Quality in practice… factors affecting THINKING CAPACITY

quality in practice... factors affecting THINKING CAPACITY Judy Foster shares the findings from her research, Thinking on the Front Line: Why Some...

Judy Foster shares the findings from her research, Thinking on the Front Line: Why Some Teams Struggle and Others Thrive


The ability to think is the working capital of our organisations. We and our service users have to understand complex life events and relationships. I spent time with three social work teams working with vulnerable adults of varying ages and needs and found five factors that affected thinking capacity.

Policies and procedures

One team took hours to unravel poor policies and to prepare for contentious complaints hearings. Do you know how to implement new national policies and local procedures that follow from them? Is there a case for specialist posts?


Professionalism was strong throughout as team leaders invested time in selecting committed and imaginative social workers who wanted to further their development through post-qualifying training. Do you provide development opportunities for all your staff?

Mental space

If staff cannot unpack the feelings evoked by the work, they will either leave (proactive types) or burn out (reactive types). The team with the most challenging client group provided the greatest variety of mental space: informal sharing, joint working, supervision, case discussions, team meetings, learning forums, consultancy and more. The other two teams, good at informal sharing, lacked the capacity to provide regular supervision. How does your team look?


Without autonomy there can be no creativity. You can increase safe practice through the encouragement of debate and challenge, as happens in operating theatres and aeroplane cockpits. The team with the least autonomy (“it’s a conveyor belt here!”) had the highest turnover of staff. Does your team have any control over how they manage their work?

Support structures

Good support structures enhance the quality of our thinking. Competent managers and good management practice help communication across the organisation, to calm noisy offices and to tackle poor admin systems and lack of IT support. These all affect performance and morale. I found that the managers who held effective team meetings also provided the clearest leadership. What can you do to get things working better?

Further information

The Tavistock Centre in London runs courses for social workers and managers to stimulate thoughtful practice

Judy Foster completed her doctoral research in 2009. She is a consultant to social work teams and a visiting lecturer at the Tavistock. She chairs a children and families charity, St. Michael’s Fellowship in London

Also, go to http://drjudyfoster.blogspot.com/

This article is published in the 22 April issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Are you thriving or diving?

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