A Servant Heart

Today, I challenge you to develop a servant heart.  I know I will get some quizzical looks and some furrowed brows. And yes, I said the word servant. Give me a chance to clarify.  It is difficult to imagine willingly putting strangers before ourselves as a general principle. Especially if those strangers dont even want us in their lives.  But to be an effective social worker, it is necessary.
The term servant evokes negative images and thoughts from people who equate servitude with slavery.  Humans throughout history have forced other human beings into slavery for their own gain, stripped them of their rights and dignity and treated them abominably. That is involuntary slavery. And it is the highest form of narcissism to believe that any one class, race or culture is superior to another.  Servitude denotes an agreement and in this case it is a decision.  I am talking about having within yourself a heart for others, a compelling desire to change the world by example and deed. And not expecting reward.
Mahatma  Ghandi challenged us all with his words: “be the change you wish to see in the world.” His humility and sacrifice paved the way for India’s Independence. Paying little attention to his own needs, he demonstrated non violent civil disobedience. In his sacrifice, he demonstrated a servant heart.
Mother Theresa gave up everything to live among the street people in Calcutta, providing love, support and services to the poorest of the poor. Her mission was to provide food and medical help to the sick and needy. In the early years, she herself often went hungry and had to beg for food. She cared more about the hurting, the poor and the sick than she cared about her own needs. 
I am not saying that social work is the same as working in the slums of Calcutta, with the danger of facing starvation or contracting disease.  However it is important to recognize that there is a measure of selflessness that is the practice of social work .  And those that chose to walk this path will never get the praise and gratitude they deserve.  It is important for social workers to not enter the field looking for extrinsic validation.  It does not often come.  I wish that were not true. But it is.
So I call out to you, social worker.  I challenge you to understand that those broken families you are meeting at 7:00 at night ( because that’s when mom gets home from her shift at burger king), didn’t ask for your help.  Although deep inside they know their family is broken, they are afraid to admit it to you.  They express that fear through anger.  Don’t take it personally.  They do not trust you yet. They are afraid you will see them as damaged and take their children away if they admit that they need help. 
 So as you drive to their home, thinking about your own family eating dinner while staring at your empty chair, don’t expect an outpouring of thanks from your clients.  You won’t get it now.  You may never get it.  On some rare occasions , I have had former clients seek me out years later to thank me for working with them to assist with the healing in their family.  But mostly you must find the intrinsic joy within yourself when your hard work and sacrifice helps to move a family towards lasting change.
I have seen you discouraged and heavy with the weight of the burden.  Your own sacrifices do not seem to be acknowledged  and certainly not rewarded.  Not outwardly.  But like the a construction worker skilled in pouring cement foundations.  You go to a job and pour a strong and level foundation.  Then you leave to go to the next job.  You might not ever see the beautiful house that is built upon that foundation.  But you must know in your heart that without your meticulous labor, creating a strong base, the house would not stand.
I encourage you to develop a servant heart.  Remember why you decided to take on a career riddled with stress, heartache and personal sacrifice.  Once your eyes are on your vision and not the thankless nature of the path you are on, it will be easier to keep walking.
Mother Theresa took a poem written by someone else and modified it to encourage herself and others.  It was posted outside of the children’s home she ran as well as in her own room.  She has expressed the point far more eloquently than I could.  I am sharing it below.
 

People are often unreasonable, irrational and self-centered

Forgive them anyway

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives

Be kind anyway

If you are successful you will win some unfaithful friends and genuine enemies.

Succeed anyway

If you are honest and sincere people will deceive you

Be honest and sincere anyway

What you spent years creating , people could destroy overnight

Be creative anyway

If you find serenity and happiness, people may be jealous

Be happy anyway

The good you do today will often be forgotten 

Do good anyway

Give the best you have and it will never be enough

Give your best anyway

In the final analysis it is between you and God

It was never between you and them anyway


My personal musings when I read this is that Mother Theresa was also human.  She kept this in her room to remind her why she walked the selfless path.  So on those occasions when you feel that frustration coming after performing thankless sacrifice.  Relax.  You too are human.  Forgive yourself, take some time for self care, read Mother Theresa poem and then get back on the path.  I will be walking right beside you.

Hunger

We all need sustenance.  Without it, we would not survive.  And within us lives a survival instinct that tells us to eat when we are hungry and drink when we are thirsty.  As a matter of fact, the longer we go without food or drink, the stronger the need grows.  In the most dire circumstance, where food and water are not available for a long period of time, this instinct continues to grow until it becomes an obsession, pushing more rational thinking processes aside with the sole focus on survival.

  We hunger.

This hunger begins at birth.  It is actually the mechanism and catalyst for the development of our ability to form and maintain attachment.  As an infant, you experience the unpleasant feeling of hunger as a pang inside your belly and an uncomfortable uneasiness that you don’t yet understand.  You respond by crying loudly: the urgency of your plight heralded to the world.  You don’t care about the fact that it is 3am:  you hunger.  You count on the appearance of that person who appears and offers you nourishment.  Soon your belly is full and your mind and soul are at peace.  As the cycle continues, you develop an awareness of those special people that are bringing you relief and comfort. When you hear their voices, you know you will be fed and you can relax.  The process evolves.  You begin to trust.  You begin to bond.  You begin the architecture of attachment. 

 You hunger and are fed.

That example is the most rudimentary aspect of hunger and satisfaction.  The application, metaphorically,  is far more reaching.  But the truth of the matter is: What you feed will grow.  

What are you feeding in your life?  

I have several friends who are runners.  They hunger for the thrill of a 5K or a half marathon.  But how do they feed the need to compete in these races?  They run every day.  Most get up an hour earlier than they need just to get in that run. The satisfaction they get from completing a run overshadows the discipline, exertion and time sacrifice they endure.  And the continuous feeding of that need develops their skills and their confidence to compete in races.

Some people hunger for success and recognition in their career.  They are dedicated true believers in the importance of Their agency’s mission and hunger to be part of the leadership.  Their hunger is not fueld by blind personal ambition but by the ambition of making a difference in the world.   Their hunger can be healthy if fed by positivity and a work-life balance.  But I  have learned, from experience,  that a true work/life balance is difficult to achieve and even harder to maintain.  The higher you rise in your agency, the more difficult it becomes.  

