Why you need an MSW

Estimated read time: 22 minutes

It starts with one factor which may have prevented you from reading this today.

How many emails did you get today? How many texts? Maybe you haven’t noticed the exponential increase anymore; you’re just trying to keep up. If you told an earlier version of yourself from ten years ago just how many emails and texts you handle each day, your younger self would likely be scared. If not, telling s/he how prevalent social media has become in your life might do the trick. Funny how some things intended to make our lives easier has, instead, made it more complicated.

This may not apply to you: some of us have a knack for juggling asynchronous communication (the younger the better, it seems). But I’m sure I could find something else, because it’s just one example of what we are all struggling with: change.

When we take a step back, it’s overwhelming. Today’s technology is in tomorrow’s recycling bin. Platforms and industries appear and disappear overnight. Social, political, and economic upheavals are an endless parade of news headlines. Social norms are in an extreme state of flux. Belief systems are being turned upside down. Group-think is on the rise, as some factions are at threat of coming to blows (if they haven’t already). The list goes on.

Each of these things is nearly universal in impact, but the impact on each person is different. One aspect of that impact is attributable to the uniqueness of each of us, such as the aforementioned correlation of digital communication and one’s age.

Another aspect of that impact is attributable to the sum of our challenges and how those challenges interconnect with each other. If you have children, you know this: how is Johnny’s experience with digital communication different from your experience growing up? If Johnny experiences shaming through an incident captured and distributed on social media, how is that experience going to impact your view on digital communication?

The last part involves the impact of change upon you as you have dramatically changed. You keep changing, and you can’t stop changing, because change isn’t stopping; it’s accelerating. Digital communication may have presented a challenge to you yesterday, and it may still be a challenge to you today, but the nature of the challenge today is not the same as yesterday. Any current struggles you may have with email or text likely involve volume and disparity of platforms, rather than how to use it.

Even those who have a pretty good handle on all of these changes (“in the zone”, as they apply such techniques as mindfulness) know someone who is struggling. If you’re reading this (instead of scanning; a common coping technique), you are likely one of those trying to help many people within this sea of change. Is it any wonder mental health problems are on the rise? It’s hard work handling all of this change. It’s not enough to have the strength to swim with the current; you need the strength for two or more. Even the best among us, whom are setting the trends and redefining the rules in response to these challenges, are more akin to explorers rather than navigators.

For organizational leaders, this broad perspective gives rise to key questions addressed throughout this essay:

  • What are the variables we are not taking into account when seeking improvement throughout our organization?
  • How can we take these variables into account when those variables, in turn, are also continually changing?
  • How can we apply the subsequent enlargement of our collective perspective into actionable processes and solutions which benefit our followers and improve organizational performance?

The answers to these questions are not going to be found through an expert, a manual, or some new theory. All of these sources might be useful in understanding the problem and devising solutions, but there is one source of expertise consistently overlooked while seeking answers: your followers.

I know this because I’m a social worker.

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We are perhaps the most misunderstood profession.

When you enter a Master’s in Social Work (MSW) program without an undergraduate in the field (BSW), a one year boot camp is required (and from here forward, “worker” will refer to someone with a graduate degree in social work). My introductory course was taught by a sage. You know the kind of person I’m talking about: those who teach out of a wisdom drawn from decades of experience. Every good leader has one, and could always use more.

“What is social work?” We all had an answer, bright and astute students that we were. To each answer we gave, our wise professor provided a rebuttal he received in his career when giving a similar answer. By the end of the first hour, we realized nobody had a satisfactory answer, including our professor. If there is a defining adjective to all we do, it is “ambiguity”. We learn to embrace it.

The difficulty in understanding workers is rooted in the mistaken correlation between us and what we do. School social-workers are associated with children, clinical social-workers with mental illness, and so on. So, when someone meets us and sees what we do, they associate social-work with that population. “Oh, social-workers help families.”

