CYC-Online 10 NOVEMBER 1999 / BACK
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Organisation and leadership

Lies Gualtherie van Weezel and Kees Waaldijk

The second of three articles from the Netherlands reminding us that the care and reflection which goes into good child care work must also be the foundation of good teamwork and organisational management in the child care field (See Part 1 and Part 3)

Decisions don't fall from heaven
A lot can be said about meetings such as the way of chairing, preparing, collecting information, decision-making and reporting “both before and afterwards. Given the scope of these articles, we won't go into details beyond a few remarks about the decision-making process.

The more people we want to participate in the decision-making process, the more complicated the process will be. Participation implies being informed; it implies having the opportunity to give one's view and to take part in the discussion about the pro's and con's, to hear different opinions and understand other people's interests, and to weigh up the short-term and long-term consequences.

Such a complex process of decision making becomes a mess without clear and strictly respected rules. Especially, the different roles and competences should be clear. Knowing the limits in time, in money and in practical possibilities is a great help in being realistic and avoiding disappointments afterwards.

Delegation or participation
Many decisions within an institution are made by delegation “"You decide on this." Such delegation makes the decision-making process harder to follow; it is not always clear how personal opinions and interests have been considered and valued.

Clarifying the way we make decisions will improve the involvement of those following at a distance, and make them more willing to give information and to accept the outcome. Honesty about realistic limitations will also have positive effects. The way people feel after decisions have been made can be seen as an indicator of the atmosphere in an organisation.

Atmosphere has to do with the way professionals work together with colleagues, with the other disciplines, and with specialists outside the institution. This is part of the culture of an institution. What do we tell others and how much do we tell? Too much information reduces the privacy of the residents; sharing too little weakens the professional exchange. Good communication is an important instrument in the process of co-operation. Apart from the official, formal communication in reports and meetings, there will be a lot of informal communication. Both have their own value.

It is a misconception that all communication should be organised formally; but it is another misconception that good personal relations make formal communication superfluous. Informal, spontaneous communication alone can make us too dependent on the likes and dislikes of our own “in" group.

In working together, a team is more than the sum of its parts
One characteristic of the work of the life space worker is the close co-operation of the team in which we all rely on each other. In all professions we work together, but working in teams and shifts as life space workers do, needs special attention.

The life space worker, together with a few colleagues, takes care of a group of youngsters or adults. This relationship between team colleagues can be characterised from one side as 'having one face', and on the other side as a group of different individuals in contact with the residents.
Such ambiguity can be felt from the client's or the worker's perspective “and also from the perspective of colleagues who are outside the immediate team. When we speak about 'having one face' we do not expect to find differences between members of the team. But in reality we seldom meet a group as such; we encounter individual persons with their own behaviour, thoughts, likes and dislikes, each reacting differently to situations.

We can enjoy this individuality, and say “That's what makes human contact interesting and worthwhile." Others may feel that differences between the team-members should be minimised us much as possible” personal thoughts and reactions should be subject to the team. “Maybe we can discuss our differences internally," they say, “but from outside differences should not be noticed." They go further: “We need strict guidance through rules and restrictions. Any change or exception must be discussed within the team. Deviant reactions should be suppressed by consultation and correction." This attitude denies the uniqueness of persons and situations. The opportunity for dialogue is absent when we meet not individual persons but general group opinions. A personal openness on one side, met by obedience to the team opinion on the other side, is a contradiction.

How do we deal with this fundamental problem? We need to understand its nature. We do believe that in order to be of help residents they should meet persons and not robots representing the institution. But on the other hand, meeting persons who react individually and without being in connection with shared goals can make residents vulnerable to and dependent on the personal tastes and style of the worker.

Strength in diversity
When we work within an institution we cannot deny the institution goal, nor the fact that we have to reckon with the colleagues. But even though we may be aware of the consequences of our individual action upon the work of colleagues, and even though we accept the team's decisions, this does not mean that we cannot act in a personal way. On the contrary, by making our personal skills, perspectives, styles and opinions part of the team culture, we will be contributing to a more varied team approach. Being different persons “and stimulated to express this difference “a team will be more open and more aware of all the variations in the reactions and needs of the residents.

