Office Politics In Social Work

Written by anon

Let me start this article with a story of a good friend who I worked with as a team manager a few years ago. Our line manager at the time was, to say the least, eccentric swinging between excessive friendliness to ‘The Terminator’ with little in between to suggest which way she would be day by day. This friend was well-liked in the organisation by social workers and senior managers. We were all confused when our line manager gave her a weeks’ notice on the premise that a permanent member of staff would be coming into post the following Monday. This was surprising as permanent staff usually have a minimum 6-week recruitment process before starting in the post so a little heads up would have gone a long way. Anyway, this manager took it well tidied up her team’s cases and left without a fuss. She then applied for our line manager’s job as a permanent employee and was successful. The look on said line manager’s face when she had to hand over to my friend was a triumph for all of us who battle with the personalities and politics that leave us baffled.

Office politics in social work. MECM has touched on this very slightly in earlier posts and I felt moved to offer my experiences about unique personalities I’ve encountered on my social work journey.

There are incredible professionals that I have come across in social work. People who are sincere in wanting to offer families a great service and who are incredibly considerate of their colleagues and dedicated to their profession and employer.

However social work like any profession can harbor fragile personalities within insecure organisations and I recall a few people I couldn’t imagine smiling at a child let alone advocating for them. Luckily these people are mostly confined to the upper echelons of management who deal more with politicians then families.

Most people think that if they work in a caring profession their colleagues will be kind-hearted folk with healthy moral values who generally treat their colleagues as they would be expected to treat service users… with respect. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

I’ve thought about what specific examples I can give of these personalities before offering advice in navigating them and avoid being the proverbial fly in the web. The best examples I can offer where office politics becomes frenzied are within pre and post Ofsted dynamics of social work offices.

Some local authorities can become obsessed with presenting an idea of the service and not recognising what’s already good and encouraging staff to do more if it. I have seen Assistant Directors and Service Managers sitting with teams who (in high turn around organisations) have no idea who they are and why they have taken a sudden interest in them and their ‘experiences’.
Rather than boost morale it creates awkwardness and for those less confident a sense of bewilderment that they are doing something wrong. Then there are those who seek career progression who will point out systemic flaws in the organisation and offer their examples of how they are the most dedicated amongst lazy colleagues. This rarely works out in their favor.

Post Ofsted I’ve seen team managers stripped of their autonomy with all their decisions scrutinised by three layers of senior management. This applies to the simple signing of a food voucher or agreeing a £50 payment for a family who needs to buy gas and electric whilst they wait for a universal credit payment. It is for the person giving the order as to the receiver soul-destroying.

When organisations are fragile and recovering from a poor Ofsted inspections politics manifest simply over a worker offering a different point of view on threshold or case direction. This can quickly see them ostracized or ‘managed out’ of a job. This is in extreme cases but sadly it is not uncommon.

I have learnt that you need a great deal of tact to make sure that colleagues and professionals feel that you respect them, appreciate their views and work and that they can trust you. Sounds simple but keep in mind the pressures within such an organisation with daily crisis management and the issue of burn out which can chip away at the most stellar team player.

Many of my colleagues have confessed to taking to ‘stay under the radar tactic’. This is to never disagree/challenge or try to shine. Just plod along and hope you don’t stand out too much. A friend relayed a story of being praised for her work at a service meeting by her manager and after this manager moved on she became the target of harassment and excessive scrutiny by another manager who felt that the praise should have gone to a worker in her team. Madness!

As a service manager, how do I recommend you navigate this Game of Thrones atmosphere?
Do take time to get to know your colleagues. By this, I mean to start a conversation and be genuine. when you ask about a person’s weekend or evening if you don’t care don’t ask because 90 per cent of communication is nonverbal and people can tell.
Making people and yourself more personable helps people treat you like a human and fosters good energy in the office dynamic.

Try not to automatically decline after work drinks where you can truly sus out who is who and potentially form real friendships and most importantly form allegiances. If you don’t socialise with work people outside of work, try inviting a colleague to lunch or get a group together for a lunch date.

Trust me the more friendships you have in work the easier it is to emerge into the culture of the organisation and avoid making any faux pas that may get you singled out for the wrong reason.

Occasionally offer to cover tasks that no one is fighting to pick up like duty cover or taking charge of the dreaded Christmas rota. People appreciate small gestures and you will be silently appreciated for going that extra mile for the service.

Many have fallen by never volunteering preferring to just focus on their cases. This in principle should not be a huge problem but ultimately these workers then meet a demise as a manager takes a dislike to their ‘unhelpful’ attitude and a performance plan is promptly drawn up based on something frivolous such as missing a report deadline. Never the real issue but in a profession of imperfections you can be easily got for anything but the reason you’ve truly been noticed.

As a manager, I especially value staff who are authentic. What I mean by this is that you are respectfully upfront about your views on case decisions and you’ll come to me and not gossip about how unhappy you are in the kitchen. With that said please avoid been the office gossip however much it makes the day a little more interesting in the long run you won’t be trusted among colleagues.

I’ll end with this lovely quote by Clifford Cohen

“In any career, there is a moment when you are no longer needed to be pushed up from below, but rather pulled up from above. Know when that moment comes and adjust your strategy accordingly.”
― Clifford Cohen

Have a lovely weekend all 😊

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