What often corrects this view (but often only partially) is when you meet us in another context: public relations, ambassadors, ombudsmen, community activists, or arbitrators. It is perhaps the most versatile graduate degree available.

How? Our versatility is due to our perspective.

There are three parts to that perspective, regardless of who we work with, or where you find us: the identified client, the environment, and the intervention. Allow me to unpack each of those.

The identified client can be an individual, a family unit, or an entire segment of the overall population. Properly identifying the client is the key to effective work. Let’s say I’m a clinical therapist working with autistic children, and one of my clients is an autistic child named Sally. I might engage in weekly play-therapy sessions with Sally (the intervention; discussed below) but my work with Sally will likely extend beyond this intervention. It will likely include coaching Sally’s parents on challenges unique to Sally, and speaking to the general community about the needs of autistic children because solving these needs indirectly benefits Sally. By keeping the focus on Sally and her needs as the identified client, social workers avoid the inevitable scope creep from engaging with such an enlarged perspective.

The environment is a broad term for the setting where the identified client exists. Continuing with our example, it is not enough for me to understand the individual, familial, and communal needs of an autistic child: I also have to understand the interactions (and associated challenges) between the child and their peers, their school, their community, and society at large. All of us affect, and are effected by, our environments. To not fully understand the environment of the individual is to not fully understand the individual.

The intervention is simply the desired goal of the work. In this case, the intervention could be improving Sally’s performance in school while advocating for her special needs in the classroom, or coaching her on the expectations associated with her first job while perhaps helping her employer to understand and accommodate her special needs.

In sum, our perspective includes breaking down the sum of the problem into individual parts, identifying those parts including those not being taken into account, understanding each part, and analyzing the relationships between the parts while maintaining a holistic perspective. It is both a deductive and inductive process, with the social worker moving back and forth between processes until a new sum is derived. When this is done, solutions naturally present themselves.

Take out the term “autistic”, substitute any label you choose, and you’ll begin to see the versatility in this approach. “psychotic”, “teenager”, “homeless”, “veteran”, “employee”, “manager”, “follower”, “leader”. The list and possibilities are practically endless.

I picked the example of an autistic child to exemplify the strength of our perspective: I have never worked with autistic children. Nevertheless, if I had too (something which happens in many nonprofits), the strength of our professional perspective would allow me to quickly acquire the relevant information to assist Sally.

With that said, my needs analysis, along with the subsequent information and knowledge I gain from that analysis, would only represent half of everything I need to genuinely assist Sally.

The other half would come from the expert. Who is the expert on what it is like to be an autistic child? Sally. Who is the expert on raising an autistic child? Sally’s parents. Who are the experts on autistic needs in the greater community? Those who are either autistic, or those directly supporting someone autistic.

My role is not to tell Sally how to function better as an autistic child: my role is to help Sally discover this for herself, through such interventions as validating her feelings regarding her challenges, encouraging her to try something new, or helping her to understand why some people react to her the way they do.

I wouldn’t presume to tell Sally’s parents how to parent Sally either. My role might include increasing their understanding through sharing research on autistic children (and translating as needed), or to assist in planning for potential challenges as their child grows older, or to simply listen to them rant as another “thoughtless” person interacts with their child.

If I’m working within the community (environment) of an autistic child to improve awareness and support for autistic children (an intervention), I’m seeking to raise the collective voices of the children and parents, facilitating communication and translation for those who are not experts in autism.

Our competency is found in our perspective. We marinate in our perspective. Success is often identified when our client no longer needs us. It can be a thankless profession at times, and we embrace that too.

*             *             *             *             *

Let’s substitute the word “follower” for “autistic” as a way towards bringing the problem and solution together into focus.

Take a moment and inventory the challenges you are confronted with right now. No matter the challenges, you can separate them into distinctive categories. Some are personal (an illness, something new to learn, a fear to overcome, a weakness in character needing strengthening), some are interpersonal (a family illness, an under-performing employee, a communication challenge within a department), and others are external challenges you may have to mitigate for (a natural disaster, a new competitor, a dip in the stock market). Further stratify these challenges as you see fit: the important thing to note here is that, regardless of your challenges, they are all interrelated. News of a new illness has the potential to effect your performance in every area of your life.

