On a scale of one to 10, how happy are you? It may seem obvious to point out that your state of mind affects your productivity at work, yet managers are often too busy to take the mood of their social workers into account when allocating cases. This form of positive psychology – asking people to assess how they feel using a numbered scale – is more often used with service users than staff. In Yorkshire and the Humber, however, it is one of the simple-yet-effective tools team managers are being taught as part of a new, regional training programme.
“I’ve used the scaling question with clients before, but not in a management setting,” says Laura Johnson, team manager at Doncaster council, who took part in the two-day course in Sheffield earlier this year. “So when a social worker brings a problem you say on a scale of one to 10 how does that make you feel or where do you think that family is at? And it helps the social worker put it into context, because at your next supervision session you can see if things have improved.”
“I think it’s important to know what’s going on in your staff’s lives,” agrees Karen Ali, team manager at Rotherham. “So you know when you’re allocating cases that they can work them effectively.”
The regional training programme brought together team managers like Johnson and Ali from councils across Yorkshire and the Humber, teaching them management skills and theories including the aforementioned positive psychology and coaching. It is part of a wider improvement programme for the region’s 15 local authorities, which also includes the recruitment and retention campaign Children’s Social Work Matters.
The managers were encouraged to go away after the first day and apply their learning in supervision, before feeding back to the group on day two. Some of the techniques were not as easy as they seemed at first, says Ali. For example, coaching encourages the listener to remain silent even when it feels uncomfortable. “I really struggled with that,” says Ali, with a laugh. “I was thinking, when can I be silent? Workers were looking at me as if to say, why has she stopped talking? I talk a lot. But the more we got into the silence, they would start filling the gaps, for example they’d be talking about a case discussion and expecting me to tell them the answer, but I’d sit there silent and it’s making them think about it and volunteer ideas.”
As a relatively new manager – she took up the post in January – Johnson also found the emphasis on coaching techniques useful. “In child protection, because of the fast pace, there’s a tendency to be very directive as a manager. People say ‘this has happened’, and you say ‘you need to do this, this and this’. Some of the workers can be quite anxious, especially if they’re newly qualified.” Like Ali, she says the course taught her to take a step back and ask staff what they think the next steps should be.
This has helped improve morale in the team she adds. “When I came into the team, they were a little bit demoralised; there had been a lot of changes. Since the training I’ve been able to empower the workers and give them a bit more ownership over how to progress a case. It’s given them more autonomy – they’re the professionals, they know the children and families.”
As well as coaching techniques, she has learned to engage staff by building on their specific strengths or interests. “As a social worker, I have key skills in some areas, with young children, attachment problems, developmental delay. Because that was one of my strengths I was often given pieces of work that I didn’t have so much experience in to try to develop my skills in other areas, like work with teenagers or sexual exploitation. But it wasn’t my strength so I didn’t feel as engaged with that as I did other aspects of my work.
“At the training, we learned to engage staff by building on their strengths so they still feel challenged, they’re continuing to develop, but they’re working on cases they enjoy and have a skill base in. That’s a positive way of keeping your staff engaged.”
Both Johnson and Ali welcomed the opportunity to meet other managers from across the region. For Johnson, it was a chance to learn from more experienced managers. Ali, who’s been in her role since for at least a year, also took a lot away from it. “Sheffield had just had an inspection so we were all, ‘how was it?!’,” she says. “It was really interesting to look at what was happening in other authorities, conflicts within teams, how other managers resolve those.” Although she points out that the facilitator was much needed. “We can all talk.”
One of the aims of the wider improvement programme is to foster a sense of regional identity among social workers and other staff across Yorkshire. “When you’re doing such difficult work it’s important to feel part of something, to feel valued and connected, because it can be a lonely field of work,” says Alison O’Sullivan, director of adult and children’s services at Kirklees council. “Everybody found it so positive,” says Ali. “It felt like a safe environment. We’re hoping there will be another opportunity to meet up.”
Community Care is running an event for social work managers on 18 June in Birmingham. Find out more about Supporting managers in social work: Promoting heroic and transformational leadership