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Change Process in Social Work

The world is in a constant state of change and seemingly lacks organization and no one or no organization can escape the effects of operating in a continually dynamic, evolving landscape. So huge are these forces of change that the future success, and the very survival, of thousands of organizations depends on how well they respond to change. In fact, the organization should be able to stay ahead in a changing and increasingly competitive world. Some of the major changing forces in the world are globalization, relentless technological advances, unprecedented competition, political upheaval, and the opening of new markets (Cornelius III, 2007). Changes within a social work environment could include integration of departments, or organizations, establishing different cultures or implementing technological changes. Whenever an organization attempts to introduce change, it is likely to face resistance from its members. This resistance acts as a hurdle to progress when the change is aimed at progress or performance enhancement in social work settings.

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McNabb and Sepic point out that the adaptability of any organization to implement change effectively depends on its culture, climate, policies and performance outcomes. Moreover, inertia that is manifested as resistance to change in the operating philosophy of an organization can limit the adoption of change (McNabb and Sepic, 1995). This is very much reflected in the social work setting which has become, with increasing immigration, more multicultural. The cultural background and values of social work play an important role in the way the client’s problem is defined and approached and this poses a conflict when the client is from a different culture that defines and approaches problems differently. The theories that guide social work practice are also culture bound. For example, it has been noted that much of the theory that guides “psychotherapeutic endeavors is an imaginative creation of white, middle-class males to be employed with white, middle-class females” (Wright et al, 1983, p. 7). Such theories may not be applicable to most refugees and immigrants. Similarly many commonly used assessment instruments developed for the white middle class respondent may not be suitable for other culturally different groups. Hence it is important for social workers to be culturally competent and have the knowledge about the cultural biases in the assessment instruments and diagnostic systems and use them with caution (Potocky-Tripodi, 2002, 148). On an individual level, the factors that affect the type of response to change are “age, sex, education, marital status, experience, time in the same job and occupation” (Bolognese, 2002). Similarly job factors and organizational factors also influence the way in which an individual or organization reacts to change. Generally, there are many types of social work settings such as child welfare, community mental health, criminal justice, medical social work, emergency social services, school social work, etc. Changes happen in different social work settings in different ways. There may be “changes in central Government Ministry responsible for the services, frequent appointments of new Secretaries of State and Ministers, new legislation, changes in central Government inspection systems, regular updates in guidance, wholesale changes among civil servants, new local authority departments, new systems of funding, complete new hierarchies of senior managers, restructuring at lower levels, new consultation systems and partnerships, closures of some private agencies and growth in others, etc.” (Lane and Durkin, 2008, p. 1).

Experience in the past has shown that these changes negatively affect social workers and divert them from clients. This is because of their resistance to change due to various factors.

Resistance to change

It has been found that people accept change more readily – if they find the information provided to them acceptable; if they are able to understand the benefits of the change; if they perceive it as safe; if they feel there is a need for the change; if there is a plan to implement the change in phases. Resistance to change has long been recognized as a barrier to organizational change attempts. More recently the concept that “people resist change” is being refuted. For example, Kotter (1995) asserts that individual resistance is actually quite rare. Instead, he suggests that obstacles to change more often reside in the organization’s structure or in its performance appraisal or compensation system, which are not yet aligned with the desired new behavior. This observation shifts our attention from individuals to the greater organizational system within which the change is occurring. Dent and Goldberg (1999) note that people do not necessarily resist change, but instead resist the loss of status, pay, or comfort associated with the change. These distinct factors, as well as a consideration of methods for circumventing them, are lost under the umbrella of “resistance to change.” Thus, the recent research finding is that resistance to change is a dynamic system force and not an individual predisposition.

Managing resistance to change

There are five keys to effective change management: good communication, clarity regarding the benefits, clear leadership, participative decision-making and open-mindedness (USDT and FTA, 2007). Bridges (1991) believes that it isn’t the actual change that individuals resist, but rather the transition that must be made to accommodate the change.

“Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation. Change is external, transition is internal. Unless transition occurs, change will not work” (Bridges, 1991, p. 3).

This transition is made easy when there is clarity regarding the change, when people feel included in the change process, when the change does not look to change existing patterns of working relationships; when there is good communication; when people are convinced about the benefits of change and believe that the change will not lead to job-cuts. In the context of healthcare settings, the working environment may sometimes be made difficult because of lack of adequate education and training and dramatic changes to the working environment. An example may be seen in a recent news article on changes in social work in the UK. Generally, in the UK, social workers look after a dedicated client list, working to suit their needs. But after April 6, it has been proposed that social workers in health settings will work “three-week rotations at a set time which includes a week of morning, a week of afternoon and a week of evening shifts” (Bell, 2009, p. 1). The change means clients would be served by three social carers a day and social workers will face the challenge of caring for people with whom they have no personal knowledge of. Another problem faced by social workers in healthcare settings is when social work departments are replaced by program management models and social work supervision is often non-existent, there is increasing autonomy among social workers. Social workers are unable to cope with this change as they are not sufficiently trained to be autonomous. Autonomy that is not managed in a competent and confident fashion can lead to a sense of professional isolation or a loss of social work identity (Lymbery & Millward 2001). Levin and Herbert (2001) point out that one of the dangers of autonomous practice in community settings is that social workers who do not bring a strong, broad skill set into the practice setting with them may not have the opportunity to develop these skills in a setting where they may be supervised by another profession. Thus there is a need to provide social workers with the skills need for them to accept the changes without much resistance. In the realm of mental health services, due to the expansion of community mental health services under public auspices and the establishment of third party payments to service organizations for health services under health insurance plans, there is a steady expansion in the role of social workers in mental health services. “Particularly significant has been the change from long-term care for persons with chronic mental illness conditions in institutional settings in which nurses held the largest number of professional positions, to community-based care with social workers as the largest group of professionals” (Austin, 2002, p. 239). This change has put more pressure on the social workers, requiring them to be better educated and trained.

