A researcher at Edge Hill University has devised simple steps to alleviate the ‘blame culture’ that exists within the social work profession.
Senior lecturer Dr Jadwiga Leigh says that a top-down approach where senior managers recognise their own negative behaviours is vital in helping to address the ‘pointing the finger’ dilemmas that practitioners face. More investment in space and environment is also important, according to her research.
Her conclusions are drawn from a comparative study she conducted in the North of England and in Flanders, Belgium where she collected observational and interview data from professionals working in the child protection arena who face these every day issues.
“Nowadays child protection social workers appear in the media for all the wrong reasons,” said Dr Leigh. “Most of the time, following a child abuse inquiry, they are blamed for not doing enough, yet in other cases they face criticism for acting too hastily and removing children without real cause. This social work dilemma is famously coined as ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’.”
Her research stems from her own experiences during her 10-year social work career. She explained: “I was becoming increasingly paranoid about the decisions I was making and I started to feel myself focussing less on the families I was working with and more on ticking all the boxes. I started to look more closely at the apparent blame culture outside of the profession to see what kind of impact it was having on our organisation. It soon emerged that the fear of making mistakes and failing the public was particularly affecting those at the top of the organisational hierarchy. This led to senior managers blaming practitioners for not achieving unattainable targets. But I realised that it didn’t stop there because when an organisation starts malfunctioning it only encourages everyone to start blaming each other. The blame culture that existed outside of the profession had penetrated the organisation and created a blame culture on the inside of it as well”.
“The aim of my research was to explore how different cultural factors affected the way these practitioners constructed their own professional identities. By considering where professionals are located, I wanted to explore the systems for which they work; systems embedded in unique yet diverse cultures which collectively impact on the practitioner in some shape or form.”
She found that in Belgium, accountability, accepting that mistakes do happen and trying to see what could be learned from them when they do, instead of looking where to place the blame, was very much embedded in the culture. Dr Leigh also found that the space and environment they worked in was much more welcoming and offices were intentionally located above a school so that clients didn’t feel intimidated.
“These differences made such a huge impact”, said Dr Leigh. “Practitioners were proud of their profession and the families seemed much more comfortable with the social workers. Their creativity and being able to reach out to clients seemed to have such a positive effect. Whereas, in the UK there are hierarchies, power imbalances and it’s very oppressive. Not only are social workers demonized by the Government and the media but service users are stigmatised also, with families having to enter a fortress-like building to get to see their social worker and in some agencies talk to the receptionist from behind glass windows. If organisations were to incorporate some simple steps it could make all the difference to their work environment and address the ‘us’ and ‘them’ inequality”.
“My findings demonstrate just how societal and political ideologies can permeate organisational hierarchies. Uninformed politicians who have no professional experience of what social work is about do little to help the profession by persistently damning everything its practitioners do. This needs to be acknowledged because it is an issue”
Dr Leigh is in the process of writing a book on the subject called Blame, culture and child protection: Notes from behind the scenes of a demonized profession, which she hopes to have published next year in order to encourage organisations to adopt new ways of working.