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61 FEBRUARY 2004
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in a nutshell

Child Care Workers and the stage of development of their group home: An organizational secret

Henry Maier and Hy Resnick

If you are a child care worker do you eagerly go to work every day, anticipating seeing your co workers in a planning meeting to work out the day’s activities and coordinate your work with each of the kids in your unit? Or do you dread getting up in the morning knowing that you have to face a confusing and useless planning session at best, or a contentious battle in the meeting between some staff and administration at worst.

If you are working in a new group home just starting up you will probably answer yes to my first question. However if you are working in an organization that is not new, has been around for a while (and has many departments) you will probably answer yes to my second question.

One perspective which might help you understand the dynamics of these two different staff experiences is related to the “age” (read stage of development) of your care service. Many social scientists who have studied organizations over time have discovered that organizations go through stages of development that are both predictable and probably inevitable (Miller, 1989; Michels, 1962; Gross, Edward and Etzioni, Amatai, 1985). Read on to review a three-stage model of organizational development that might fit your care service experience and explain some things that have occurred in the agency.

Three stage model of Organizational Development

Stage one
In the care field an organization often begins when a charismatic leader somehow pulls a staff and funds together with a vision of a place where an under-served or poorly served population can receive a special kind of help. The site where the work begins is often in an old building or store and is easily accessible by the client population. The building is swept, desks, chairs, telephones, computers are brought in. Staff are welcoming and usually available, even at night and on weekends. Rules are few and top management is actually accessible.

This mode of operating works for a time; referrals do come in, funding is possible, staff join the team and work enthusiastically. The place is exciting to work in.

However this informal climate, around the clock availability of staff and relatively unclear policies and procedures begin to work hardship on the staff and the clients. Soon the staff requests more organizational help from the administration. “We gotta get organized" blurbs start appearing on the desks and a plea for leadership to provide more operational and day-to-day direction and support gets louder and louder. Unfortunately, the help is not forthcoming and soon the lack of organization in the start-up agency becomes overwhelming.

Negotiations for change between the staff who want change and those amongst staff and administration who wish things to remain as they are can be friendly or contentious. In either case, unless the outcome of the discussion leads to the hiring of an administratively oriented and skilled leadership who can bring order to the agency without destroying its vitality, the agency will not survive. But if the discussions go well the agency can move to the next stage of development and continue to serve all parties involved, but now in a new, more orderly and system-oriented manner. The early leadership which played such a decisive role in making the agency happen are either forced out or take themselves out, thereby allowing the second stage of development to begin.

Stage two
In this stage routines in the group home are now established and policies are consistently enforced and followed through. Not only are checks sent out in time but policies become more explicit and reasonable. Kids can no longer manipulate staff because the policies and interventions are increasingly clear and consistent. The staff now has the right and reason to go home at the end of a normal workday and attend to their own lives. Clients comment on how clean the building looks lately, and how staff seem to feel more relaxed. The agency now is becoming a respected member of the community. Funding is less precarious, students are referred for training and workers vie to obtain jobs there. It is less exciting to work there but it is also less stressful and more professional.

Stage three
The third stage is often called the stagnation stage because many of the administrative innovations which were put in place to help the agency move out of the chaos of Stage One are now too rigidly adhered to. Conflicts occur more often as departments compete for resources, communication is increasingly less personal and service is more often guided by the manual rather than by humane and professional considerations. Goal displacement is occurring as staff members become increasingly concerned with their pensions and working conditions and begin to allocate less energy to service.

What does this way of looking at an agency mean for child care workers? Here are some ideas:

  1. This “stage of development” perspective can help you better understand your own changing moods and the changing moods of your colleagues.

  2. When the kids in your unit begin to act out without any apparent reason for doing so, you can react to them with greater understanding and patience. You know that the organization is moving on to a new stage and it–ll soon reach a new equilibrium and balance.

  3. If your supervisor or executive suddenly act differently than they did two or three months before, you no longer have to only diagnose that behavior as being related to problems with the board or problems at home. You now have access to another way of looking at unexpected behaviors i.e. stages of development of the organization.

Because you now know that organizations change in certain directions, you can select work activities that can help the agency move on to the next stage with less pain and confusion.

Gross, Edward and Etzioni, Amatai. Organizations In Society Prentice Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey 1985 pps.16-19

Michels, Robert. Political Parties. New York: Free Press – 1962

Miller, L.M. Barbarians to Bureaucrats: Corporate Life Cycle Strategies. Clarkson N. Potter Inc. New York 1989

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