I learned that lesson the hard way.  I found out  that success and career recognition comes with a price.  There were times early in my career where my hunger to rise in my agency and make a difference in the world,  directly affected my hunger to  also be a  good wife, mother, friend and social worker. Notice I did not blame the agency or the career.  It was the choices I made as to which hunger (work or life) to feed. 

I discovered , after several years, that feeding my need to advance resulted in long hours, tunnel vision as to priorities and a distance from the positive people and influences in my life. That cycle (much like the example of the infant) produced in me the obsessive thought that to be successful,  I had to be able to handle everything by myself.   As the job responsibilities increased, so did the hours, the stress and the work-only focus.  That was the hunger I chose to feed.  

Naturally, the “life” part began to suffer.   Did it mean that wanting to be successful was wrong?  I don’t think so.  There are many successful people that have learned to feed both of the components of work/life.    I had to do some self examination, though, to bring my own life back into  balance.

To accomplish that, I had to feed the things I had either ignored or had given only perfunctory attention.  And I had to accept and not obsess over the things I couldn’t change and to concentrate, instead, on those I could.  I couldn’t change the stress of the job or the onerous burden of responsibility that came with agency leadership.  But I could change my reaction to the stress.  Typically, I would come home from work , and collapse on the couch for mindless television while consuming a high caloric fast food dinner     (because it was easy). This was very often followed by insomnia. 

 To combat this outcome of stress that developed from feeding my work only side, I began to feed my creative side.   My hunger for taking broken things and making them whole evolved into my discovery of furniture flipping.   I started finding broken and ugly pieces of furniture and transforming them into functional and beautiful things.   Similarly, my hunger to encourage workers in the often thankless job of caring for others turned into a weekly blog.   I started blogging encouragement to other social workers and found I was actually encouraging myself.   Interestingly,  as I began to feed this side of my work/life balance,  the inevitable stress  that followed me home from work each night found it much more difficult to eat away at my health, my sleep and my peace. 

I also realized that I had to feed the relationships in my life. Simply making time to be with your child, your friends even your significant other does not foster deep relationships. It is not enough.   I had to be present, mentally and emotionally,  demonstrating true engagement with them whenever we were together.  It was difficult to practice a skill that I had not fed in years.  Unaware, I had allowed it to starve.  I decided to ernestly feed my relationships by focusing on being  “present ” when around the people I cared about.  It was sobering to realize how I had taken for granted precious people, expecting them to understand that I had “noble” reasons for choosing work over life.  Because there is nothing noble about keeping those you love in a box.   But it was not easy.  Being present is a discipline that requires regular feeding.   But, as I fed the relationships,  by being present, it became easier.   My hunger grew for the joy that came while sharing “real” moments with the ones I loved. Those moments filled my heart and brought peace to my mind and my soul. 

So did I do it??  Is my work and personal life always balanced?  No!    It is a continuous work in progress.  And just as I can never choose to stop feeding my physical hunger, I cannot stop feeding my hunger for a work/ life balance. 

 For on those occasions when I am operating in the balance, I do not hunger.  

I am satisfied.

Believe and Bloom

There is a parable about a sower, who plants seeds on different terrains.  The sower planted one set of seeds in rocky soil.  Those seeds sprouted quickly, producing small vibrant plants, because of the unprepared and shallow soil.  But when the sun reached its apex, bearing down its scorching, unforgiving rays,  the plants withered and died.  They could not bear up to the heat because they had no roots.

The sower then planted another set of seeds in good soil , but surrounded by angry thorns.  The plants sprouted and grew strong and beautiful until the thorns slowly entwined the tender shoots, choking out their life.

And finally, he found the good soil.  Firmly rooted and tended, away from weeds and thorns, these plants grew and thrived, sharing their beautiful blooms with the world.

The thing I remember about this parable is that it wasnt about the seeds.  The seeds that were planted were all the same.  It was the environment that played the primary role in the viability of the plants.

How does this relate to us?

This past week, I met with 8 brand new workers, who had just started in the training unit.  It wasn’t planned.  As a matter of fact I was in my office, extremely busy, trying to complete a report that was due that day.   My assistant buzzed in to inform me that the staff trainer was in the outer office with 8 new staff who wanted to meet the director.   I must confess that initially I felt irritation at the unannounced visit and stress about the due date of my still pending report.  In my ire, several questions flashed furiously in my mind in the seconds it took me to reply.  

Why would she put me on the spot like that?  

Why would the trainer bring the staff up to my office without even finding out if I was busy (which I was).  I had made it a point to schedule a time to meet every new training class, so why now? 

 Finally, I sighed, and let her know I would be glad to meet with the new staff.  Straightening my slacks and breathing in deeply to calm my face, I put on a welcoming smile and opened the door.

What happened after that changed my attitude for the rest of the day and replenished my own bucket.  I introduced myself to the group, and began talking about the agency mission and vision.  I discussed the importance of each staff member on the team and related it to the key roles they would play. We talked briefly about how the programs were different but complimented each other as we all worked towards the same goal.   I then asked them if they had any questions about the agency that I could clarify for them. 

One young lady tentatively asked me to describe what I loved most about my job.  Taken aback, I paused briefly.  No one asked me anymore what I liked about my job or if I even did  like my job.  After thinking for a minute, I talked about how I loved developing staff, equipping them with transferable skills and helping them in leadership development.  Their faces were pleasant, but I could tell that I had missed the mark.  So I asked them if they were more interested in what I liked about my job when I was a case worker like them.  That was it.  Again I was intrigued at the question.

 I paused again, briefly. I didn’t have to think long because I realized that what drew me to the social work career 30 years earlier still held true.   So I talked about the fascination of engaging families and helping them to develop a vision for their future.   I described  looking beneath the surface problems and learning that everyone has layers.  Then I discussed how discovering the underlying needs could lead to partnering with the family on a plan for achieving their vision. 

