(Estimated reading 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 too busy trying to keep up. If you told an earlier version of yourself just how many emails and texts you would handle each day, your younger self would likely be scared. If not, telling s/he about the prevalence of social media in your life might do the trick. Isn’t it funny how some things intended to make our lives easier have 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 digital communication is 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. Groupthink 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 is attributable to both the sum of our individual challenges, and how those challenges interconnect with each other.
If you have children, you know this: how is Sally’s experience with digital communication different from your experience growing up? If Sally experiences shaming through an incident captured and distributed on social media, how is that experience going to impact your view of digital communication?
Your perception will certainly change. This highlights the impact of change upon you. You have dramatically changed in response to the changes in your environment. You 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’re likely one of those trying to help many people within this sea of change.
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 those setting trends and redefining rules are more akin to explorers rather than navigators. Is it any wonder mental health problems are on the rise?
For organizational leaders, this broad perspective gives rise to key questions. What are the variables we are not taking into account when seeking improvement? How can we take these variables into account when those variables, in turn, are also continually changing? How can we apply the enlargement of our collective perspective into actionable processes and solutions benefiting our followers?
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 when seeking answers: your followers.
I know this because I’m a social worker.
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, “worker” or “social 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 utilizes these sages, and is always on the lookout for more.
“What is social work?” he asked us on the first day of class. All of us had an answer, bright and astute students that we were. To each answer we gave, our wise professor provided a rebuttal, one he received throughout 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 social workers is rooted in the mistaken correlation between who we are and what we do. School social-workers are associated with children, clinical social-workers with mental illness, and so on. So, when someone sees what we do, they associate social work with that profession. “Oh, social-workers work with families.”
What often corrects this view (but often only partially) is when you meet us in another context. Public relations, ambassadors, ombudsmen, community activists, and arbitrators are all examples. It is perhaps the most versatile graduate degree available.
How? Our versatility is due to our perspective.
A simple way to illustrate this is through example. Let’s say you are suffering from depression, and you are seeking to discover the root of your depression. If you ask your doctor, you will receive an explanation involving biochemicals, and how those biochemicals create altered states of mood, often treated through medication. If you ask the psychologist, s/he will focus on various thought processes, and how those thoughts affect your mood. If you ask the sociologist, s/he will fixate on your living environment – if you are living in abject poverty, it would be appropriate to ask how you are not depressed.
If you ask the social worker, s/he will focus on all three areas, especially the interconnection between all three. You may be suffering depression because of an extended period of unemployment caused by social forces (like, say, a pandemic), causing you to ruminate on negative thinking patterns, which subsequently alters your biological state. Conversely, you may be suffering from a biological malady, causing you to ruminate negatively, and further causing you to avoid job hunting.
Social work is a holistic approach, taking into account the biological, psychological, and sociological forces impacting our lives, both individually and collectively. The practice of social work ranges from working with individuals, to working with groups, along all three lines of inquiry. Biologically, it could range from identifying when someone needs medical treatment, to working in public health. Psychological approaches range from being an attentive ear for someone in need, to working as a researcher. Sociological applications include anything from organizational development to public policy.
Wherever there is an intersection of people, that is where you will find a social worker, facilitating relationships. In practical application, there are three parts to this perspective, regardless of who we work with or what we do: the identified client, the environment, and the intervention.
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 may include coaching Sally’s parents on challenges unique to Sally, or speaking to the community about the needs of autistic children. Each of these activities, along with several others, are still considered working with Sally because addressing 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 handling such an enlarged perspective.
The environment is a broad term for where the identified client lives and operates. 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 Sally and her peers, school, community, and society at large. All of us affect, and are affected by, our environments. To not fully understand the environment of the individual is to not fully understand the individual.
The intervention is simply the tools utilized to accomplish a goal. In this case, the intervention could be improving Sally’s performance in school through the use of teaching aids, all while advocating for her special needs in the classroom. Another example includes coaching her on expectations associated with her first job, while also helping her employer to understand and accommodate her special needs.
