Monday, January 17, 2011

The Importance of Supportive Leadership- how we could be doing better

I came home from work extremely frustrated today.  As I thought back on my day, I realize that what was bothering me the most is that when an agency or a program have dysfunction within them (which is far too common in the nonprofit sector, and in group homes especially) at the end of the day it's the clients who suffer from our organizational dysfunction- and they don't deserve it.

To keep with the interest of self care, we have to consider what types of support caregivers are getting from their leadership. Here are some questions I want to consider in this context:

- If we are asking employees to take the time and effort outside of work to actively take care of themselves so they may be the most effective caregivers possible, then what level of responsibility does leadership within the field have to actively take care of their employees when they are at work? 

- What do direct care staff need (and deserve) from administration in order to minimize dysfunction and to create a work environment where people can manage their emotions and do meaningful work?  

- What do staff need from leadership to model the way for self care and connection? 

In my opinion, what staff need from administration is exactly what our kids/clients need from us- to be heard, validated, appreciated,and supported.So what does support from administration look like? Here are some of my thoughts:

 It looks like thank you cards and verbal appreciation when good work has been done. It's in the interest or the intent to find solutions to issues that are making the work environment unnecessarily stressful, or hostile for employees.  It means backing up decisions that your staff team make, its about debriefing after crises with the intent of learning and moving forward and not blaming.  It's about working towards a common goal of taking great care of our clients.

Caregivers need to be supported. Individuals who work with terminally ill patients, or emotionally distraught clients take an emotional hit from the work they do.  Often times decisions or responses result in life or death scenarios, and that pressure alone can be enough to take a serious emotional toll on people. If staff members don't feel supported, they become afraid to make decisions, uncertain in their own abilities to hold their own, and they begin blaming and pointing fingers so as to put the negative light on someone else. A shift happens when a team of employees feel unsupported. The dynamics shift away from a supportive culture (the type of work environment I think we would all love to work in) to a individualized, blaming, "throw-your-coworkers-under-the-bus" culture.   And in any care-taking scenario, this is no good for anyone. 

Caregivers need to feel heard. They need to have a sense of being seen and known. This means if a staff feels strongly enough to bring a concern to management, they should be taken seriously. Staff are looking for their feelings to be validated, just as much or sometimes more than our clients.  This doesn't mean that every complaint results in some type of disciplinary action, but it means that the person bringing forth the concerns is listened too, taken seriously, and that solutions are explored.

Caregivers need opportunities for training, guidance, and supportive supervision, so that they can have the most information possible about 1.) how to do their job to the best of their ability, and 2.) how to be the best caregiver possible while maintaining their own sanity and balance in their life.  Without guidance and close supervision (and difficult feedback where difficult feedback is necessary), staff and management cannot grow to gain the self awareness and tools necessary to manage this type of work successfully. And if we are not giving them the tools, then how can we expect them to do the best job they can?

Caregiving staff need fearless leaders.  We need administration to lead us through the difficult times, to hold the hope for the workers doing the hardest work on the ground.  We need them to stand behind us when we have to give bad news, or to stand with us as we navigate our way through emotionally intense situations. We need validation and understanding that this work is some of the most difficult, important work we could be doing on this earth.

And we mostly need leaders who do not accept mediocrity and dysfunction as "just the way it is in this field." We need you to hold the hope for us, to strive to get great people on board to take great care for our kids.  If administration has the "this is just how it is" outlook, then what it feels like they are saying to those of us who stick around is, "we don't value you as an individual," "you are replaceable to us," "we expect you to leave," "we expect to lose good people, because that's just the way it is."  If administration does not have the vision and the hope that we can realistically run great programs and take great care of our staff and kids, then we will never reach that place of excellence.  If they do have that vision, then they will see that what can get us there is having great people on board; that paying attention to your employees' needs and concerns is actually central in making your programs run well. We owe it to these kids to want to do better, to believe we can do better, and to work day in and day out to make sure that we don't settle for anything less.

Without supportive leadership it becomes far more difficult to hold the hope for our clients, to manage our own emotions, to find meaning in what we are doing, and to feel that we are appreciated for the difficult, important work we are doing every day. Abandonment and rejection are two of the most difficult issues that the group home kids deal with in their trauma histories, and yet with every staff that leaves due to feeling unappreciated, unsupported, or not heard, we reinforce that trauma, we sever another connection in their life. We become part of the problem, part of the system that continues to disappoint and let these kids down. I really cannot bring myself to believe that any of us are in this field because we want to contribute to the problem.

But here's the major problem: when you don't support your staff, when you accept mediocrity, when you expect good people to leave, you are setting these kids up for more loss, more devastation, and reinforcing what they already believe- that they are the bad difficult kids that no one wants to care for. This is what is so heartbreaking to me, and where my outrage is rooted. We could be doing better. And we have no excuse not to be.

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