Special Articles / J.M.Sampath / Social Work Profession in India: An Uncertain Future
Social work is the professional activity of helping individuals, groups, or communities enhance or restore their capacity for social functioning and creating societal conditions favourable to this goal. Social work practice consists of the professional application of social work values, principles, and techniques to one or more of the following ends: helping people obtain tangible services; counselling and psychotherapy with individuals, families, and groups; helping communities or groups provide or improve processes (adopted by National Association of Social Workers). Service, social justice, dignity, integrity, and interpersonal relationships form the underlying values of social work orientations. Social work promotes social change and problem-solving and enables the wellbeing of people through empowerment and liberation. Social workers are required to serve as change agents and play a key role in influencing individuals, families, and the society they serve. Hence, the impact of any social initiative largely depends on the people driving and implementing it. The practice of social work requires knowledge of human development and behaviour; of social, economic, and cultural institutions; and of the interactions of all these factors. In this context, people’s maturity assumes great significance in driving social work practice towards excellence.
Social work is concerned and involved with the interactions between people and the institutions of society that affect the ability of people to accomplish life tasks, realize aspirations and values, and alleviate distress. These interactions between people and social institutions occur within the context of the larger societal good. Therefore, three major purposes of social work may be identified as:
This article presents a framework - a set of dimensions - that can help individuals and institutions achieve excellence in the area of social work. These dimensions are to be developed in social workers as a maturity process to help them embrace the journey toward excellence, individually and collectively. This article provides a conceptual overview of the dimensions, their interconnectedness, and implementation tools.
The Evolutionary Excellence Model
The framework proposed for achieving excellence in the sphere of social work is an extension of the Evolutionary Excellence Model (Sampath, 1998b), which is based on the belief that all human beings innately move towards excellence in their journey of life. When individuals are seeking excellence in life, naturally every organization or institution tends to move towards excellence in its chosen sphere of activity. The model is represented in the form of a tetrahedron, with four cornerstones, six bridges, and four outcomes.
The four cornerstones –Excellence, Vision, Values, and Learning – represent the essential dimensions that form the path toward excellence. The six bridges – alignment, farsightedness, conviction, focus, innovation, and clarity – are those traits that every social worker needs to build in themselves. These are also the connectors of the four cornerstones. The four outcomes –leadership, quality, value addition, and evolution – are the measures of excellence.
While excellence is like the North Star, learning is the minimum requirement to get on to the journey towards excellence. Vision and values are the two enablers that move the self towards excellence. Vision provides a sense of direction to life – where to go? Values determine the choice or the path taken to move towards the vision. Learning makes the journey continuous by enabling clarity at every stage. The journey towards excellence is an ongoing evolutionary process and therefore excellence is not a destination to be reached. Excellence means optimization, appropriateness, balance, speed, efficiency, and effectiveness.
Excellence is another name for flawlessness. So the journey towards excellence entails constantly finding what needs to be set right, setting it right, and moving on. Social work and excellence are closely knit. The very purpose of social work and the relevance of a social worker are to enable the society to spot the inherent flaws, fix them, and move towards excellence. If social workers do not pursue this journey, the society would slowly stagnate in mediocrity. So the quest for excellence brings forth an individual or organization with a strong vision, clarity of thought and deed, and a willingness to learn, change, and evolve.
Any social initiative or social worker should have a clear vision, a sense of direction. Setting a vision helps channelize the efforts and enables the social worker to remain focused on the journey. While social workers may begin with addressing a problem or issue in the community, the larger holistic picture has to be clearly defined. There is the danger of settling for resolving smaller issues which may or may not be connected to each other if the vision is absent or unclear. The vision, when institutionalized, has to be shared by all the team members and integrated in such a way that every decision taken in the organization is aligned with it. During conflicts and difficult situations, the vision provides the required direction for them to move forward. Vision also cuts the distractions that could arise in the functioning of the individuals and/or organizations. Social workers usually work under the pressure of resource constraints and stringent timelines, with high expectations of making the required impact. They are also likely to be high on emotions, wanting to find solutions to all the problems that surface. The clarity of vision at these times provides the path forward to make quick decisions and appropriate choices. Vision is like the anchor, the light house that guides the direction of the movement.