In sum, our perspective includes breaking down the problem into various parts and analyzing the relationships between the parts, all while taking individual perspectives and perceptions into account. It is both a deductive and inductive process, with the social worker moving back and forth between each perspective until a new sum is derived. When this is done, solutions naturally present themselves.
Take out the term “autistic” and substitute any label you choose. When you do, you’ll begin to see the versatility in the approach. “Psychotic”, “teenager”, “homeless”, “veteran”, “employee”, “manager”, “follower”, “leader”: the list and possibilities are practically endless because this systematic approach is holistic, in both perspective and applicability.
By the way, 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, the strength of this holistic approach would allow me to quickly acquire the relevant information necessary for assisting Sally.
With that said, my needs analysis would only represent half of everything I need to genuinely assist Sally. The other half would come from the experts.
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 who is 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 thoughts and feelings regarding her challenges, encouraging her to try something new, and/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 (the environment) of an autistic child to improve awareness and support for autistic children (the 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 when our client no longer needs us. It can be a thankless profession at times, and we embrace that too.
For organizational leaders, let’s substitute the word “autistic” for “follower” 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, such as an illness, something new to learn, a fear to overcome, or a weakness in character needing strengthening. Others are interpersonal, such as a family illness, an underperforming employee, or a communication challenge within a department. Still others are external challenges you may have to mitigate for, such as a natural disaster, a new competitor, or 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 affect 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.
Yet, some of our greatest strengths can also be our greatest weaknesses. From time to time, leaders lament that followers don’t understand the challenges they face as a leader. Many of the complaints demonstrate a lack of understanding regarding the breadth and depth of the challenges, even if well-intentioned. If your followers did understand, the complaints would diminish and the quality of suggestions would improve.
Your followers would likely say the same about you. Yes, you understand their challenges at a cognitive level, but you 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. They lack your experience and you lack theirs. The choices you made in applying what you learned came at the opportunity cost of knowing what it means to walk a mile in their shoes, and in their environment.
This raises an important question. Who is helping your followers to navigate the various challenges hampering organizational mission, goals, and values? To put it more simply, who are their mentors, teachers, and peers?
If you are the owner or an executive in your organization, the initial answer was “me”. Your vision, insight, creativity, and ability to manage change and conflict were directly applied in relationships of one-to-one, or one-to-some. Your ability to do this is a part of 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? The wise, rags-to-riches leader remains wise only if s/he remains humble. Even if s/he should remain humble, there is only so much time for seeking and applying these critical perspectives.
Who is coaching and mentoring them now? That up-and-coming star in your organization? 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, as assisting your followers is often 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 point to a simple paradox: the identified client for HR is the organization, not the individuals who comprise that organization. To put it another way, HR’s core mission creates a natural bias towards the organization, and away from the community filling that organization. I’ll come back to this in a minute.
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.
Even if HR is adept at straddling this line, the majority of your employees likely have a previous negative experience with HR through another organization, and have learned not to bring their problems to HR. You can’t fix what you don’t see, and this is the best case scenario. The worst is an HR department zealously pursuing organizational needs at the expense of their employees, a counterintuitive approach often causing harm to organizational culture and inclusivity.
Outsourcing? Sounds reasonable on the surface. There are certainly a plethora of options, including consultants, workshops, life coaches, therapists (including EAP) and, yes, social services. Any of these can be incorporated into a solution (and should be utilized whenever feasible). However, all of these sources tend to make the same mistake: favoring the perception of the identified client (often the one signing the checks) without addressing the underlying needs of clients/followers. The results are often the equivalent of triage, the minimal amount of treatment necessary before submitting a bill for payment.
Religious or civic entities? Sadly, many of these entities abandoned their core missions long ago, as the business of providing the service often overshadows the service itself. The development of individuals is often limited by either the model (not transferable or scalable), funding, or both.
The continued erosion and breakdown of our broader culture is facilitating erosion and breakdowns in individual performance, which is subsequently facilitating breakdowns in organizational culture. It’s a vicious feedback loop, one which will only worsen with time. Looking to a single individual or process for improving performance is not going to fix the problem.