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Overcoming Resistance to Change

Social work has undergone a lot of changes in recent times. Mark Hughes and Michael Wearing (2007, p. 77) note that “The emergence of the post-industrial labor market and the rise of neo-liberal and managerial orthodoxy in human service organizations have challenged the identity and coherence of social work as a professional occupation”. However, the authors note that there are benefits from some forms of organizational change that help social workers to gain a closer fit between their personal goals and values and the realities of their daily social work practice. To reduce the resistance to change, they suggest that social workers must actively engage in change strategies initiated within organizations in order to promote social work values and wider social change.

Resistance to change may not mean that people object to the change, just to the way the change was introduced. Change is inevitable but the sense of upheaval can be kept to a minimum by considering three factors: timing, information, and influence (Rosenberg, 1993). Understanding the importance of these three factors reduces employees’ resistance to change significantly and lets them know that the organization has a genuine concern for their welfare. First, people need enough time to think for themselves, time to get mentally prepared for a new situation. The resistance may not be to the change but rather to the speed with which management actually wants that change implemented. Second, when a new system or procedure is put in place, employees fight to retain the old system simply because they are apt to make mistakes on the unfamiliar one. Employees need as much information as possible about the change to get comfortable with it. Third, people want to have as much control over their jobs as they do over their personal lives. Strategies for overcoming resistance to change include educating employees about why change is necessary, participation, making it clear that there is top level support for change and facilitation (Rosenberg, 1993). John P. Kotter and Leonard A. Schlesinger (1979) have listed six approaches to minimize resistance to change: education and communication, participation and involvement, facilitation and support, negotiation and agreement, manipulation and coercion (Knowles and Linn, 2004). The education of social workers in different settings should involve imparting specialized knowledge and skills for that particular setting.

Globalization has brought about many changes in the field of social work. Globalization “creates and accentuates inequality and injustice that particularly affect the population and issues that social work deals with” (Payne and Askeland, 2008, p. 154). These inequalities and injustices may be international or national in nature – may exist between Western and Southern countries, between urban and rural areas or between rich and poor communities. This affects the field of social work as social work involves fighting inequality and injustice in various settings. The changes may be felt directly in the form of post colonialism – dominance of Western powers over local cultures through ideas, communication media and technology; cultural domination of Western powers through control of language; dominance of Western power through exploitation by Western dominated international organizations and companies and the advent of new public management and managerialism, marked by unbridled pursuit of market forces. To counter these challenges posed by the changes in the environment, social workers need to have awareness through understanding and analysis of the injustices and inequalities of globalization, understand the political connection between globalization and social work practice, incorporate social development as an aspect of practice to counter economic inequalities and be sufficiently trained and educated in a way that reflects flexibility and openness to different cultural and social needs (Payne and Askeland, 2008).

Recent advances in technology have also ushered in difficult changes in social work settings. The use of computerized information systems implies “the blurring of traditional boundaries between the ‘public’ and ‘private” – the key space in which social work operated” (Parton, 2006, p. 12). Social work now operates less on the terrain of the ‘social’ and more on the terrain of the ‘informational’ (Parton, 2006, p. 1). Such changes affect the relationship between theory and practice in social work and the nature of ‘social’ work itself. Hence it is only natural that these changes create a resistance to change. Social workers need to be assured of the benefits of technology before they are exposed to it.

Globerman and Bogo (2002) argue that in health settings where social work departments are being replaced by program management models and where the social worker is given increasing autonomy, the social workers tend to look to universities “to provide them with the practice and educational needs” (CASW, 2003, p. 10). To cope with the rapidly changing environment, social work graduates will be required to have basic, or generalist skills, as community developers, researchers, advocates, service brokers, educators, policy analysts and group facilitators (CASW, 2003, p. 7). In addition to this, social workers will require on going access to educational opportunities to allow them to meet the needs of clients with special needs.

Moreover, it has been pointed out that there is a greater need to establish a variety of formal and informal linkages between universities, individual practitioners and primary health care settings to cope with the changing social work environment. (Greene & Kulper, 1990). Collaboration is widely viewed as one of the most important change that will take place in the social work setting in health care (CASW, 2003). It will be through collaboration that social workers will “pass on the information and analysis that will make the connections between physical health and social circumstances’ ‘ (CASW, 2003, p. 10). However, effective collaboration is impeded by many barriers such as “lack of time; scarce resources; levels of commitment to organization and profession; professional isolation differing professional values, and competition for status and turf, etc” (Mizrahi & Abramson, J. 2000, p. 1). To be more adept at collaborative work, social workers need training in different forms of collaboration (Mizrahi & Abamson, J. 2000).

Finally, it must be said that the most effective solution to the problem of countering resistance to change in social work settings is leadership. By being effective leaders, social workers will be visionaries and change agents.

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