As I spoke, I watched their eyes widen and their heads nod.  They were true believers.  And I was amazed to realize, that when I was not caught up in the politics and administration of my job as director, that I was still one too.  I became energized and animated while we talked about the families and that feeling you got when you able to really reach them. It wasn’t just a rehearsed speech,  I believed every word coming out of my mouth.  Emboldened, they began to ask more questions such as how to achieve work-life balance and still make a difference.  We talked HONESTLY about the sometimes overwhelming demands of the job and why it was important to be prepared for the difficulties along with the satisfaction.  I told them it was necessary to find their stress outlet and to develop a support group.  The interaction did not take 15 minutes.  However, as I returned to my office, I realized how much lighter I felt, being in the company of true believers.

Then I wondered how each of them would fare when the pressure mounted and the enormity of the job responsibility beat down upon their shoulders like the sun with its withering heat.  I knew that if they did not receive the training, guidance and coaching they needed to develop deep roots, they would wither and fall away.

I wondered what would happen when they left the training unit to work among seasoned staff.  By far, the majority of the agency staff were also strong, dedicated staff, firmly rooted and grounded in their understanding of the agency vision.  But there were a few thorns.  These thorny, negative staff would rather shame and blame than to grow.  You know the ones I mean.  Those who lost their drive and committment yet continue to hang on to a job from which they gain no happiness.  They often scoffed at those who remained mission minded.  I worried that if the new staff were not carefully tended, they would not develop the confidence needed to ward off the negative thorns and could have their hope strangled.

These issues are not unique to my agency.  Every agency has these issues.  The question remains: How do we take these true believers and make sure they find the good soil?  

Although the parable does not elaborate , any gardener knows that good soil is not always enough.  However, good soil can be created with nutrients and thorough tilling.  As leaders you must ensure that the first exposure new staff have to your agencies begins with a comprehensive and interactive training curriculum.  Excellent training takes time and planning, but the soil produced becomes a rich environment that stimulates learning of and investing in your mission.  Believe me the time up front developing and implementing an excellent training environment will pay off by producing more competent and confident staff.

Practice takes practice.  

Ensure that the new staff get to start slowly, practicing their newly learned skills.  Having a mentor to coach and model allows the new staff to see the trainer’s words in action. 

A great OJT  model is 

DO…SHARE…WATCH…RELEASE. 

Incredibly simply, it is an effective tool for developing skills in New staff.

First the OJT mentor performs the skill (interviewing a child, conducting a treatment plan meeting).  The staff observes, takes notes and discusses afterward.  At the next opportunity, the mentor talks the staff through the situation prior to beginning and shares the responsibility of the skill.  In the third step the mentor allows the staff to perform the skill with the mentor observing and offering feedback afterwards. Lastly, the mentor releases the staff to perform the skill alone, but makes themselves available to the staff when needed.

The job your staff perform is difficult as well as emotionally and physically draining.  Many new social workers do not stay when the grueling heat comes.  So, I say this to you.  Value your staff.  Help them to develop roots.  Dont let their belief and their positive drive be strangled by negativity.   By preparing the soil, and tending to the developing plants, you can help them to grow strong and to extend their own roots to join yours and those others that are tied together as a force of nature to achieve your agency’s vision.

 Who has your ear?

Do you know the children’s story, The Emperor’s New Clothes?  The story tells the tale of a vain king who surrounded himself with people who only agreed with him.  Two swindlers, knowing he exclusively wore the finest cloththing, told him of this exquisite magical cloth that only the brightest, most refined and truly regal people could see.  The king could not see the cloth, because there was no cloth.  But being vain and not wanting to appear less worthy, he proclaimed it the most beautiful cloth he had ever seen.  He asked his trusted advisors their opinion of the material.  Now, of course, they also saw nothing.  However, out of fear of displeasing the king they all marveled at its beauty.  The swindlers worked diligently to create a royal garment for the king out of the magical cloth.  When it was finished, the king donned the garment and paraded through the streets.  The townspeople were shocked at first, but not wanting to displease the king or to appear unworthy, they praised the outfit.  The king strutted proudly through the streets until one little boy pointed and yelled.  “The king is naked!”.  The parade stopped as everyone gasped.  The declaration of truth stopped the king in his tracks as he realized he had allowed himself to be tricked.  Mortified, the king hastily returned to the castle, realizing in his quest to be right, he had in fact allowed himself to be disgraced.

This was a child’s tale.  Yet it contained so many lessons on deceipt, vanity, complicity and blind obedience.  But the one lesson that stuck in my mind over the years pertains to leadership and forming the team that leads with you.  

 THE KING SURROUNDED HIMSELF ONLY WITH PEOPLE WHO BLINDLY AGREED WITH HIM.

That decision was the beginning of his downfall.  No one on his leadership team challenged him, even when it was obvious that he was making a disastrous choice.  The hero of the story, the young child, acted honestly; unrestrained by the niceties of decorum and “polite society”; freed from the concept of “the boss is always right.”  This child blurted (unfiltered) the one thing everyone was thinking.  While his declaration embarrassed the king, it also stopped the parade of indecent exposure and more importantly taught the king a valuable lesson.

I have seen powerful leaders fall into the same trap as the emperor.   So convinced that they had all the answers to everything,  they insured obedience through the building of a team of “Yes” men and women.  I have also seen those leaders make extremely poor decisions at times (as we all do).  These poor decisions often resulted in unintended fall-out that affected them and their agency.  I used to criticize those leaders for those decisions, but I also blamed the team surrounding these leaders for not being honest and frank with their boss.  

Seeing the above scenario play out multiple times in my career, I was determined not to fall into that trap.  Don’t get me wrong, I knew as a leader I had to be competent, fearless and able to make good timely decisions every day.  But I also acknowledged my humanity.  I knew that ( as much as I would like for it to be true) I did not have all the answers.  And worse than appearing less than omniscient, I feared that, unchecked, I could be walking the streets naked.  

