‘Why a management speech to social workers is like the toughest stand-up gig’

Senior managers need to work much harder to keep social workers engaged than they do care workers and admin staff, says Blair McPherson

By Blair McPherson

Social workers are a tough audience. Give me residential workers, home care assistants or admin staff every time. Social workers refuse on principle to laugh at senior managers’ weak jokes and they aren’t interested in your latest holiday story designed to make you seem more human.

Whereas care staff provide hands-on-help so can see the effect of their help, social workers do assessments and identify needs which they then have to rely on others to meet. This involves doing battle with the system – a system which is supposed to be there to help but inevitably consists of a series of barriers and obstacles like eligibility criteria, financial assessment, budget availability and catchment area. And as a senior manager, you represent the system.

There is another difference between social workers and others in social care. When I was in local government, the chief executive of our authority decided to go for Investors in People accreditation for the whole organisation. I had every confidence that the provider services would be up for it – many day centres and residential homes had already obtained IIP accreditation – the social work teams would be harder to convince, questioning the benefit and resenting the extra work.

The difference between social workers and care workers

The day centres loved awards and publicity. They did fundraising events, auctioned a Man United shirt, did a sponsored cycle ride to Land’s End, an outing to Blackpool to see the illuminations, linked up with the local library and museum to do reminiscence work and introduced dogs to depressed older people who missed their pets. Every activity was a photo opportunity for staff, clients and local politicians, the communications team loved them for the steady supply of good news stories. In contrast, the communications team complained that getting a good news story from a social work team was like getting blood out of a stone. Social work teams always seemed on the defensive, suspicious of the media and bruised by unfair characterisation of their profession.

Yes, social workers are a tough audience but you can’t blame the audience for a bad gig. If they are not getting it you can’t dismiss them; you have to come up with another way of saying it. Don’t be tempted to criticise the audience or pick on an individual who asks an awkward question as you want them on your side. If the room goes flat then you need to put the energy back, if you’re bored by saying the same old things then you can’t expect them not to be, you need to keep the material fresh, don’t do exactly the same routine every time. Improvise.

If this all sounds like advice on how to survive a stand up routine well that’s sometimes how it feels.

Blair McPherson is an author, blogger and former social worker and director of community services.

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2 Responses to ‘Why a management speech to social workers is like the toughest stand-up gig’

  1. Jim Greer December 18, 2014 at 11:25 am #

    You seem to quite phlegmatic about your reception but some of your comments reveal the reasons behind some of problems which the profession regularly complains about.
    For example, you said that the communications team find it impossible to get positive success stories out of the social work team. Yet this website is regularly filled with complaints from social workers that the profession never gets any positive press. How do you your staff think their profession will get a positive press of they don’t take time to tell their stories?
    You correctly identified that social work involves engaging with systems and getting co-operation with senior management. Yet when there was an opportunity to do something for the organisation (Investors in People) they took a stance which was likely to aggravate and annoy the very senior mangers they need support from.
    Laughing at people’s lame jokes, showing a genuine interest in other people’s holiday stories, being an enthusiastic employee and a good part of your organisation and communicating with the public are not optional extras in one’s working life. They are ways of showing politeness and courtesy and securing the good will of people whose support you will need to get your job done.

  2. Stuart December 19, 2014 at 12:10 am #

    Be still my bleating heart.. I feel so sorry for the poor senior managers who can’t see how patronising this sounds to me, a social worker of thirtysomething years.