The only solution is the one that comes from within. That’s where a social worker comes in.
How would a social worker approach the challenge of building a better organizational culture?
Identifying the client is always the first step. The identified client for the social worker’s efforts is the community as a whole. Note I didn’t say “organization”. As noted in the preceding section, one is the group of people found within the organization; the other is a legal entity. This means an equal focus applied to every member in that community, from the CEO to the janitor.
This singular focus requires a leadership that is “other-centered,” meaning someone who places the needs of others ahead of their own whenever possible. The rise of the “mindfulness revolution” in the business world is correlated with a long overdue awakening as to the outsized 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 that bring benefit to the broader community while remaining profitable?” “How do I obtain more buy-in from my community towards this broader vision?” “What do my employees and managers need to better align with these goals while executing organizational objectives in service of these goals?”
Some leaders have learned that the best answers are found when they put their followers first, focusing on their needs as a better way towards meeting the needs of customers, stakeholders, and our communities as a whole.
This insight and perspective is in alignment with both the theory and practice of social work. Social workers operate by a set of principles which include “help people in need and address social problems”, “inherent dignity and worth of the person”, “importance of human relationships”, “integrity”, and “competence.” A worker could never communicate a vision and strategy not in keeping with the best interests of the people, nor encourage people to align with a vision and strategy that is exploitative in nature.
Perhaps more importantly, the steps in this strategy (discussed next) have the potential to challenge the leader’s perception and commitment towards making followers a priority. The test will come when a leader discovers that their focus on others is not as sharp as s/he previously believed, a challenge to one’s ego. Humbly setting aside that ego is a key part of the strategic process, one which many leaders fail to do.
If the leader is truly people-oriented, then everything flows naturally from this starting point. The identified client is the organizational community, the environment is where they work together, and the intervention is the strategy for improving community culture. This strategy will include many components already familiar to organizational leaders.
A needs analysis is always first. In any organization, this starts with a comprehensive deductive analysis of the organization’s niche; the challenges and trends within that niche; the organizational mission, values, and goals; the organizational structure, including individual roles and responsibilities; and the history of the organization, including key milestones.
Armed with this information, the next step is an inductive analysis at all levels of the organization, and across all functional areas. This analysis primarily involves quantitative and qualitative interviews with both followers and leaders for their unique perspectives and perceptions. If the deductive analysis is the sketch, then the inductive analysis is the color in that sketch.
These in-depth interviews are aimed at understanding how individuals process and execute their role in relation to organizational challenges, mission, structure, and so on. This analysis is not to be confused with employee satisfaction surveys, or other one-off approaches. As every social-science researcher knows, truly digging into the root of any problem involves much more than the kind of data obtained from mere survey responses. Nor is it enough to include a few questions requiring a sentence or two in response. The researcher also has to capture poignant narratives which sufficiently illustrate the problem. In other words, allowing the individual to give full voice to what they see, hear, and experience.
This needs-analysis requires three strategic components for it to work. The first is confidentiality. The aim is to understand both individual and organizational challenges from the standpoint of those affected by them. Many employees would be fearful to speak openly and honestly about the challenges and problems they encounter while executing their daily tasks and responsibilities. The fear of reprisal from management is often too strong to allow candid responses, whether that fear was experienced within the organization or elsewhere in their work history. The social worker takes a strategic approach, becoming a confidant while assuring the employee that everything said will be kept confidential, preferably using a signed agreement.
That confidentiality creates a foundation for the second part: a psychologically safe environment. Throughout these interviews, the social worker demonstrates and practices affirmation and encouragement, unconditional positive regard for the individual, knowledge of individual and broader cultural challenges, versatility in recognizing and overcoming resistance, and assessment skills leading to questions not previously asked. These skills are used to obtain subjective assessments of the organization as a whole, all from the perspective of each individual within that organization.