The challenge is to make the different reactions of its various members part of the team's approach.

Joint risk and responsibility
In practice it is not as easy as it may sound. The team will still be seen as a group from outside; residents and their families, as well as other staff groupings, will still address the team of life space workers as a whole. They will criticise mistakes made by one as though made by all; just as they will praise the good interventions made by one team member as though it was the work of the whole team.

As long as we agree and are praised there will be no problem. But how do we react when we disagree within the group or when mistakes are made? Being responsible for your own actions and at the same time accepting responsibility for the actions of the other team members, is very complicated and demands a lot of each worker. We can only succeed in this when we feel accepted and respected for our way of working by the others in the group; it is a case of trusting the intentions and skills of the others as well as being trusted in this way in return.

A condition for this level of trust is to know yourself and the others, to feel free to express your feelings and ideas, and to know that you are accepted for your positive contribution as well as for your shortcomings and failures. Without room for exploring thoughts, changing minds, learning from mistakes and honest feedback, there can be no team of individual persons “that is to say, a team in which different approaches are appreciated, and everybody will feel free to react in his own way toward residents and others, knowing that the others trust you, understanding the situation you are confronted with, and appreciate your personal action.

Afterwards all members of the group can give their opinion as part of the group reflection to consider the consequences of the action.

A team in which individual actions, diverse opinions and personal reactions are appreciated “and even stimulated “asks for a totally different kind of leadership than does a team of people who are expected to behave alike. This brings us to the subject of authority, of leading and being led.

No leadership without listening
From what has been said so far it will be clear that we believe that leading an organisation in such a way that personal interactions and individual possibilities are stimulated is more relevant than leadership towards uniformity.

Leading a group with a special task and creating a good atmosphere for the residents will include: sharing the work; giving guidance; helping new colleagues to find their way; giving instruction; stimulating reflection; personal support; clarifying what is going on; and facilitating co-operation.

Choices often have to be made. When you need someone on duty for 24 hours this can imply a dilemma when you know how tired a person is and that he may have problems at home. Giving one staff member time for studies means that others have to work more.

Within the task of leadership many other such fields of tension and balance can be distinguished” such as what should be done by the leader himself and what delegated? About delegating tasks there will be less discussion than about the delegation of responsibilities and decisions. Those activities are less clear to define. Stimulating personal involvement is not possible without also entrusting a staff member with his or her own way of executing the task. To work independently with the residents requires the staff member to respond personally to them, make decisions, to be in dialogue with them. Whether the person in charge likes it or not, this means allowing independence of action and this has consequences for leadership.

Most of the time we are focused on the one who is the leader, but paying attention to being led is important as well.

A life space worker can be seen as someone 'in between', as a link in the organisation between the clients and the leader of the team. The team leader is a link between the life space worker and the director. All have their own responsibilities in guiding and being guided. Both sides need attention. Being in action, you have to distinguish between what you can decide for yourself and what needs to be referred to the one 'above' you “for reasons of support, for making connections with other events, for making higher decisions, or just to know what is going on. Understanding that you will be informed when necessary, is a condition for delegating.

As we mentioned in the paragraph about working together, we are held accountable for the good and the bad actions of our team members. This is even more true for the leader. Out of fear of the outside opinion the leader may take too much responsibility on him- or herself.

An atmosphere of distrust is a bad condition for professional action and for working together. The one who is led has to be sure that help and support are available when necessary. The leading person has to listen, knowing that what is told and asked is important. The leader has to be informed in time. Such mutual expectations are conditions for personal action on both sides.

Required leadership skills
The skills and attitudes required of a person leading a team or a whole organisation are the same; the only difference is the scale we have to deal with. Important capabilities are “

This series will be completed in next month's issue

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