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Why organisational culture within social work is so important

As a social work student Lethu Nakupi experienced contrasting environments on her placements and describes the difference it makes both to practitioners and service users

Lethu Nakupi on organisational culture

Published by Professional Social Work magazine - 7 September 2020

Why is the culture within social work organisations important? It’s important because social work practice takes place within an organisational context.

Research shows social work decision-making is influenced by organisational culture. Organisational culture not only affects practice but also impacts on the behaviour of the service user or relationship with the service user.

It has the potential to disempower social workers leading to stress and apathy and impede change designed to improve matters.

More importantly, organisational culture is sometimes cited in inquiries into tragedies in which social services were involved.

I have seen for myself the difference organisational culture can make during two contrasting placements. My first was within a children and families’ team where I experienced a culture that created discourses of disempowerment. It was a risk-averse environment with constant suspicion, blame and negative feedback guiding professional interactions and supervision.

Due to poor staff retention resulting in high caseloads there was very limited time for supervision and critical reflective supervision.

When supervision occurred it mainly focused on following procedures, meeting targets and introduction to new referrals. As a student with no prior statutory experience, this was very anxiety provoking. I was constantly engulfed by fear, feelings of inadequacy and failure because I knew that no matter how hard I worked, negative feedback was inevitable.

I remember one occasion within the placement when working on a case of a child with autism spectrum disorder. A professional within the multi-disciplinary team expressed alarm that the case had been assigned to a student social worker.

As a result, her behaviour towards me was characterised by suspicion and micro aggression which manifested as condescending and disrespectful behaviour in the presence of clients.

I was told from the beginning that I was not qualified to handle the case. “Why did they [children services] send a student?” she would ask.

This was very disempowering and made me feel inadequate. The culture was pervasive and deeply entrenched, permeating professional relationships and multi-disciplinary teams. It was characterised by constant suspicion, blame and negative feedback that did not enable learning and growth to take place and made it much more difficult for me to forge a professional identity for myself.

As a result of the disempowering culture, I had nightmares about making mistakes and became emotionally drained having to constantly explain myself.

Thankfully, I had a very different experience of a positive organisational culture in my second placement in adult social care which was emancipatory and empowering.

I observed professional interactions that enabled learning and growth to take place. As a student I felt welcomed and in a place that enabled learning and growth to help me forge a professional identity, with the support of others.

The experience was deeply fulfilling and felt in tune with the ethics and values of social work learned at university.

In her paper Culture Change in the Public Sector, academic Michelle Drum defines culture in organisations as embodying values, beliefs and assumptions deeply ingrained in traditions that influence how an organisation thinks and feels.

To fully understand the dynamics of organisational culture, academics have used the theory of Affect. Affect, according to Jadwiga Leigh in her book Blame, Culture and Child Protection, is the feeling one is hit by as soon as entering an office; a sense that there is an atmosphere.

Affect can manifest itself unknowingly within groups of people but is physically perceivable to a newcomer as it has such a distinctive aura. Affect or culture can be considered as something which interferes with our emotions and how we interact with others.

Affect can manifest in two distinct forms which are either negative (blame, anger, disgust, suspicion, fear or shame) or positive (enjoyment, excitement, interest, support, respect).

Psychologist Vivien Burr states that the social worker identity is not only conditioned or shaped by their environment but the constant discourses they are subjected to. Discourses are not simply abstract ideas but significant symbols which are located within the institutions in which we work.

Social workers can only understand their experiences and relationships with others through the language used. This prepacked language is present in all organisational cultures and affects thoughts, feelings and behaviours which in turn has the potential to promote and nurture discourses of disempowerment, blame and suspicion or support, respect and enjoyment.

As social workers our principles and ethics commit us to promote practice and procedures that are anti-oppressive and empowering. We should strive for objectivity and self-awareness and recognise our own prejudices so as not to discriminate against any person or group. We promote relationship-based practice and work in partnership, respecting our service users.

Understanding organisational culture and its influence on all of this is therefore an important part of the social work task and where found wanting it must be challenged.

Lethu Nakupi is a newly qualified social worker working within adults

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers.