Skip to main content

The good social work leader

Could a ‘systems-psychodynamic’ approach to leadership transform the workplace?

Jo Williams (left) and Jennie McShannon

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 22 December, 2021

We’ve all heard of them – some will even have been in them: work environments characterised by high sickness and vacancy rates, often propped up by agency staff.

But how to avoid them? Well, you could start by adopting a ‘systems-psychodynamic’ approach to leadership.

Drawing from psychology, it encourages leaders to think more broadly about the systems in which they work and the people around them – and themselves.

Jennie McShannon, an organisational consultant who trains leaders, says it’s an approach that should not be alien to social workers.

“Everyone who uses social work services is part of a system – they are part of a family, they have a past, present and future, a community and network. So often social workers are thinking about them in a system.

“Similarly, we are thinking about leadership in the system. As a leader they need to understand the wider system and context in which they are working.”

Improving work environments isn’t just about more resources – it’s as much about relationships and how people feel about their place in the system.

“People are able to work in highly stressful environments with a lack of resources – though there is a question around sustainability and what’s fair and reasonable,” says Jennie.

“Stress is exacerbated by leaders who may not be confident or competent to contain and support and help the team manage in the context of uncertainty and scarcity of resources and under pressure.”

An effective leader will see “under the surface” to understand the dynamics within their team and organisation, says Jennie.

“The systems-psychodynamic approach is to think wider than what’s immediately in front of you and to think deeper. To bring the water level down – the more that can be seen and thought about the better the decisions made.”

This also recognises diversity within the workforce, says Jo Williams, a social worker and senior lecturer who works with Jennie to deliver training to leaders and managers in the systems-psychodynamic approach through Tavistock Consulting. The company is part of the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, a specialist mental health trust in north London.

“By working with leaders to be more relational and curious and to be able to appreciate multiple truths and diverse perspectives, our hope would be they model that way of being with their staff,” she says.

“It is inviting people to think about difference and about who they are, what they share about themselves and what remains unvoiced. What they know about their teams and don’t know.

“How you have conversations with people about those differences, to think about power and privilege with individuals but also within the team context and how that might be playing out.”

This may include talking about the barriers preventing people of colour and other minoritised groups from progressing in their careers.

“What we know about social work is that it is a diverse workforce. But as people progress through their career it becomes less diverse,” says Jo.

“It’s those stories that might be playing out about people and what we need to do to enable people to reach a level playing field.”

The concept of authority – and who is authorised by the system and who isn’t – is important to analyse, says Jennie.

“Is a white leader getting authorised in a different way to a black leader? Is a person of colour getting the jobs and being supported? Then there is authorisation from below – is a white leader and a leader of colour being sanctioned in role differently by staff?

“There is also the authority we carry in ourselves that is often very deeply personal, of how we take up roles in families, the internal models we carry with us from early childhood.”

Such self-reflection “isn’t hugely different from being a social worker”, says Jo. But sometimes those who progress to leadership positions lose sight of it because they can “become overwhelmed by managerialism”.

Jo describes a good leader as “confident, curious, insightful, appreciative, relational” – and in touch with their own vulnerabilities.

Jennie adds: “We all have the capacity to behave in unhelpful and even toxic ways. It is about how we are able to contain ourselves and manage the anxiety that comes with the nature of the work, and respond to the pressures in the system.”

For more information about the programme see here

BASW members save ten per cent on course fees by using the code BASW10