I wish I could say I was immediately successful in my goal.  But I was not.  As a line supervisor and even manager I fell nto the trap, thinking that once I made a decision I had to hold fast, less I lose the confidence of my staff.  Yes, I was a strong leader, but was I a good one?  I was blessed, when as a manager, I had some equally strong (headstrong) supervisors who had no problem voicing their opinions.  When one of the supervisors disagreed with a change I was implementing in the program, I wanted to discount them.   Because as the manager  I had much more experience than them.  But when I stopped and actually listened to them, I realized that the timing for the program shift had been wrong.  While I had focused on the content of the program implementation, I had not paid enough attention to some issues that needed to be addressed before the changes could be effective.  Amending the decision saved our program from some potential unnecessary consequences.  The input was not only valuable to me in that situation but served as the point in my career where I realized I needed a little conflict to sharpen my awareness and to help me to grow as a leader.

From that experience, I started instructing my team to be honest, up-front and bold in their approach  when they didnt agree with a move or decision I made.  My only caveat to them was to bring their concern to me in an appropriate place and in an appropriate manner. I often joked with them that they had a 10% chance of changing my mind, but that I would diligently listen to their point of view.  In actuality, the discussion was often invaluable to both of us.

We have been drilled to believe that as a leader, the weight of the program outcomes landed solely on our shoulders.  Therefore, we are taught to make strong decisions, not to appear easily swayed and to stand firm.  Unfortunately, those qualities also make us appear unyielding, autocratic and closed.  I learned the hard way that it was important to not only surround myself with a diverse and competent team, but to also foster a practice of honesty.  

Not everyone will feel comfortable enough, at first, to voice dissenting opinions so you have to listen with intent and to know your team.  Be able to discern when you are getting lip service and when you are getting honesty.  Be mindful that lip service is not necessarily offered to purposefully obstruct decisions.  Sometimes It is because the team member isn’t fully assured it is safe to disagree.  As a leader, you have to own that and address it.  Otherwise, like the emperor, your team will allow you to make unwise decisions with no offers of differing views or options.  

It is also important to know that you will sometimes have team members, especially in newer, inexperienced workers or supervisors that are autocratic and closed themselves.  They will not feel heard no matter how much you listen to them and try to explain the why.  Unless you agree with them every time, you will not reach them.  You will be perceived as not listening to them because you are not agreeing.  They can be exhausting and you will be tempted to shut them out and move on.  As long as they are on your team, it is important that they get the same opportunities as the other team members to be heard.  You cannot control their maladaptive beliefs, but you can conduct yourself consistently and purposefully with your eyes on the vision for your program or agency.

Over the years, as my positions of leadership grew, so did the quality of leaders on my team.  I currently have one of the best team of leaders I have ever had.  They are not afraid to share their opinions with me.   Proactively, we try to make most decisions that affect agency functioning as a team to gain a unified platform on an issue.  But occasionally there are some decisions that are more immediate And mine alone.   That is when I can trust that if a team member is concerned about the outcome they will come to me like the little boy in the story.  They point out their perceptions of how the decision may render me and the agency vulnerable.  And frankly, sometimes (ok often) it is uncomfortable and hard to hear.  But it is always helpful.  Even when I do not agree with them.  I listen.  I hear them.  And I learn.  Every time I learn something about them, something about me, and something about the point of discussion.  I don’t always change the decision.  Sometimes I find that the dissenting opinion has to do with my not fully explaining the “why”. But sometimes their point is so valid, uncovering finer details to the situation I had missed, that I do change my stance, thus saving us all from the outcomes of a poor decision.  And if I fall back into unilateral decision making (again, it is a constant mindset) I have a couple of team members who will point it out.

Decisions that are not emergent need to have the necessary time devoted to them.  Not every decision should be rushed.  These are the issues that are dicussed as an executive team.  If, in the course of the discussion, an executive team member voices a dissension, we engage in exchange of conversation, making the necessary time to fully explore the issue.  Often these discussions occur in a team meeting so that all views are elicited.  These exchanges build the strength of the team and the strength of the decision.  

So, the moral of the Emperor’s New  Clothes points out about the downfalls of vanity and pride.  But the moral of this blog is “dont surround yourself only with people who will tell you what you want to hear”.  You will hear from both sides.  Resist The temptation to only listen to the yes people.  The results can be dangerous.  Lend your ear to The dissenters as well. Cultivate people who can point to you and say “Wait a minute!  Something’s not right.”.  Then begin the process of listening.  The discussion that will ensue may be invaluable.  And we, as leaders,  are better for it.  I know I am.

Derailed

Did you know that a penny placed on the railroad track will derail the entire train?

 I have heard this nugget of information (and believed it) for most of my youth.  After all, if so many people were saying it, it had to be true… right?  A very dangerous experiment, Yet kids and even adults have placed coins in the paths of oncoming trains for generations, hoping for a flattened penny as a good luck piece.  I wonder how many lives have been lost when all those trains derailed?

None.

 There is no recorded incident of a penny derailing a train.  Ever.  However,  there are multiple accounts of people being killed in the attempt of the stunt.  Some have gotten too close to the train and were struck by the massive engine.  Others were struck by their own penny that shot out from under the train like a bullet.  But the train roared on, unaware of the ricochet.

Some helping agencies are like those locomotives.  Arriving at the scheduled designation is the ultimate goal and beware the one trying to slow it down or stop it.  Enter office politics.  Every agency has them.  Those are the rules, thoughts, beliefs and procedures that might not make sense to line staff or even the middle management, but they exist and can change at a moment’s notice due to outside circumstances.  Office politics can be baffling to some and produce resentment in others.  It’s easy to blame the leadership for rules or decisions that are not understood.  Often, even the leaders are not the ones driving that particular train.  As administration, a CEO, at times, receives pressure from the governing board, local government, pending litigation, confidential reports or even state and federal pressure.  There is often a reason for the new rule, procedure or personnel action.  But it doesn’t trickle down to the boots on the ground.   Consequently, when information is witheld from the ones working to keep the train on course, they begin to develop their own narratives about what is going on.  Faced with these issues, the engine can lose power and begin to slow.  

