The importance of autonomy when managing social workers

Community Care research shows how managers can encourage autonomy among social workers safely

Manager and social worker talking about work over a computer
Photo posed by models: (credit: nd3000/Fotolia)

The importance of autonomy in the effectiveness and productivity of professionals has been found by a number of researchers, both within social work and in the business sector.

It was most recently highlighted by Eileen Munro, in her 2011 child protection review, but it is possibly the influential business writer Dan Pink who puts it most succinctly.

In his book Drive, Pink points out that most managers still use the ‘carrot and stick’ approach, yet autonomy (the desire to direct our own lives), mastery (the urge to get better at something that matters) and purpose (the yearning to do work in the service of something larger than ourselves) are far more powerful tools.

Community Care has distilled the following tips for managers, drawn from more than 300 social worker’s comments on how effective their current manager is at improving their autonomy, confidence and resilience. These were provided as part of Community Care’s research into retention with a variety of local authorities.

Top tips:

  1. Think about supervision sessions and how effective they currently are at helping social workers become autonomous, creative, confident and resilient. The majority of social workers who felt they had been able to develop these qualities at their current organisation said this had been done through high-quality supervision sessions.
  2. Demonstrate trust. Social workers with good managers said their decisions were trusted by managers and many also said mistakes were viewed as learning opportunities.
  3. Ask your team for ideas. Some social workers said they had developed more confidence when they had suggested new ideas which were then acted upon by managers.
  4. Evaluate a social worker’s needs and strengths when encouraging autonomy and creativity. Even consider a clear ‘autonomy’ pathway. Some said there was a balance to be struck between feeling they were left to ‘sink or swim’ and supported autonomy.

Positive and negative viewpoints

Comments from social workers who had had a poor experience with managers included:

“I feel like I have to learn everything the hard way, which can impact on self-esteem.”

“There’s too much focus on process, statistics and bureaucracy to allow for any creativity.”

Those who had had positive experiences included:

“I sometimes feel my manager’s confidence in me is greater than my own, which is frightening but also positively challenging.”

“I’m often given little tasks and projects to improve the service and it’s rewarding to see them implemented.”

More insights from this research can be found in Community Care’s free downloadable guide: How to be a better manager.

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One Response to The importance of autonomy when managing social workers

  1. Eco-Social Worker January 22, 2020 at 11:15 am #

    “most managers still use the ‘carrot and stick’”

    Some managers use a carrot??!? Where? I want that job.