why remembering what others have said about you is helpful in reminding you about what you bring.
Rather than what you don’t bring.
Hold onto your strengths. Sometimes, the world might not see it that way.
But even if the world doesn’t, you can.
And you must.
Know where you need to be, and how to get there
There are basic expectations of you as a social worker. These are the responsibilities you hold.
Expectations such as:
- Group work
- Community work
Then there are the competencies you are expected to have.
In the U.K., this can be seen from the Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF).
In Singapore, this can be seen from the SASW’s National Social Work Competency Framework.
What are the areas you need to build? Have these questions with your supervisor. What I found helpful for me was to ask:
- Which competencies am I lacking in?
- How can I help you to be more sure of my competencies in this area?
- What can I do to improve my competency in this area?
As you deploy your superpower, you need to ensure that the basic expectations of you are fulfilled. There is no point showing off your social work skills if you’re not fulfilling your basic responsibilities.
Understand the degree of flex
I have to admit.
I push the boundaries.
That got me in trouble when I was a student social worker in the U.K. I used an emotional resource without asking for permission from my supervisor. Whilst the good intention was acknowledged, the way it was done was something I had to change.
You might be tempted to do the same.
You have a great idea. But you’re not sure if you can implement it.
If it’s something you’re not sure about, ask. And if there’s pushback, then you can push back too.
Pitch your idea.
Criticism is not always a bad thing.
It forces you to think more about your idea and how it will work. Rather than rushing ahead with the idea without further thought, asking your supervisors about what they think about a particular idea can help.
Using your social work superpower is about being willing to try, and fail.
Your greatest failure won’t be that you failed.
But it’s that you failed to try.
So you want to use your superpower.
Start with the small things. If you’re skilled at coordinating things, try coordinating the next staff retreat.
Show others what your superpower is like.
Over time, as you build credibility and reliability, people begin to hand bigger things to you.
Own your career, own your life.
I’ve left this to the last.
Many times, in your career, you have a choice.
You have a choice whether you are going to make it your career, or your employer’s career.
Let me explain.
When you become a social worker, you are part of an organisation.
You might feel stifled. You might not like your organisation’s culture.
At that point, you have a chance to decide:
Am I going to make social work my career, or am I just going to keep my head down, follow the rules, and not get into trouble.
Choose the latter.
Social work is much more fulfilling when you own it.
When I graduated from university, I didn’t have a job.
That was scary.
When I got my first job as a social worker, I wondered how long I would last.
After all, the longest time I had in a job was 4 months, before I was sacked.
There were times when I thought I would lose my social work job.
It was scary.
But the reason why I continue to do social work, despite everything, is because I’ve learnt to make it my career.
No one else has responsibility for how great it is except for me.
It’s your career too.
You might read this and think:
This is impossible in my current social work job. I’ve to follow the rules.
Start small. Start with your superpowers. Use them.
Own your career, own your life.