Engage: Defining leadership and culture in a complex social care environment

If you search for the word ‘leadership’, Google will predictably throw up a plethora of articles, how tos, and motivational quotes about how to inspire your workforce. While the vast content is valuable – whether it’s about translating a vision into reality, or knowing the way, going the way and showing the way – when it comes to defining leadership and culture in a social care environment there is a strong argument for a more bespoke approach.

Why? The underlying principles of any strategy (leadership, operational, or otherwise) are the vulnerable and cared-for individuals who sit at the centre of any setting. From that unwavering foundation, you can begin to define what leadership and culture mean – and, more importantly, what they mean in a social care context.

What does leadership mean?

Scholars argue that the very essence of leadership is to shape and change culture. Organisational culture is defined as a set of shared meanings, understanding and values. Therefore, if a leader exerts authoritarian power and control, then they are not demonstrating ‘good’ leadership.

Interestingly, experts also believe that organisational culture shapes leaders possibly more than leaders shape the culture. High influence people (HIPs) do of course influence culture, but if they are ‘socialised’ into an existing work culture then that moulds them into certain ways of working. What this does demonstrate is that leadership and culture very much go hand in hand, and should be considered as such when developing an effective social care setting.

Is there a leadership style that most suits social care?

Social care needs to be influenced by inclusive, emotionally intelligent leaders – a commonly held truism in our industry. This means effective social care is dependent upon very high standards of production, commercial skills and an ability to challenge, combined with an emphasis on inclusion and empowerment.

Using emotional intelligence in management interactions should be a key principle in social care leadership. What’s more, an individual trained well in social care or social work will have an advantage in early management, as they are trained in using emotional intelligence and therefore have this as a transferable skill from practice.

Experts believe that emotional intelligence has four dimensions: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. Critically, they argue that none of these are the same as ‘niceness’. This echoes commonly held misconceptions that social care/social work is wishy washy and ineffectual. Practitioners in the industry manage high risk and exceptionally difficult situations on a daily basis and need to be able to make complex and difficult decisions. This combination of risk management, balanced decision-making and emotionally intelligent execution, can arguably lead to an effective management culture if harnessed properly. Essentially, you must equip the leader with empathy, conflict resolution skills and the ability to manage themselves under pressure.

Learning from past failings

In-depth research, which largely stemmed from the Jimmy Saville child abuse scandal, offers an interesting insight into the vital role leadership and culture play in social care.

Throughout many organisations, the absence of a safeguarding culture and the ability to challenge those in charge, allowed difficult and confrontational behaviour to erode standards of conduct. The conclusions reached by various studies, and the BBC review led by Dame Janet Smith in 2016, demonstrate clearly the need for a safe culture in social care and other environments where vulnerable people are served.

This approach conflicts with the ‘great leader’ culture – as seen during Steve Jobs’ reign at Apple – where it may be argued that their own quirks and oddities of behaviour are tolerated for the sake of financial success. Social care environments need the shared meanings, understanding and values, but also to be based around the legal and ethical principles of safeguarding law and best practice, and an ability to be challenging and reflexive. Leadership styles that are not ethical and reflective of a safeguarding culture arguably do not work in a social care context.

In social care it can be argued that the relationship between leaders and employees is created based on shared norms and meanings. This is informed by numerous factors such as safeguarding rules, laws and research. This value-based approach makes sense to those that are led, as this meets their cultural and moral expectations. As long as leaders continue to exhibit behaviours that reinforce that cultural and ethical expectation, then employees will give up a degree of power to leaders. All of this is then institutionalised into organisational culture and reinforced by regulation and law. This culture, in turn, shapes the leader as much as the leader shapes it.

Culture and performance

Studies show that highly motivated and happy people at work cause companies to perform well, although one may not lead to the other. In fact, it may be that employees are just happier working in successful organisations, as there is little research to show how happy people are who work in failing companies.

However, there are numerous examples of poor culture affecting work performance. Earlier this year, the Guardian newspaper reported that London Pride had such a poor culture of listening to its black and other minority communities that a steering group resigned en masse. It’s a fair assumption to make that Pride (an LBGTQ plus organisation giving a voice and advocacy to that community) would have an effective culture in listening to vulnerable and marginalised people. It clearly does not always follow. Just because you are a social care organisation by trade does not mean that you will automatically earn the right to have an appropriate culture that matches your reason for being. You need to understand the community and environment in which you are in and put measures in place to ensure that a positive safeguarding and performance culture is created and perpetuated.

Research of 500 Standard and Poor’s rated companies showed that almost all had statements on the website about their corporate culture. However, this did not necessarily equate to robust actions in ensuring that those values were lived by in the organisations. Put simply, it is easy to profess values, but far less easy to demonstrate them day to day.

Achieving the non-negotiable

If an organisation has a good culture, then this becomes an internalised social norm and this becomes a value of that setting. This value cannot then be traded off against any other goals, it becomes non-negotiable. This is what a safeguarding culture needs to be.

A good culture is based upon emotional intelligence of managers and that is crucial for good safeguarding work. However, we work in a highly complex arena, making the task of analysing, creating and perpetuating a good culture even more difficult.

What is clear is that the legislation, boundaries and good practice guidance that we adopt as a gold operating standard can, if respected by all, create what is called ‘integrity capital’. This is crucial for a social care organisation to thrive. Social care is a value-laden business, much more so than a commercially-driven environment. We must find ways of measuring integrity capital and help leaders to understand how powerful this measure is. In order for this value capital to grow, and certainly to prevent its erosion, leaders must be seen to be living the values of the organisation in their integrity-laden dealings. This is important not just for employees, but the individuals that we care for and support – the unwavering foundation of any social care setting.

About the Author

Rob Finney (pictured) is chief operating officer at Tristone Healthcare. He has 25 years’ social work experience, including managing unregulated 16 plus provision, managing children’s homes and fostering services and managing commissioning / children’s placements for local authorities.