Many child care agencies struggle with the problem of interdepartmental distrust, poor communication and lots of “bad mouthing” of each other. One would expect that after many years of working for the same organization that the members of these different departments would understand and appreciate each others' contribution to the agency. But it doesn’t always work that way.
Child care staff with ongoing daily 24-7 contact with the kids/clients are often at odds with the caseworkers or psychiatrists who see clients once or twice a week. Special education teachers tangle with the maintenance staff who don’t understand why the play activity rooms are so sloppy and cluttered at the end of the day which makes them have to work so much harder to clean up. And of course the tension and distrust between child care staff and the financial department (disparagingly known as the “bean counters “) is well known. Child care staff may not fully accept the financial department’s need for accuracy, statistical reports and timelines while the staff in the financial department, in turn, do not fully appreciate the emotional strain of the day by day reality of working with troubled, demanding and acting out kids.
These inter-departmental tensions are probably inevitable. One reason might be that child and youth care staff, who work closely together for many years, bond with each other and tend to see themselves as central to the agency’s mission – but see members of other departments in the agency as peripheral to the agency mission. Other reasons, of course, are the jealousies caused by differentials in salary, the work conditions, and top management bias which may also play a role in creating and/or intensifying these negative perceptions and competitive relationships.
What to do?
Some suggestions guided by General System approaches to understand social systems.*
1. Establish working parties composed of members who come from different departments to work on a new project. (Note: It is most important that the new project be one which will benefit each department and not be one which will cause competition between the members of the working parties and exacerbate the problem.)
2. Reconfigure the physical facility so that members of different department see, interact and communicate with each other more frequently. Of course the very planning group for this activity can be an integrated one, i.e. representatives of staff and management from all departments.
3. Encourage special non-work related events such as baseball or volley ball games, birthday or holiday celebrations and the like. Require the planning of these events be done by staff members from different departments in the agency.
4. Have a similar integrated long-range planning group meet to design and help implement a more cooperating and less competitive climate in the agency. Hopefully this will reduce interdepartmental distrust and ultimately improve the quality of service.
5. Hire a facilitator who would conduct what might be called an “Appreciation Workshop” for the agency. Such a workshop does not focus on problems to be solved as many workshops do, but rather on how staff and management would like the agency to look like in the near and far future. (These week-long programs are sometimes called “Futuring” workshops and can help different departments work together).
6. Work with a consultant familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) This paper-and-pencil inventory is a non-threatening, non judgmental inventory based on Carl Jung’s theories of Types. It focuses on about how a person usually prefers to act in a given situation and categorizes people into one (or more) of 16 types. Each type contributes distinctive value to an organization and no type is better or worse than any other.
Have the consultants administer the inventory to the staff at a workshop, the purpose of which would be to use the learnings from the MBTI to improve members” understanding and appreciation of the different personality types that exist in the agency “and the distinctive contributions that these different types make to the agency.
7. Caution top and middle management to look carefully at their own prejudices and perceptions with regard to their staff. If management for example, feels that the agency’s survival depends on the finance department and much less on the quality work of the on-line staff, this will be felt not only by the child and youth care workers but by staff of other departments as well – and will reinforce the problems being experienced between the various agency units.
Leaders do cast a long shadow
Some of these suggestions can be expensive and time-consuming but some are not and can readily be implemented. To do nothing when these inter-department problems become hurtful to the agency is to tolerate poor communication, wasteful time spent in grousing over the limitations of the “other” department, and ultimately poor service.
* Five social science principles underpin the above suggestions :
1. Interaction over time usually leads to friendly sentiments. Friendly sentiments lead to strong group bonding. Strong group bonding is often accompanied by an over-evaluation of the worth of one’s own group and an under-evaluation of the worth of other groups.
2. Infrequent interaction and communication among members of social units in an organization can lead to a negative and inaccurate perception of the views and behaviors of the views and behaviors of the members of other social units in the organization.
3. Physical closeness facilitates interaction frequency.
4. Groups which are heterogenous are more likely to come up with better decisions than homogenous groups in many (but not in all) situations.
5. Distrust is stable but trust is unstable.