Then comes the rumor.  That’s the penny.  In my career, I cannot count the number of times disgruntled or unhappy employees, with no knowledge of the details of a situation, begin to share their own “Narrative”.  Given breath, the narrative  becomes a rumor.  When “the whisper game begins,”  it can spread like dandelion seeds on a breezy day. 

 Unfounded rumors can contribute to worker anxiety, low productivity, decreased satisfaction and worker turnover.  The most damaging rumors tend to circulate about the reason behind another employee’s departure.  Usually the line begins, “Did you hear about how so and so was railroaded out of her job just for x. (You fill in the blank):  coming in late one time, wearing inappropriate shoes,  taking sick leave when her baby was sick.  My favorite is “he was fired because the supervisor didn’t like him.”  When you read these, they may sound implausible, but I have heard them all. 

  By spreading rumors like this, the disgruntled staff member is putting a penny on the rail, hoping for a derailment.  But, like a real train, the program may slow down a little and tensions will increase. But it will not derail.  What happens most often is that employees who focus on that penny instead of their mission, get hit by the ricochet. 

 The staff that believe and take to heart the rumors floating in the air, begin to feel devalued and anxious for their own jobs.  If they are not grounded in their vision, they will resign.  And,  when they leave, others have to carry the burden of the extra work until new staff can be hired and trained.  But that disgruntled staff who began the rumor?  Interestingly enough, they tend to remain and continue to spread their maladaptive narratives.

So how does an agency combat the rumors and maladaptive beliefs that can cause such tension?  As always, both line staff and leadership have to share the responsibility to keep the train running smoothly and harmoniously.

Leaders, you have to take the time, when new duties are added or taken away, procedures have changed or expectations have increased, to sit down with your staff and give them the “why.”  The why (the real why) can deflate speculation and rumors more efficiently than anything.  Of course there are some things you cannot share such as the reasons behind the departure of another staff.  But for most other things, you can help the staff to understand the reasoning behind some changes rather than expecting blind obedience without engaging them with knowledge.  Knowledge is a great equalizer and staff development tool.  Also, arming them with the truth allows them to ignore the rumors floating around their heads.

If you are a line staff member or supervisor, you can control this as well.  Focusing on why you chose this profession and your personal mission will make it more difficult to be pulled into the wake of a thundering train.  Set some established goals for yourself and keep your eyes on those goals.  They could be developmental, career path goals or something much more personal.  But they are yours.  You know what has to occur to reach them.  Most importantly, you know not to engage with speculation and rumor that will take your eyes off your prize.  When you hear one of these rumors, you are tempted to join in.  The more salacious the rumor, the more you can be drawn in.  But I challenge you to ask yourself the following questions. “What has this got to do with me?”  “How would the person spreading this even know these things?  “Even if it is true, will it affect my mission?”.  If the answer to the last one is yes, go to your supervisor and ask for clarification.  Don’t put your own penny on the track.

In your desire to be the change you wish to see in the world, you chose a high stress profession, with few external rewards.   You know that.  Your rewards are much more intrinsic. You are touching lives and making a difference in the lives of others.  Don’t be derailed by rumors, gossip and innuendo that comes with office politics.  Keep your eyes on your goals, not on the shiny penny someone else laid on the track.

Reaching the Summit

When I was 25 years old, I took an adventurous trip to Australia.  I went alone, stayed for five weeks with people I had never met before and had the time of my life.  On the second day there, my new friends took me hiking up a small mountain. 

At first glance, from the car, the climb did not seem daunting.  The trail was clear and there were actually steps and guardrails at some points.  However as the day progressed and the trail ascended higher and higher, I began to falter.  My muscles felt weak, my breath became ragged and I wanted to give up.  I sat on a bench and told my companions to go on without me. I would catch back up with them on the way down.  But they didn’t go on.  They didn’t make fun of my weakness.  Instead they apologized.  One girl explained to me that they had hiked this mountain trail at least once a month for years.  She, too, struggled at first.  She told me that I was struggling because I was expecting to keep their pace.  In the moment, they had forgotten this was my first time.  They all agreed to take the trail at a much slower place and to rest often.  Supported by this new plan, I agreed to keep going and not to give up.  It took an extra hour, but I finally reached the Summit and felt jubilant!! The view was fantastic, but more importantly, I felt empowered and accomplished.

When new workers enter the child welfare field, they do so with confidence and a mission to serve others.  Often, they have interned in the field and want to make a difference in the lives of families.  They look at the trail blazed by their more experienced coworkers and their supervisors and tell themselves, I can do that!  They are often told by their supervisors that if they are organized, plan their day and work steadily, they will be successful.  So, on they go! 

But, all too often, they are not prepared for the pace or the demands that their career choice imposes.  And they want to give up.

Did this happen to you?  When you were a new worker were you truly prepared for what the job would ask of you?  

Even working with one family, you had to be an engager, a broker, an advocate and a legal spokesperson.  You dealt with the children, the parents, the relatives, the foster parents, the courts, the school’s and providers.  Being organized helped, but you weren’t prepared for  the emergencies that required you to stop the planned and organized day, adjust on a dime and race off in another direction.  If this happened to you, you were not alone.  I have seen workers in a complete tailspin trying to decide which fire to put out first.  

The agency expected you to be able to get outcomes, document all efforts and actions and to update the myriad of tracking demands sent daily to you.  After a short while, many, just like you, threw up their hands, plopped down at their desk, and tried to compose a resignation letter that didn’t portray the failure and resentment they felt in their heart.  

What did you do to keep going?  What could you have done?  And, if you are at that point right now,  how can we, in the child welfare leadership, help you to keep going?  

First, I ask you to examine your heart and remember what led you to this thankless career?  If you were misguided and led to believe it was an easy “state job”,  then someone lied to you.  You will give and give of yourself every day as a child protector , well being advocate and permanency investor.  There is no easy job in child welfare.  If that was your motivation, then I wish you many blessings on your future endeavors.  Go ahead and hand in that letter.

However, I firmly believe that the overwhelming majority of those who come to child welfare do so out of a desire to help others and make a positive difference.  If that is your motivation, then I encourage you to stay the course.  As difficult as the job may be, you are making a difference.  You could very well be the one person in a family’s life that can motivate them, supporting them towards better choices in safety and well being.  Know your immeasurable value to these families. They may never thank you.  But know your value. 