As a leader, you are adept at handling the myriad of challenges you face. This doesn’t mean you do it alone: you have mentors, teachers, and peers to assist you in gaining insight and devising solutions, and you have followers who implement your strategy. You know that a leader is only as strong as their support network. Nevertheless, you have a large hand to play in your success, and you are compensated accordingly.

However, in my observation, some of our greatest strengths can also be our greatest weaknesses.

From time to time, leaders lament that their followers don’t understand the challenges they face as a leader. Many of the complaints and suggestions from followers demonstrates a lack of understanding regarding the breadth and depth of these challenges, even if well-intentioned. If your followers did understand, the complaints would diminish and the quality of suggestions would improve. Yet, finding the time to facilitate this increase in understanding is increasingly problematic. It’s the proverbial rock and a hard place.

Your followers would likely say the same about you. Yes, you understand their challenges at a cognitive level, but you often lack the perspective of wrestling with those challenges in daily experience. B.F. Skinner once said “education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.” What transforms learning into education? Experience. As a leader, the choices you make in applying what you learned to your experience are often the opportunity costs hampering your understanding of their development as a follower, and visa-versa.

Who is helping your followers to disentangle and navigate all of the various personal and career challenges (i.e., the variables), both individually and collectively, from the perspective of what is best for your organization, including its mission, goals, and values?

To put it more simply, who are their mentors, teachers, and peers?

If you are a CEO or business owner who guided your organization from the beginning, the initial answer was “you”. Your vision, insight, creativity, and ability to manage change and conflict were directly applied in one-to-one, or one-to-some, relationships. Your ability to do this is why you are successful, but your success is now creating additional layers of stratification between you, your leadership, and a growing army of followers. This is especially true for the leader who rose to their position from the bottom rungs of the ladder: yes, that perspective is a strength, but how long ago was the experience at those bottom rungs?

Who is coaching and mentoring them now?

That up-and-coming star in your organization? That wise manager with ample amounts of experience? Such people are vital in every organization for the wealth of talent and insight they bring. However, unless your entire organization is amply stocked with these individuals, it’s a haphazard approach to rely on those people for assisting all of your followers, because their skills in addressing these challenges is likely not their primary role. A more focused solution is required.

Human Resources? Not likely, and this is not a criticism. Do a Google search for the phrase “HR is not your friend” and you’ll see what I mean. Lots of negative narratives interlaced with analysis, all of which points to a simple paradox: the identified client for HR is the organization as a single entity, not the individuals who comprise that entity. To put it another way, HR’s core mission creates a natural bias towards the organization, and away from the individuals comprising that organization.

This singular point of reference accounts for the vast majority of negative experiences employees have with HR. Although there are some HR professionals who excel at understanding the paradox between organizational needs and employee development, it is always a difficult position at best, and there never seems to be enough time for working on employee development in contrast to organizational needs. At worst is an HR department zealously pursuing organizational needs at the expense of their employees, a counter-intuitive approach often causing harm to organizational culture and inclusivity. Even if your HR professional is adept at straddling this line, the majority of your employees have a previous negative experience with HR and have learned not to bring their problems to HR as a result. You can’t fix what you don’t see.

Outsourcing? Sounds reasonable on the surface, and there is a plethora of options out there, anything from consultants, to workshops, to organizations, to life coaches and therapists (including EAP), all of which are potentially part of the solution (and should be utilized whenever feasible). However, in my previous experience as a clinical therapist, I can point to a key weakness in this approach: the only source of data for helping the client likely begins, and ends, with that client.