While collecting this data, the worker is attentive to unidentified challenges not previously cited in the deductive analysis. These challenges can be either individual or systemic in nature. Individual challenges are noted before setting them aside for later. Systemic challenges are organized into themes, such as talent and knowledge base, cultural sensitivity, onboarding and training processes, interpersonal effectiveness and team building, and leadership development.
Facilitating these conversations also requires a third part to the strategy: strategic cooperation with HR. As previously mentioned, HR represents organizational needs rather than the individual or community. This is expected and welcomed, as both sides work together to create balance throughout the process. One example of this partnership would be HR’s agreement not to seek and exploit the data collected, while the worker agrees to alert HR in the event that a “deal-breaker” is evoked, such as an employee disclosing their intention to harm an individual or the organization. These deal-breakers would be explicitly stated and acknowledged at the beginning of any interview, and acknowledged through signatures. This is one of many examples of this strategic partnership.
Once the interviews are finished, personally identifiable markers are cleansed from these interviews, and/or marked private before presenting systemic challenges to leadership for discussion and strategic analysis. Meanwhile, the worker stands ready to provide additional clarification and/or possible suggestions for improvement. The perspective of social work naturally leads to many innovative solutions across areas such as training, communication strategies, collaborative partnerships, and improving organizational policies and processes.
While leadership takes some time to digest the systemic challenges presented through the needs analysis, the worker turns his/her attention towards addressing individual challenges also identified throughout the needs 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. Oftentimes, it is not a lack of perception that prevents someone from seeking help, but the lack of a motivational nudge provided by someone in a collaborative relationship as a first principle.
One example might be assisting an individual to identify resources far beyond what is offered by most outsourced programs, and engage with those resources while crafting a plan for improvement using the broader perspective gained through the interview. Another example might be mediating a troublesome work-relationship between a specific employee and manager. Still another might be coaching a dysfunctional department on better interpersonal communication. Yet another example might be assisting a follower to explore the motivations for the work they do, helping that follower to better align their passions with organizational career pathways.
While these examples are ongoing, leadership reconvenes with the worker, identifying which challenges to emphasize as a start. This includes a critical understanding of a key principle, one that will be true regardless of challenge or solution: all solutions must be cooperatively devised and executed, utilizing the collective input of both leaders and followers. The needs analysis not only identifies the challenges, but lays the groundwork for a continuing collaborative relationship between leaders and followers.
These relationships are cultivated by the social worker through mediation. Followers are encouraged to step forward with their observations, while leaders are encouraged to hear and respect their followers, even if they disagree. This is a critical point in the building of a community culture, as followers must gain confidence before they can step forward and be heard. This process often has more impact than any devised solution – for many followers, simply being heard and understood goes a long way towards improvement.
What is also vitally important to understand is that the proposed solutions are often not the answers to the problem in themselves. Rather, improving relationships and greater community health is often the solution in itself. When the entire community collectively participates in addressing and solving its true challenges, while also knowing that each has a role to play (as reinforced through numerous experiences), that community becomes more forthcoming with solutions. In other words, greater innovation, something every leader craves as a byproduct of better organizational culture.
Who is the expert on individual challenges? The individuals. Who is the expert on group challenges? The group. Social workers strive to obtain and maintain a perspective of most benefit to the most people. The goal of the social worker is not to solve problems for those they serve, but rather to empower individuals and communities to analyze their own needs, and create their own solutions for all involved. It is the optimal organizational effectiveness because it includes everyone in working towards a solution.
So the answer is to simply hire a social worker, right? Not so fast.
In David Howe’s A Brief Introduction to Social Work Theory, Howe discusses the dual-faced nature of social work as “representing the individual to society (this is what it is like to be poor and vulnerable) and representing society to the individual (what society expects and what it can do for you).” (p.152). If we swap out “society” for “organization”, the statement remains true, as the above discussion demonstrates.
Sadly, social work is front and center in these failures. A focus on building relationships between individuals and society has been replaced with various methodologies, each promising targeted and measurable results, often quantifiable on a balance sheet.
