‘Qualified for five months, my manager singling me out for criticism left me mortified’

The quality of social work managers is often far below what is needed, argues a children's social worker

criticism
Photo: Photographee.eu/Fotolia

by Andrew Matthews*

Too often I have found that the manager I have had has shaped my working experience.

I don’t think this is unique, but for me the manager in the social work context has such an important role. However, the ideal ‘role’ of the manager, when you consider what the Knowledge and Skills Statement for practice supervisors sets out, is far from the reality.

The statement highlight how managers should be practice supervisors who promote best practice and develop excellent practitioners by using ‘emotionally intelligent’ supervision that focuses on relationships and reflection to think more about dilemmas and challenges.

The eight points in the Knowledge and Skills statement are totally on point and the manager being a champion and leader of best practice is absolutely what the profession should be working towards. The worry I have is how far away we are from achieving this and the constraints that need to be removed to allow this to happen.

I have had some extremely positive experiences of social work management; however, the more memorable experiences happen to be negative.

Lack of investment 

Management at its worst in social work has none of the features set out in the Knowledge and Skills statement. In particular, the focus on promoting excellent practice is missing; there is a lack of investment from management about ‘how’ social work is being practised. The day in, day out work with children and families is sidelined in favour of compliance.

I am sure colleagues across the country will recognise punitive, bureaucratic management where a manager’s only focus appears to be timescales and deadlines.

I do not intend to lay blame, especially when the system on the whole is organised in such a way. Timescales and deadlines are ultimately a part of the profession, but I feel it is a manager’s responsibility to not let that define their roles.

Sadly this does occur and things can get worse for social workers who can feel bullied, unsupported and fearful of approaching their manager.

Bullying

There is no excuse for bullying and too often I have experienced or heard of colleagues despairing or leaving local authorities because of how they have been treated.

I recall in my previous local authority a senior manager in a strategy meeting decided to question me regarding a decision that had been made, though this decision was unrelated to the concerns at the time.

They felt it necessary to point out why in their opinion I was wrong, questioning me in front of my colleagues before asking fellow professionals if they agreed. The manager continued to shake their head at me throughout the meeting. I had been qualified for around five months at this point. I was mortified, embarrassed, angry and upset.

I am not looking for sympathy, but I am trying to provide a realistic view of the context; there are social work managers in local authorities who do not meet the required standard.

A good manager is not one who is on top of their emails and data management. Too many managerial positions are filled by individuals who lack the necessary skillset and focus overwhelmingly on bureaucracy rather than practice.

This is extremely important as it is a role with power and influence; having strong management can significantly improve what a local authority is offering children and families.

Pressures

Local authorities need to take stock of their management. If you invest in having the best managers working towards what is set out in the Knowledge and Skills statement, practitioners will develop into excellent social workers and retention will be much improved.

I am not ignorant of the wider contextual issues such as caseloads, which create huge pressures on managers, but this should not be used as an excuse. Managers have a responsibility as leaders to advocate for their practitioners and create an environment that is conducive to good practice.

Too often supervision is focused on statistics rather than reflection, relationships and practice.

Local authorities need to act bravely and move away from the focus on compliance in order to support managers to thrive as practice supervisors.

The individual manager is responsible for how they lead their teams, yet if they are provided with the tools to succeed through a strong senior leadership team it makes things a lot easier.

For those who are sadly experiencing poor management and it has led to you to consider leaving your local authority, look for sources of support. If there is a principal social worker in your authority, try speaking with them or speak with colleagues and consider saying something as part of a collective.

*Andrew Matthews is a pseudonym. The writer is a children’s social worker. 

11 Responses to ‘Qualified for five months, my manager singling me out for criticism left me mortified’

  1. Victim of poor management September 19, 2017 at 5:51 pm #

    Unfortunately the social work profession within the field of child protection makes little provision for frontline practitioners to retain their role and become an expert. The desire to move up the salary scale often persuades frontline practitioners to climb the career ladder before their time, resulting in their insecurities manifesting as bullying and overall poor management. I have reached the top of my scale as a frontline child protection social worker with a Local Authority, there is talk amongst colleagues about progressing to management, something I don’t want but my colleague with far less experience is keen for. In the absence of an advanced practitioners role, which are few and far between anyway, I face the dilemma of either joining an agency to carry on with my work earning a salary that matches my experience, or change field to a less challenging role and earn the same money for a lesser challenge.

