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Organisation and leadership

Lies Gualtherie van Weezel and Kees Waaldijk

The last of three articles in which the authors, from 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 our field. (See Part 1 and Part 2).

Power, visible and hidden
In our discussion of leadership we haven't yet spoken of one important aspect: power in the hierarchy of leadership. The "one at the top" has more influence, and the consequences of this should not be overlooked. Power is not only related to the status and the influence of the leader in an organisation; power can also be a result of having a better view and of being better informed about what is going on. The way a leader uses this power can be quite different from the way we suggested earlier. To realise what is actually going on, it may be of interest to ask yourself as a team-leader or director: "In what way am I influenced by my leadership function and what do I do with this function?" Being a team leader or a director of an institution has an impact on your behaviour. This is one side. There is also one's personal way of carrying out the leadership function. In short, this function does something with you and you do something with the function.

An institution, too, has its culture
We have said that every organisation has its own culture. Some, not being used to the word 'culture' of an institution, might call it the 'atmosphere', meaning the combination of written and unwritten rules, the openness and closedness toward the outside world, the celebration of special events, and so on. It is important to be aware of the culture of an institution because it is not static but a dynamic product of the people who live and work there. This culture has a great influence on all who are part of it. The institutional culture may be more or less stimulating and encouraging, more or less tolerant of deviant behaviour in clients and employees, and so on. The way the culture is experienced can be quite different for different people. We ourselves might feel at home within a highly structured setting, but the atmosphere can feel very closed to newcomers. Conversely, an informal way of working together has many advantages, but it could be hard for a new resident to find his way when there are no explicit rules to tell him what is expected from him. Reflection on the culture of the organisation must be part of our working methodically, if we are to realise its strong and weak points, and to be open to change.

In the Netherlands such change has been very real as Dutch society has become a multi-ethnic society. Institutions have become aware of the fact that they have very much a Dutch culture whatever that may be. For a long time the culture of an institution was not questioned. It was there like the air you breath without noticing. But we notice our own culture more as it confronts other opinions and other realities. Getting to know one's own culture is only really possible in such confrontation. Some of our reactions, for example, will turn out to be less universal than we might have thought. Being in dialogue is an important instrument in getting to know one's own culture and in learning what is important for ourselves and for others. This awareness enriches professional working.

Others and ourselves
In residential and day care we often pay attention to the other person in the diagnosis of the resident or in gaining knowledge of the culture of other people. For example, we may find ourselves learning about the Moroccan culture, the Turkish way of life, the influence of particular religions, and so on. This can be helpful to our understanding of someone belonging to another culture, but only in combination with questioning our own culture. How do I react to my own culture? What is my own culture? To be confronted by this question will enrich and make us aware of our own values. To try to understand yourself through your own reactions is a condition for discovering how we are in contact with others. In reflecting on my being in contact with residents and the way they are in contact with me, the dialogue starts not a dialogue between cultures as understood by experts, but between persons whose culture is part of them. The way someone expresses his own culture in contact with others is personal. To encounter someone of an unknown culture might cause feelings of uncertainty. This may make us stick more rigidly to the stereotype, the image we had of that group in advance. This blocks openness. To understand our own reactions and the reactions of the other person from a different culture, we also have to give attention to both context and history. So there is a parallel with being part of an organisational culture. It can well influence the person living or working there. Outsiders might address a resident not as himself but as part of the institution. The personal reactions of the residents themselves will differ: some will be proud to share in the culture of the institution; others will feel ashamed of it or reject it. Another interesting way of clarifying the culture of a group of residents or of life-space workers or of the centre as a whole is to question very concrete aspects such as how people speak to each other, what words are used (and which words are not used). Other concrete aspects of daily life are clothes, accommodation, privacy, the attitude toward the outside world the way we speak of "we" and "them", openness, the symbols we use, the kind of rules we have, the kind of contact between staff member and resident, what is done together and what is done apart, the way we celebrate special events, and so on.

Caring for the institution
Being aware of the institutional culture we live in helps us to be open to the personal reactions of all, and makes us more attentive to the impact of this 'atmosphere' on the helping process. We are constantly having to find a balance between accepting a situation and changing it for the better by our actions. In these articles we have concentrated on the organisation as an arena for working methodically. Co-operation, support and leadership are inter-connected. We can look at them as formal organised functions or as informally practised tasks. Support can be a function of a team leader or a director. (A function is a combination of tasks and responsibilities.) The function of the leader can be seen as the authority, or as the one who is creates conditions for interconnecting the different tasks and personal capabilities on the team. Working on organisational goals, and reflecting on what is happening, implies the same elements as methodical child and in our direct youth care practice. It is important to be aware of the culture of the institution both as a fact and as a changing climate. The way we work together, support each other, lead or be led, are in one sense dependent on the culture of the organisation; and in another sense they shape this culture. The same can be said about decision-making, communication and meetings. They are all themes in organisational theory and worthy of our attention. To interconnect them is as important as to study them separately. But even more important is to recognise in practice the implications of the way we organise for those who are involved, and to check the outcomes in relation to what we are aiming at. 

By way of summary we now mention a number of aspects which are helpful in reflecting on the culture of our organisation: 

  • How does the history of our institution influence the present positively or negatively?

  • What are the various views about how our work should be done, about working methodically, and about the theories which inspire us? 

  • In what way are tasks divided and the various functions and powers formally described?

  • What tasks are informally executed? 

  • What can be said of power as an aspect of the various functions and positions?

  • How are the different kinds of knowledge (experience-based or the more theoretical) valued?

Mutual relations
This subject can be seen as the interconnection (or the disconnection) between the leader and the subordinates, and also as "who is in contact with whom, at personal or functional levels?" Communication: What is the official way of information sharing (by meetings and memos) and what is the informal way of communication? Questions about what is discussed with whom, and which subject is spoken about and what subject is silenced, are also part of this aspect of the culture. The culture or climate of the organisation has a strong influence on the residents or clients, and also on the staff. It is intimately related to working methodically not only in serving today's clients but also in shaping the organisation for the future.