Howe further reduces this dichotomy to “care” and “control”. The former is our desire to bring out all that is good within human nature through “practices that empathize, support, and protect.” In contrast, the latter is our desire to “restrict and contain the ugly side of behavior”, through either suppression or, better yet, “curing” them of their waywardness so that there is no need for control. Although these polarizing mandates have always been a tension within the profession, Howe later illustrates how this critical perspective has been compromised:
What has happened since the late 1970s is that many liberal, capitalist economies have put the emphasis on freedom, individuality and personal responsibility. This has improved material productivity and increased national wealth. However, it has decreased overall levels of happiness and wellbeing. And because social work has been subject to the same changes that have led to performance, target-driven, micro-managed practices across all the health, welfare, educational and justice services, it lost faith in the value of relationship-driven practices.” (p.177)
Those “performance, target-driven, micro-managed practices” are the “cure” or, in social worker parlance, the “intervention”. The results from applying our numerous “interventions” across society have been less than satisfying, whether we are talking about medical, mental health, or social services.
Indeed, Howe’s book covers a wide range of these methodologies and practices, ranging anywhere from psychological approaches focused on individual responsibility and empowerment (such as cognitive-behavioral therapies) to sociological approaches focused on tearing down existing power structures (such as feminist and critical theories). The former transforms the organization into an extension of personal therapy, with each member often morbidly introspecting on their own personal failings, and/or being quick to point out the deficiencies in others (a defense mechanism). The latter transforms the organization into a petri dish for cultural radicalism, a community more divided than ever before as each person is browbeat into accepting the prevailing political correctness of that culture, using the specious evidence undergirding the chosen paradigm.
Neither focuses on the quality of the relationships themselves as a path towards greater cultural health. The core practice of any social worker is to bring one’s self to any given challenge. This “self” is a combination of practice-knowledge born from education and experience, and a transparent openness towards understanding the specific circumstances contributing to those challenges. The worker is always seeking reconciliation between the competing needs of individuals and groups through a clearer understanding and vision of both.
In contrast, when the worker applies a specific methodology to a given challenge, they are no longer bringing themselves, but a canned approach. All problems and solutions are seen through their chosen lens, producing an inherent conflict of interest. Cultures, by definition, are a collection of individuals, an ever evolving dynamic that is not controlled by one “self” over others, or many “selves” over many others, and this includes the social worker. Bringing a specific methodology that is not relationship-focused runs the risk of the worker inordinately influencing that culture, creating power imbalances towards either leadership or followers. Neither is beneficial to the culture as a whole, let alone the organization. Culture can be guided towards the collective good of all, but it can never be controlled towards such an end. This is a root cause for many failed consultancy efforts.
A broader discussion of these dynamics is outside the scope of this essay (but which Howe provides an excellent illustration). The point is not to hire a social worker per se, but to hire someone who brings a relationship-focused perspective to cultural improvement, someone who is skilled in assessing needs, identifying sources of conflict, improving communication, and producing increased functionality through better relationships (with operational knowledge a big plus), to the benefit of the entire community.
We live in a democracy guaranteeing certain freedoms, and this includes the freedom to practice capitalism as we see fit, with the market acting as a judge as to whether our approach is useful. I can live for profit, bending all my thoughts and efforts towards squeezing every last dollar out of my operation for a limited number of shareholders. Or, I can live to serve others, striving for best results as I distribute to those in need, combined with an enlarged perspective of just “who” is included in that word “shareholder”.
The former view is responsible for much of our social decay. Friedman was wrong in hindsight because his view underestimated the magnitude of contributions from existing social structures, structures that are all in various and alarming states of decay today.
The latter is a possibility, a concept of our nation as a community in which everyone is valued and everyone contributes. It is not just vision, but necessity. If we do not learn to truly come together for a greater good, both in our individual communities and as a whole nation, then this democratic experiment will ultimately fail. The only thing left to determine is whether this destruction will come with a roar, or a whimper.
Hence, my conclusion is a simple one. You don’t necessarily need an MSW; you need someone with MSW abilities, skills, and talents. Find that person, and you’ll begin to discover your true needs, along with applicable solutions.