Senior leader buy-in is critical to successful strengths-based social work but the approach should not be used as a cost-cutting exercise, authors of new government guidance have warned.
Social workers Carmen Colomina and Tricia Pereira said senior managers had to lay the foundations to enable strengths-based social work, following the publication of the strengths-based practice framework and supporting handbook by the Department of Health and Social Care last week
Pereira, co-chair of the Adult Principal Social Worker Network, and Colomina, practice development manager at the Social Care Institute for Excellence, wrote the handbook, which is designed to help organisations and practitioners put the accompanying framework into practice.
Do you struggle with putting strengths-based approaches into practice? Check out our tips on holding strengths-based conversations and on asking strengths-based questions in assessment. If you have a licence for Community Care Inform Adults, you will be able to access plenty more guidance on strengths-based practice on our dedicated knowledge and practice hub on this subject.
“Whatever model of strengths-based practice you want to implement, unless you have the buy-in and strong leadership from senior management, it’s [going to be] difficult to embed”, Pereira told Community Care.
The handbook said that many councils had been working in a deficit-based, care management-style way for a long time, meaning a shift to strengths-based social work required a change of culture, which in turn was based on strong leadership.
Directors ‘must model strengths-based approach’
This required directors and other senior managers to model what they expected of practitioners, behaving in a strengths-based way themselves to “cultivate and reinforce” the new culture. For example, interactions between managers and staff should be based on successes and learning from experience, not identifying what has gone wrong.
“There’s no way any of this can be done successfully if the director is not fully involved, and when I say involved, I don’t mean they know what [strengths-based working] means, but they are ready to do what it takes,” said Colomina
“There are many other elements [to consider], you need to look at your system, your procedure, your policies, your guidance, your culture and, then, if you shape all that in the right way, [staff] can put their skills and knowledge into place, otherwise they can’t – no matter how many skills and how much knowledge they have.
“A lot of directors tell you that they support [their] staff and they train them etc… but they don’t do what it takes to get there.”
The framework was developed by Tony Stanley, formerly chief social worker for children’s services in Birmingham, and Samantha Baron, professor of social work at Manchester Metropolitan University. It set out how a strengths-based approach should draw upon social work theories and methods, social workers’ knowledge- co-produced with people who need support and families – values, learning from experience and skills, and should be applied to supervision and organisations’ quality assurance systems, as well as direct practice.
The accompanying handbook said that a strengths-based approach was about working collaboratively with individuals and their families, focusing on their strengths rather than deficits, and enabling risk for the individual rather than managing risk for the organisation.
However, it stressed that it was not about reducing support or putting more pressure on carers.
Handbook on what strengths-based practice is and is not
|What strengths-based social work is
|What strengths-based social work is not
|Holistic and multidisciplinary
|About reductions in packages
|Collaborative, proportionate and flexible
|About signposting and providing less support
|Appropriate to individual circumstances
|About not helping
|Focused on what matters to the individual and what is strong
|Focused on what is the matter with the individual and what is wrong
|Identifying personal, family and community strengths and supporting the individual to link with them
|About shifting responsibilities to carers and friends
|Applicable to any intervention, setting, type or level of need or profession
|One size fits all
|Supporting community development
|About avoiding talking about problems or issues
Colomina said that “confusion” around the idea of strengths-based working had led to “misuse” of the approach, with councils using it to justify cuts in support.
“A strengths-based approach is definitely about looking at what is strong and what isn’t strong… but some places confuse strengths-based with independence and all they use the strengths-based approach for, or want to use it for, is to reduce packages or reduce support.
“Cost-efficiency is an important thing in a strengths-based approach, but [councils shouldn’t be] reducing packages for the sake of it. Financial benefits could be a collateral benefit of a strengths-based approach, but they are not why we do it, it’s a different thing.”
Importance of trusting practitioners
Besides strong leadership, the handbook said managers trusting frontline staff was another key enabler of strengths-based practice, with practitioners encouraged to apply their professional judgment and work creatively and enable positive risk taking.
“If I have a process that is so rigid that gives no room for manoeuvre to my frontline staff, normally that is done because I don’t trust that my staff have the necessary experience and knowledge to define the process themselves,” said Colomina.
“In a strengths-based approach, you will have to define a framework, you will have a policy and guidance, but you kind of have boundaries, so people know they have to do things in those boundaries, but the path they follow depends on the individual and the intervention.”
The handbook also set out how a strengths-based approach should be applied to supervision, saying it should be “two-way”, with practitioners allowed “to explore, reflect on and find potential solutions in their work”, rather than being given directives or provided with a range of solutions or answers.
It said too often supervision was task orientated, which was a key barrier to implementing a strengths-based approach.
Pereira said that supervision provided the “ideal opportunity” to model a strengths-based approach.
“When supervisors are asking questions about cases and case management, it’s not just about how many cases you have closed, it’s about quality of the interventions, the quality of the work and looking at the strengths of the individual.
“Also, looking at their potential for development as well. That’s how we hoped the strengths-based approach is modelled in the supervision relationship, and that in turn means the worker feels more confident to deliver with our services.”
Staff turnover a barrier
In addition to identifying how a strengths-based approach could be enabled, the document highlighted organisational issues which could hinder a strengths-based approach.
Staff turnover was identified as one potential inhibitor of strengths-based working, with the framework saying that momentum to build a new organisational culture “easily wanes” when a core group of staff is not retained.
10 enablers of strengths-based social work
1. Strong leadership: having a clear vision by senior management of how the culture within the organisation will be shaped is essential in order to move towards a strengths and asset-based approach.
2. Having shared commitment and accountability: ensuring consistency of messages across the entire organisation and its activities. The vision needs to be understood, recognised and shared by other council departments such as commissioning, children’s services and housing.
3. Promoting working in a co-productive and collaborative way: developing and promoting a culture of collaborative and joint working where staff and members of the community maximise their strengths in a co-productive way.
4. Trusting in the workforce: trusting the professional’s knowledge and practice, thus promoting creativity in the workforce.
5. Supporting personalisation: enabling flexibility in processes and procedures so that they can be adapted to meet individual circumstances and can therefore be appropriate and proportionate to them.
6. Ensuring staff has the right information, tools, processes and systems to support working in a strengths and asset-based way.
7. Learning and development: supporting staff to clearly understand what is expected of them and how to carry out their new way of working. Training can be used to communicate expectations and help to embed new behaviours. Modelling and mentoring will also help staff learn and change.
8. Focusing on developing the strengths of the workforce rather than focusing on what’s wrong.
9. Measuring outcomes and quality: ensuring the performance indicators reflect the strengths- based and outcomes approaches.
10. Continuous improvement: reviewing and improving all of the above to ensure at each step of the process of improvement all parties are fully on board and working together to maximise outcomes for individuals in the community.