If the client (your follower) had complete clarity and understanding of what their struggles were, they likely wouldn’t have been in my office. The client’s perception of the problem (often the critical component left untapped in devising an organizational strategy) is addressed without the context of the environment where the perception was formed. Although counseling professionals are skilled detectives in assessing the problem, no approach compares, either as efficiently or as effectively, to observing the client in the context of their environment. Whenever a counseling professional gets a chance to make gains on the client’s perspective through direct observation of that client in their environment, they often jump at it. This lack of perspective accounts for many of the failures in tangibly improving the mental health and/or overall functioning for many mental health clients.

Other sources? Family and friends are biased in the exact opposite as HR is biased towards the organization (often creating further intrapersonal, or even interpersonal, conflict for that follower). Religious or other personal development sources may be good at teaching principles, but are often poor in assisting members to integrate these principles into their lives. Perhaps most importantly, the ad-hoc nature of personal growth and development resources creates an opportunity for less than qualified individuals, many of whom make the problem worse.

One solution not discussed yet: the rise of the Chief People Officer, or CPO. To be clear, a CPO’s role and associated challenges is often broader than the solutions proposed in this essay. However, the core offering of a CPO to your organization, such as being an ambassador and communicator of the organization’s vision and mission, improving interpersonal and intrapersonal functioning, analysis and clarification of roles, establishing feedback channels for data collection, and development of organizational leaders, are all a part of the toolbox of many graduate-level social workers.

When I read the wisdom of leading CPOs, I hear the soul of a social worker. The following illustrates the overlap.

*             *             *             *             *

How would a worker (MSW) approach the challenge of improving organizational effectiveness?

Identifying the client is always the first step. Some reading this would say “the employee” while others would say “the organization”. Each of these answers would likely be the recipient of the worker’s services, but neither of these would truly be the client.

The client is the CEO or business owner (along with his/her executive leadership), or the CPO (a strategy is already in place). This has only recently become possible.

The rise of the “mindfulness revolution” in the business world has correlated with a long overdue awakening within leadership as to the out-sized role business plays in answering some of society’s deepest problems. This revolution has given rise to simple questions with no easy answers. “How can I steer my organization towards goals which better society as a whole but are still profitable?” “How do I obtain more buy-in from my organization towards this broader vision?” “What do my employees and managers need to better align with these goals, and to execute organizational objectives in service of these goals?”

Many leaders have learned that the best path forward is to put their followers first, focusing on their needs as a way to better meet the needs of customers and improve profitability. This insight and perspective is in alignment with both the social work code of ethics and our practices. Social workers operate by a set of principles which include “help people in need and address social problems”, “challenge social injustice” (i.e., “equality of opportunity”), “inherent dignity and worth of the person”, “importance of human relationships”, “integrity” and “competence”.

The intrinsic motivation, vision, and strategy of the leader must align with the worker’s ethical practice for any proposed strategy to be effective. A worker could never communicate a vision and strategy not in keeping with the best interests of people, nor encourage people to align with a vision and strategy that is exploitative in nature. Conversely from an effectiveness standpoint, the data and analysis acquired by a worker has the potential to challenge the leader’s commitment to making people the priority. That which we place as a priority in our lives is always severely tested for our level of commitment.

If the leader is committed to a people-oriented vision, then everything flows naturally from here. The environment is the organization. The intervention is the strategy for improving organizational effectiveness. The strategy would include many components already familiar to business leaders. As mentioned earlier, some components of that strategy are better analyzed from an executive level (a key argument for hiring a CPO). The following is an outline of the strategic components related to the skill set of a worker.

A Needs analysis is always first. In an organization, this starts with a deductive analysis of that organization, including a comprehensive analysis of the industry challenges and trends; the organizational mission, values, and goals; the organizational chart, including roles and responsibilities in relationship to organizational objectives; history of the organization, along with key milestones in development; and executive interviews for their unique perspective on these items.

Armed with this information, the next step is an inductive analysis, consisting of one-to-one conversations with individuals at all levels of the organization and across all functional areas. If the initial deductive analysis is the sketch, then the inductive analysis is the color to that sketch. However, a proper needs analysis involving people goes far beyond surveys into employee satisfaction.