And there are some assertive things you can do to improve your job experience.  Talk to your supervisor about your struggles to keep up.  Ask for help prioritizing during those multiple fire events.  Don’t be afraid to ask your experienced peers for their secrets for lasting so long.  You could learn some valuable self care tips.  And most importantly, make a promise to yourself to keep going for the next month.  And then, for the next one…and then…

For all of us who are supervisors or higher in child welfare leadership, we need to step up.    It is so important that we recognize when someone on our team is new.  We have to be aware that they cannot keep up the pace expected of our experienced workers.  As we take ownership of the strengths and needs of our team, we need to pay attention to the stragglers.  And while assessment of skill is important, we must not label them weak and utter those words ” they’re not going to make it.” Once we do that, we tend to only see their mistakes.  See the struggling workers as a challenge instead.  Remember how you struggled as a new worker and make a point to understand the difficulties experienced by this worker.  Take the time to help them grow.  Give them the motivation to keep going. This is how you make a difference.

Not everyone who attempted to climb the trails 30 years ago made it to the top.  Many did give up.  The secret to my success came from the understanding and patience of my companions and my own determination to reach the summit.

A beautiful lie

Foxglove is a beautiful flower that graces the most cultured gardens, shaming the more demure plants  with its  gorgeous trumpet shaped fuschia petals.

  Or is It?

Actually foxglove is an invasive weed whose entire structure is poisonous. Digitalis, the chemical found in foxglove can kill children, pets and even adults. Children are drawn to the brightly colored petals and seed pods. Adults sometimes mistake the foxglove for the comfy plant which can be brewed into a calming tea.   However, when ingested, foxglove is extremely toxic.  Ironically, the same  Digitalis  is also a proven treatment for heart problems, but only when prescribed.  An enticing, yet dangerous and sometimes life saving plant sounds pretty enigmatic.   But despite its usefullness, in the wild it is deadly.  The paradoxical foxglove illustrates the adage that a pleasant facade can be terribly deceiving:  a beautiful lie.

We are sometimes just like the foxglove.  We sometimes present such a carefully crafted facade as the portrait of our life that no one can guess the inside may be crumbling.  Years ago, I learned a painful, but invaluable lesson about how important it was to understand that things aren’t always as they first appear.

When I was a very young investigation supervisor, I had a women in my unit that I will call Janice.  Janice came to me right out of training.   She demonstrated such passion and excitement for each family assigned to her: following every lead and thoroughly assessing each allegations before arriving at the disposition. Getting to know her. I could see that  she  loved her job.  She laughed often, brought fresh baked cookies for the team and often worked late into the evening.  I admired her.  She seemed to have it all together.  So, I made one of the biggest mistakes a supervisor could make.  Because she seemed to handle pressure so well, I saw to it that she got the most complex high profile cases.  I would assure her that she was getting the case because  she was my best investigator.  She would always smile and say, “i’ll do my best!”  She was a natural! And I will admit it.  I fell for the beautiful lie.

Janice did not complain when her caseload became stacked with difficult cases. She seemed to thrive on the complexities.   She worked them with energy and gusto.  I did notice she started eating lunch in her office instead of with her peers.  I told myself that she was just too busy.   She stopped bringing the cookies as well. And, I noticed, while still extremely pleasant, she didn’t laugh as much. But she had the best clearance rate of any other staff, so I contributed it to her focus.

After only a year, Janice came to me and handed me her resignation.  I was stunned.  I watched as tears streamed down her face when she told me she couldn’t do it anymore. She  rarely slept at night thinking about the cases and had begun having panic attacks.  The stress was contributing to high blood pressure and she decided that she had to take care of herself. I talked to her about taking a week off, about moving her out of cans and slowing her case assignments.  She explained that she felt she had to leave for her physical and emotional health.  She had taken months to come to the decision and would not change her mind.  My solutions came too late.

When she left, I  berated myself for not seeing signs that she was in trouble.  Yet thinking back, I realized the signs were very subtle, easy to miss.  For the most part, she was holding up her facade beautifully.  I believed she was happy and fulfilled in her job. However, i also realized, in hindsight, that as her supervisor,  I bore some responsibility for creating the environment that stunted her fulfillment and ultimately the joy she had In her job.  

   In this experience, I learned two valuable lessons that I carry with me always. 

I learned, that as a leader, I  needed to check in with my staff more.   Even the high achievers should feel safe admitting when they were struggling, so that as a team we could offer support and assistance.  By putting Janice on a pedestal, I unknowingly gave her the impression that she had to achieve the high expectations alone.  She didn’t want to disappoint me by admitting that she was struggling.  In any team, there should be a universal understanding that we are all human and therefore struggle at times.  I should have reinforced with the team that to ask for help was a sign of strength not weakness.  I learned that by creating a safe environment among our group, there would be no need for an impenetrable  facade.

The second thing I learned was to examine my own facade.  Was I, too, creating a beautiful lie?  I recognized Jamie’s symptoms because I shared them.  Insomnia was a frequent yet unwelcome guest in my home.  I did not seek out support when I struggled, because I was expected to be a leader first and human being second.  Instead I continued to make impossible demands on myself.  I had to learn what I was trying to teach others.  Reach out to peers for support, create a safe group to express my struggles and learn to give myself permission to make mistakes.  By taking responsibility for my own need to connect, I was better equipped to check in on and offer support to my staff.

Over the years, especially when I felt the signs of exhaustion and burn out, I  thought of Janice.   Realizing that I contributed to her burn out still saddens me.   She never returned to work in my agency. But I hope that she found a way to harness that passion for helping others in a way that allowed her to heal herself as well.   I am grateful for the lesson.  I think it made me a better leader and a better person.  

All beautiful things are not what they seem.  When things look perfect, thats when you have to look deeper.  Don’t fall for the beautiful lie.

