Organisation and leadership
Lies Gualtherie van Weezel and Kees Waaldijk
This is the first of a three-part series in which, Lies Gualtherie van Weezel and Kees Waaldijk of the Netherlands remind us that the care and reflection which goes into good child care work must also be the foundation of good teamwork and organisational management in the child and youth care field.
Organisation, good or bad for us?
Speaking about day care and residential care we do not only need an organisation to implement the work, but a way of working which is in accordance with the principles of working methodically.
There is a close interaction between working professionally, our leadership, and organising our work. The question is — how do we run a centre in such a way that the active participation of the residents or visitors and the staff is maximized?
The organisation is seen as a community with an opinion about working professionally and which is constantly searching for ways to realize the institutional goals in any given situation.
In these three articles we will explore the task of the care centre in recognising the uniqueness of every situation and every person. It is difficult to reach a comfortable balance between the work to be done and the interests of all, because so many people are involved — youngsters and staff — and the staff represent a wide variety of professions, backgrounds and skills, each with different opinions about the work.
Within an organisation, tasks and responsibilities
are divided and shared. The residents and the staff, together, are
shaping the culture of the organisation by the way they fulfil their
tasks. Is it too idealistic and unrealistic to hope that we can achieve
all the work through dialogue, with all of us listening to everybody
It is, of course, not realistic to expect a dialogue at every moment between all the people involved. But important events and possibilities for treatment, and for working methodically, can easily get lost or overlooked in the everyday practice of the organisation. But this doesn't mean that we should be unaware of the need for and the possibilities of good dialogue in the organisation. When we talk about wanting to work though dialogue, we consider the division of tasks and responsibilities, and recognise that the commitments and experiences of the various staff members are different. Their professional training varies as well as their practical experience and theoretical knowledge. Some have had much experience; others have just arrived. In dialogue, all experiences are valuable. Someone who has just arrived can be of great help by being in a position to question the culture of the organisation. She may have a more unprejudiced view than those who have been around for a long time. For the older staff it is more difficult to sense whether the organisation feels open or closed for newcomers.
Parallels with practice
This observation is also true for residents as well as for workers. The young people, their families, and individual child care workers all have very different expectations of the organisation and different insights gained from their own points of view. Acting responsibly and co-operatively within our organisation has many parallels with methodical practice within our profession.
clarifying the factual situation at any one moment,
reflecting on personal interactions, and
looking back to evaluate what has happened
are as important in the organisational context as they are in our child care practice. Within the changing organisation, the question of what our aims are and what means we use to reach them, are just as relevant as when we are helping people to live their lives.
Special attention has to be given to the way the organisation is led. The style of leadership has far-reaching consequences for a climate of dialogue, of shared responsibility and of using everyone's personal skills.
Most organisations have long histories. It takes time to become an organisation with an 'own culture' and this can never be reshaped in a short time. As with people, we have to take into account the organisation's past, its present and its future.
An interesting thing about dialogue is that it has to be practised and experienced. Talking about dialogue and good intentions are not enough, neither in working methodically nor in organisational co-operation. People have to feel that they are taken seriously. To be asked for your opinion is one thing, but to feel that you have been heard can only be concluded from the experience. Quite a different way of working is getting orders and then doing the work as directed by others who prescribe what should be done. This is working without dialogue — but also without seniors being interested in the insights and experience of those who do the work 'at the coal-face.' In such an approach, reflection is neither needed nor wanted. Working methodically and learning and growing as we work is not possible under such conditions.
Who is doing what and who is accountable?
It will be clear that an organisation is something made by man. An organisation can be described in terms of tasks and responsibilities, in the division of work which has to be done to realize the goal the organisation.
Whether the work is done by twenty or by more than 100 people, arrangements are necessary, for example, about how to communicate, about participation, leadership, decision making and financial management.
Every organisation will have the intention to improve at working professionally with the residents. However, the connection between the decision-makers at the top of the organisation and the workers 'on the ground' easily gets lost.