As every social-science researcher knows, to truly dig into the root of any problem involving people, quantitative data must be welded to qualitative data. It’s not enough to collect survey responses and compile that data for statistical analysis, nor is it enough to include a few questions requiring a sentence or two in response. The researcher also has to capture poignant statements and narratives which sufficiently illustrate the problem. In other words, the answers to qualitative questions requires a conversation, allowing the individual to describe what they see, hear, and experience.

Capturing this subjective element requires a strategy with two critical parts:

  • Confidentiality – the aim is to understand both individual and organizational challenges from the standpoint of those affected by them. Due to factors discussed previously, many employees would be fearful to speak openly and honestly about those problems without fear of reprisal from one’s managers or from the organization, whether founded or not. If the strategic approach does not take into account this fear, it will fail to adequately capture all relevant data.
  • Psychologically safe environment – closely associated with confidentiality, the employee must feel safe that the information they share will not be utilized to harm that employee. Besides assurance of confidentiality, this requires an interviewer to be skilled in such skills as affirmation and encouragement, unconditional positive regard for the individual, knowledge of core challenges experienced by that employee in relation to their industry and other cultural factors, versatility in recognizing resistance, persuasive skills for overcoming resistance, and assessment skills leading to questions not previously asked, among many others.

In each conversation, the subjective assessment of the elements derived from the deductive analysis is recorded for future analysis. While collecting this data and information, the worker is staying attentive to unidentified challenges not addressed in the deductive analysis, which can be either individual or systemic in nature. The worker categorizes these challenges into themes, such as talent and knowledge base, cultural sensitivity, on-boarding and training processes, interpersonal effectiveness and team building, and leadership development (with potentially other examples based on the deductive analysis).

As one of my clients, a former mechanic, used to say: that’s a lot of wrench work.

The compiled data from these two approaches is separated into systemic challenges and individual challenges. Systemic challenges are presented to leadership for discussion and strategic analysis, with the worker standing-by to provide suggestions for improvement or additional clarification (and will likely see many innovative solutions based on their professional perspective). Such solutions could include training workshops for addressing a particular challenge shared by many within the organization, or partnering with outside resources regarding those same challenges, improving or devising an organizational policy with follower input, or improving processes based on the new data and knowledge gained from the analysis.

While systemic challenges are analyzed and discussed among organizational leadership, the worker begins addressing individual challenges identified during the analysis. This is another area where workers are well-suited, as social workers are trained in methods and tactics for having difficult conversations with people regarding personal problems.

One example might include assisting an individual employee with a personal problem to identify resources, engage with those resources, and craft a plan for personal improvement which takes all of the employee’s challenges and concerns into account. Another example could include mediating a troublesome work relationship between an employee and a manager. Still another example might be coaching a dysfunctional department on better interpersonal communication through attending departmental meetings and proposing more effective methods for communicating ideas and challenges. Yet another example might be assisting an employee to explore their motivations and passions for the work they do, and helping that employee to weld that to organizational goals.

The examples are as varied as there are people, and the solutions are nearly as varied as well. What is vitally important for the reader to understand is that the challenges and associated solutions are not, in themselves, the answer to the problems. Rather, it is the methods used to include everyone in the process which is the ultimate solution for all challenges within an organization. When the true needs of people are collected in their entirety, the solutions often present themselves. When the entire organization believes, based on experience, that they can have a role in solving many of these challenges, they will become more forthright with their solutions, sometimes even enacting solutions without prompting when appropriate.

Social workers strive to obtain and maintain a perspective which is of the most benefit to the most people. The goal of the social worker is not to be an enabler, but rather to empower individuals and communities to analyze their own needs and create their own solutions which work for all of those involved. It is the optimal organizational effectiveness because it includes everyone in working towards a solution.

In closing, I envision a day coming soon in which every organization large enough to support one has a social worker or equivalent as a part of their staff. It is the next step in improving our effectiveness and addressing the challenges of a modern world.

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