Together We Are Strong

Alone I am more vulnerable, I become weak and sometimes fall. But together we are strong.  
When I was an investigator for child abuse and neglect, the days I got home at 9pm were more numerous than the ones that allowed me to leave at 5pm.  It was a fact that I accepted.  It was part of the job.  Every day I dealt with the trauma of children and their parents.  But I also battled strict time frames, belligerent bosses (at times) and an unappreciative public opinion of child welfare work.  Yet I loved my job.  I felt proud of my career.  I went home every day exhausted, but accomplished; feeling like my work made a small difference in the world.

Conversely, when I was in management in a social work program, I still worked long hours, still had belligerent bosses (sometimes) and still felt unappreciated by the public.  However, I made a higher salary and was not performing direct service work. So you would think it would be better, if not easier.  Yet I went home every day exhausted.  I was mentally and emotionally spent,  feeling that nothing worthwhile had been accomplished.  After several months, I was ready to give up and quit.

What was the difference?  

My team.

As an investigator, I worked with peers who were proud of their expertise.  We were visionaries sharing the same arduous path, believing that we were a part of something good.  We appreciated that everyone’s job was difficult and without being asked, workers just knew when a team member struggled.  Instead of judging that worker,  we took the time to help.  Help came in the way of phoning agencies for collateral interviews, meeting a parent in the lobby that came unannounced or even taking a child to a placement. Sometimes the help was simply a word of unsolicited encouragement.  Each word or gesture forged a building block in the construction of the fortress that kept us strong.  There were several de facto leaders in that program, line workers like us, that kept up the expectation that together we were stronger.

As the manager, In another agency I became part of a collapsed team.  Events from past years had caused division and there were de facto leaders who would not let anyone forget.  Every manager was out for himself.  Each manager, fully capable and competent had created their own fortresses to keep others out. The trust issues memorialized regularly by some, created an expectation of betrayal.  Even if you struggled, you dare not ask for help, fearing judgement and ridicule.  Every sentence uttered by one manager was sure to be taken as a direct insult by another. It was a lonely existence that drained energy rather than sustained it.  The normal high stress job became compounded by the artificial tensions and was, at times unbearable.  

Which team is yours?  Do your peers encourage and help You? Do they remind you of your strengths when you feel weak?  Or do they slowly erode your strength until you feel you are crumbling?

If you are lucky enough to be on the first team, be thankful.  Then ask yourself, what are you doing to shore it up?  Even a fortress needs regular maintenance.  Keep a watchful eye on your peers and be ready to step in with support if you see one faltering. 

If your team resembles the second example, don’t despair.  I know how difficult it is when the tide is flowing in one negative direction.  But the tide can turn.  Again, ask yourself what your role is on this team.  Then ask yourself what your role could be.  De facto leaders are not elected.   They take it upon themselves to influence others.  You can be a de facto leader on your team.  It really is not complicated, but it does require courage to swim against the tide.  

Start with one team member. 

 You.  

Offer support and follow through with your peers when you see them struggling.  Be nonjudgemental and sincere.  Be consistent and keep it up.  Even if no one gives you support in return.  It may take a while, but you will see your faithfulness and determination pay off.  Eventually, another team member will follow.  Then another.  And the team will begin to heal and develop positive strength. Again, it will take time and you may get discouraged when results are not readily apparent.  But trust that you are making a difference, don’t quit.

In my situation as management, it actually took over a year for the entire team to work in harmony.  And two members actually left.  But it happened.  The old team was weak and vulnerable to every little setback that came our way.  The team that emerged was stronger and more resilient  for working together. 

What are you doing for your team?

The Vulnerability of Engagement

Are you experiencing dissatisfaction with your families’ stagnation or relapse?  It is so easy to get frustrated and overwhelmed when you are doing everything You know to do to help someone achieve their goals but are seeing little success.  You have been working with Ms. Jones for six months.  She is pleasant and cooperative with you at every visit.  However, she is not progressing at all in the goals mutually set by the service planning team.  You are beginning to wonder what is going on.  She agrees with you about her need for these services, but has excuses each time she misses an appointment or doesn’t follow through with an action step.  As the pattern continues, you  start to feel ambivalence towards Ms. Jones.  You might have even verbalized to your supervisor your doubts that she even wants the change.  

I know because I have been there many times.  I had to start looking inward.  Was I missing something? What responsibility was I taking in the break down of the relationship?  So I would pose the question to you.  Have you stopped to wonder if Ms. Jones feels truly engaged with you?

 Engagement is a word used a lot by social work experts.  Everyone agrees that it is a critical tool, if you will, in the social worker’s tool box.  Engagement is the master key that unlocks the door to building rapport, establishing trust and creating the collaborative relationship that must exist for families to progress towards lasting change.  But what is Engagement?  Can it be taught?  Why does it seem to be missing in so many of our worker/client interactions?

Some people confuse engagement with empathy.  Empathy is your internal pathway to connection: trying to see through their eyes:  mentally walking a mile in their shoes to gain a better understanding of their situation.   Engagement is the external manifestation of that empathy demonstrated through your words, tone and actions.  Empathy drives engagement and helps to forge external connections.
So the question, “can engagement be taught” should really be “Can empathy be taught?”  I have heard varying opinions.  Some present that you are either empathetic or you are not.  However, many social work experts report that empathy is a choice.  Therefore workers can be taught to make the choice of empathy over pity, blame, judgement or even sympathy.  Social service agencies do a good job teaching staff about the importance of engagement and forging connections, but often leave out the most basic ingredient for learning engagement, which is teaching social workers how to make the choice of empathy and how to utilize empathy to create engagement.

I have never met a social worker who was not committed to their families and willing to do what ever it takes to help them become successful.  Choosing to utilize empathy is a powerful skill, but I must warn you.  There comes a price with choosing empathy: Vulnerability.  The very choice of empathizing with someone means reaching into your own soul to find those moments in your  life where you felt overwhelmed, grief, pain or anger over a situation or event.  Remembering those moments and those feelings helps you to better understand what your client is feeling and to begin to make that engagement connection.  This vulnerability can be uncomfortable for social workers. Also many of us have been taught that being vulnerable means being weak.   Therefore, they choose (consciously or unconsciously) to skip the engagement and go straight for the helping (“fixing” )the surface issues.  