    • Social worker September 26, 2017 at 8:54 pm #

      I have similar feelings to you; career progression is so limited and is so frustrating when experience and skills aren’t recognised when we choose to remain in front line work.

      I’m qualified 15 years and have no desire to become a manager, ever. I’m now getting involved in developing a new service but only through the fortune of being in the right place at the right time. The pay isn’t any different but the work is more varied and giving me the challenge I was looking for.

      I’ve worked for many managers over the years, some less experienced than myself and would count very few of them as leaders. I’ve come to the conclusion that many people go into management to avoid the hands on work, most I know leave the office by 5pm and spout nonsense about how long pieces of work should take with no real thought put into calculating it.

      Sad days

  2. Budgie September 20, 2017 at 11:27 am #

    I have to say that as social work practitioners you have to expect to be questioned about our decisions, actions and in some cases inaction. We have multiple accountabilities and our practice can be informed by a multitude of theories, policies and practice guidance.. I would however question the forum in which this social worker was asked to explain their decisions if indeed it had no relevance to the situation..and yet in the other hand it is essential that a full and comprehensive chronology is provided to understand the context of situation.. perhaps with more experience the practitioner will have the confidence to defend their actions, particularly if their decisions are grounded in evidenced based practice

    • A social worker September 20, 2017 at 2:07 pm #

      Sorry, Budgie, but I think you have missed the point of the article. It’s not about practice being questioned, but HOW this is done by seniors.

  3. Louise Marshall September 20, 2017 at 11:52 am #

    I can so relate to this. Sadly, perpetrators of bullying tactics are skilled manipulators and can make even the most skilled or experienced worker appear ineffectice or ‘stupid’ with a few carefully chosen allies, meetings and words. Believe me….I have first hand experience and took voluntary redundancy to escape from some pretty shameful treatment.

  4. LongtimeSW September 20, 2017 at 1:25 pm #

    And employers wonder why there is a shortage of frontline CP workers! They can’t have it both ways, without enough workers – either timescales or practice is the priority when caseloads are exceptionally high

  5. Rosaline September 21, 2017 at 4:03 am #

    Thank you for this article. This is another demonstration of senior management not engaging in meaningful supervision, not holding managers to account. Good managers improve morale, understand and support good practice and develops their workers.

  6. Kez September 21, 2017 at 10:55 am #

    managers can be bullies because of their own value base, childhood upbringing and narcissistic personality. I feel for social workers in all fields who are not supported by their managers. social workers have mental health and I don’t understand why would anybody stay in a professional where you get little support. your mental health is more important than anything.

    I advise to change jobs every 2-3 years to improve your mental health, to sustain that motivation across your practice and embrace your skills.

    I am a manager and I support my staff via supervision, training and appraisal and it does work.

  7. Laura September 22, 2017 at 12:07 pm #

    As a newly qualified – working with adults not children but still in the local authority. I have had a positive experience during my ASYE with a supportive manager however half of the ASYE cohort experienced real challenges and bullying behaviours by managers. It is very disheartening that people entering into a profession that they have trained so hard to join then feel unsupportive and ultimately decide to leave very soon into their careers. Much more needs to be done to create supportive and reflective managers who are less driven and obsessed with budgets and performance management.

  8. Helen September 23, 2017 at 2:45 pm #

    You might be astonished at how many managers are never given or offered the training to be managers and expected to work from experience only . This needs to be questioned in my view by councils and ofsted , I have seen many managers be sidelined who have never had any training to manage people . Thi is vital if teams are to survive and retain their staff .

  9. Love life September 27, 2017 at 1:33 pm #

    When you have the desire to progress in your career, managers then block you, abuse their position of power by attempting to tarnish you as a practitioner.
    I am tired of individuals in different local authorities who ultimate goal is to stop you from growing. Senior managers have no sense and ignore the fact remains they employ managers who are not experienced , who are not leaders. But people who are followers’
    If you are confident, willing to learn, willing to grow, want to be a leader. You have no chance! Then I question whether your race or gender becomes the other factor as an obstacle!