Different 'languages' easily separate those who are involved with financial questions; the managers as the 'chiefs' having the overall view in the organisation; the often university-educated professional staff; and the life-space workers as the practitioners, often given a lower status yet in direct contact with the residents and their needs.
The consequence of these different viewpoints or
'languages' is a mutual feeling of distrust where we should expect
dialogue and reciprocal support. For example, for those in direct
contact with them, the emotional appeal of the residents can be very
strong and demanding. To find a good balance between this close
involvement and a more reflective distance can become a problem when we
are not fully aware of the position of the life-space workers within the
This combination of high emotional involvement, often less education and lower status in the organisation makes them vulnerable. They are in direct face-to-face contact; for all the others working in the organisation it is easier 'to close ones eyes' when the reality is too strong. The person at the top has the responsibility for taking far-reaching decisions — and without making decisions at the right moment the organisation will be in chaos.
Rules and responsibility
Without strict maintenance of rules, strong feelings of uncertainty prevail. An organisation whose work is based on dialogue is a difficult challenge, because the principal or director has to be alert and diligent, staying in contact with residents, staff, relatives, neighbours, etc.
Not all leaders 'at the top' wish for dialogue. A whole organisation can often be based on the 'view of the boss', the person with the power to make decisions. He knows what to do. He chooses his advisers and experts to help make responsible decisions. He considers it his duty to take care of the organisation by telling everyone what should be done. Some staff might prefer this approach which allows them to be less personally responsible themselves. In case of mistakes they can point at 'the responsible man', the boss.
This approach is quite different from sharing opinions and looking for opportunities to give staff the responsibility for the work they have to do. In this work leadership is, above all, good listening to what is needed and making use of everybody's insight and experiences. The leader must be aware of what is needed to carry out a certain task. Leadership means to be attentive to the differences between the separate tasks — and to their interdependency within the overall goals and structures of the organisation. The leader makes it possible for everybody to concentrate on her or his work.
We have been comparing two types of leadership. This second type is related to good practice, to working methodically in a spirit of dialogue and shared responsibility.
Reflecting is a key word in our view of working methodically. Reflecting cannot to be left to coincidence but has to be organised, structured. Organized reflection requires time, some distance and room for discussion, clarity on the goals of the meeting and good leadership. In our direct work with clients we emphasize the need to explore what is happening by giving it words, deciding what is important and involving other people in this process. In more complex situations where people's reactions are very strong and not easy to understand, we have to inquire more thoroughly, moving from one experience to an other. Searching and clarifying our experience in this way includes hesitations, asking questions, making mistakes, keeping pathways open and changing directions. We can only do this in an atmosphere which is open to exploration, to questioning and to changing our minds. We have to realize that asking questions is risky and might be interpreted negatively rather than positively. When those in power feel that questioning and exploring the situation are signs of ignorance or criticism, then any attempts at dialogue and honest questioning enter a blind alley. You can even end up losing your job! In an atmosphere where we do not know when, how, by whom and on which standards we are judged, we will feel insecure and not free for shared reflection.
In the organisation the time for reflection may be a team-meeting, a staff consultation, or some other conference about (with!) the client and about working together in the team as lifespace workers. In many centres for day and residential care we will find a variety of such meetings. Who participates depends on the goal of the meeting. A distinction can be made between meetings which have to do with:
the behaviour, the development, the care-plan of the individual resident;
co-operation within the team;
policy within a section (the living group and team);
information about the organisation as a whole;
decision making about the policy of the organisation;
training and professional development of staff, including support, guidance, supervision.
The policy of the organisation has its influence on the decision-making in the various teams or units. Conversely, the activity within the team can have a great impact on the organisation at large. All practice within the organisation and its influence on the policy of the decision-makers has to be based on accurate knowledge of the functioning of the various sections and staff, as well as the different meetings and their interconnection. Insight into the flow (or the stagnation?) of information is important if we are to understand (and more so to change) the actual conditions of the organisation. Change requires good leadership, good teamwork and good reflection.