When I think of vulnerability, I dont think of weakness.  Sometimes it takes a very strong person to allow themselves to be vulnerable.  I think of vulnerability as being open and exposed to the real truth instead of closed off for self protection.

  Think about a healthy relationship that you have: that friend who is most dear to your heart.  I have a friend I will call Jill.  We have been friends for a very long time and she knows me well.  She has no problem calling me out when she knows I am acting out of character.  It is because of the connection and trust we have that I can hear her and accept her feedback.  That connection began to deepen only as we became more open and vulnerable and allowing each other into those parts of our thoughts, feelings, beliefs that we hide from the outside world.  And it took time.  Engagement is not an instantaneous outcome but one that is ongoing and progressive with consistency of words and actions.

 Vulnerability goes both ways, you see.  While you are attempting to engage and empathize with your client, they are also feeling vulnerable and exposed by their very interaction with you.  If they do not feel safe, if they do not feel trust, you will not be able to truly know The truth of their life.  You will only see The truth they allow you to see.  This brings us back to Ms. Jones.   I challenge you to examine if the reason there is no progress with her is because she does not feel engaged.  The choice is theirs to open up or remained closed.  That choice is often based on your skills in engagement.

Engagement is an ongoing outcome of empathy, honesty, sincerity and genuiness.  I encourage you to take each new client at face value and meet them where they are.  Exercise empathy.  Allow yourself the vulnerability of tapping into those feelings.  The connection that you start to build could be the spark that lights the fuse for understanding, motivation and change.

Visionary

Be a VISIONARY!

When I was a little girl, I was the middle child: the only girl between two boys.  Thus my life of competition began.  Early  career visions for myself included cowboy and super hero, not princess or damsel in distress.  Much to the chagrin of my older brother, Greg, I was pretty tough “for a girl.”.  Once, when we were in elementary school, a bully picked on him at the bus stop.  I watched as my brother tried to ignore the other boy and thought Greg must be scared.  So I stepped in and laid into the bully knocking him down.  I turned to face my big brother expecting heaps of praise, but instead got his anger!  I couldn’t believe he didn’t appreciate me for saving him.  What I didn’t know then was that he didn’t want his little sister coming to his rescue.  By inserting my vision of being a super hero into his situation, I ultimately made it worse for him.

When you made the career choice to become a Social worker you wanted to help others and You do every day.  You see your clients struggling with circumstances and issues that are out of balance. And the issues are pretty obvious most of the time.  Drug abuse, domestic violence, mental health issues, neglect and sexual abuse are some that you face on a regular basis.   It would be so easy for you to enter the helping  relationship by handing each family your own prescription for “healing the problem.”  After all, haven’t you seen these stories played out multiple times in your career?  If the family would just listen to you, things would get better.  Right?  Here’s a not so secret fact:  10% of the families you work with will be able to rise out of their circumstance no matter what you do.  10% will not rise out of their circumstance no matter what you do.  That leaves 80% of your families that need a collaborative partnership with you to take the steps necessary for ameliorating their current circumstance.  If you take a moment and let that sink in,  it is staggering to think of the number of people’s lives that can be influenced by forming and maintaining a partnership based on the family’s vision.

Not your vision, but theirs.  

The surface issues that brought this family to your attention might be the tip of the iceberg with the “real issues”  floating just beneath the surface.  Your desire to fix the blaring issues will probably succeed in the short term.  But the underlying issues will continue to manifest until they are brought to light and addressed.  In the example of my brother, I assumed he was scared because he did not react the way that I would have if a bully tried to pick on me.  However, the truth was slightly different.  Greg was more introverted than I was, and as it turned out, a deep thinker.  He did not lack courage, but he did choose to avoid conflict.  He had chosen to ignore the bully until he could find “his” solution to address the situation.  By intervening, I had taken away his ability to avoid the conflict.

Look at a case example.  Mary had a baby boy, born with a serious life threatening kidney disease.  Although his prognosis was extremely poor in the beginning, he was making slow improvements.  Our agency got a call from the hospital concerned that Mary never came to the hospital to visit her son or to learn the skills necessary to care for him upon his release.  The doctor did not feel the child would be safe being released to his mother, as she had demonstrated no attachment to him and He thought the newborn should go into foster care.  To address the doctor’s concerns, the social worker spent time with the mother, to assess the situation.  Mary initially stated that she could not come to the hospital because she had two other small children who needed her and she could not afford to put them into day care for the time necessary to attend the classes.  However, as the worker took time with Mary , actively listened to her and dove deeper, the mother opened up.  Her own mother had the same disease as her newborn and had died as a result.  Mary was very close to her mother and when the disease became terminal, Mary spiralled into a period of debilitating and overwhelming sadness that took her over a year to return to what she described as normal functioning.  Mary recounted that time as the worst in her life.  When she was told her son had the same disease, she was sure he would also die and was afraid to go through that experience again.  Mary had no vision for her son because she had no hope.  By bringing Mary and the doctor together so she could learn about her son’s more hopeful prognosis, the worker was able to offer Mary the hope she needed to create a vision for her family that included her son.  Mary took the classes and soon afterward, with supportive services,  was able to bring her baby home.  

This case example might seem simplistic compared to some of the more complex issues some of your clients face.  But a child did not enter foster care and was able to be with his mother because a Social Worker took the time to dive beneath the surface.  

So, how do you find out a family’s vision?  Three steps:  listen, listen, listen…and don’t be afraid to ask.  Some people, like Mary, have struggled so long with the issues that they feel hopeless.  They think they have no future.  Ask them to close their eyes and picture their life if the issue, habit or circumstance was gone or waning.  Help them to envision a future for them and their family.  It takes time and engagement, but once the client can see hope in the future; they can develop a “vision” for themselves and their family.   ONLY THEN, can you work together to carve the services, interventions or steps needed to get them there. 

When I say BE A VISIONARY!  I don’t mean assert your visions on others.  While it might create a short term solution, like knocking down A bully, the problem can always come back. 

 A true VISIONARY can help another to find their vision and guide them towards a lasting change.