While the vision is usually for a life term, there may be several missions to achieve the vision; the missions that fall out of the vision are for a certain stretched period of time consisting of several goals. Goals are short-term objectives, have specified timelines, and require well-formulated plans. These plans are guided by the values which provide the choice of strategies for execution and achievement of the goals. The goals have to be aligned with the vision. When the social worker is clear about the vision and the mission, it is easy to formulate the appropriate goals and plans and charter the movement in the right direction.
The vision could evolve over a period of time, but the direction should remain the same. There may be several wings or branches that may develop but the main trunk should continue to grow in the same direction.
Implications of not having a clear vision :
The rightness of the Vision is guided by the values. Sampath (1999) defines values as the “beliefs I hold within myself that governs my behavior in any given situation. Some of these beliefs are known while others are not known. Yet they govern the behaviour”. Going by this meaning, social workers need to have a very good understanding of their beliefs to be on the path of serving and enabling the society. And this understanding needs to be brought forth by well laid out processes.
Values are the most spoken about yet most hazy in the social work context. They have been limited to certain moral and code of conduct dimensions and have not gone deep. Social work, in its various forms, addresses varied, complex transactions between people and their environments. Its mission is to enable all people to develop their full potential, enrich their lives, and prevent dysfunction. Social work is an interrelated system of values, theory, and practice. In reality, the values held by individuals in any social organization form the sum total of the organizational values. While organizational values may be formulated, the lived values are more powerful than the articulated. Social organizations are more vulnerable to value conflicts. When the individual values are not in line with the organizational values, there are deeper human conflicts that affect both organizational and individual peace. When the two are aligned, an individual experiences a higher level of satisfaction and belongingness.
In a social organization, the impact of values and behaviour directly reaches the recipients. Any difference in the beliefs leads to value conflicts that impact the decisions taken by the members working at grass-root level. Most organizations work on driving the organizational values in every meeting but the clarification process of aligning the individual values is seldom addressed. When social workers take up an initiative, their beliefs contribute to the vision they embark on. They have to understand the beliefs that govern each member of the organization and give them the space and time to articulate those beliefs and align them with the organizational functioning. Until the social workers do not feel the inner peace and satisfaction in what they are doing, their ability to undertake the arduous journey, make a difference to others, and heal the society remains a far cry. Any amount of infrastructural issues, technical problems, political stress, and pressures can be handled when there is clarity on the path and an assurance that all are together on the path and agree to the process.
To align individual and organizational values, a continual clarification process is essential. The clarification process should ideally involve the ability to ‘Connect, Correlate, and Create’ (Sampath, 2010). It should help each individual recognize and realize the gulf between their own cherished values and the values they live through. The clarification process should touch the very core of the individual to facilitate realization and deep change. If organizational values are enforced on individuals, the values are only followed as a rule and never get internalized. In such circumstances, the commitment of the individual to the organizational values would be very low, affecting the performance of the organization. The ability to correlate to the context and create spaces will be affected.
In today’s ever changing world, learning is the bare minimum expectation from anyone who seeks excellence. Social organizations and social workers have to be on the learning path if they have to remain sustainable. One of the biggest challenges of the social organizations and social workers is of becoming irrelevant and out-dated. Many social organizations are sustained by projects and when the projects close, the organizations cease to exist. If the social workers are not learners, they will not be able to realign themselves, constantly map their competencies to the needs of the society, and continue to contribute.
The word Learning again is most used but not equally understood and integrated. It is defined as “The willingness to be open to the input that comes from the environment, with a commitment to apply one’s mind to understand this input and passion to stay with the understanding long enough to be able to derive one’s own insights. This followed with conviction to integrate one’s own understanding and insights into real life contexts, makes learning a meaningful process” (Sampath, 2010). When social workers are learners, they tend to be driven by wisdom and not by sheer knowledge when they address issues. Learning initiatives should therefore enable understanding, insights, and wisdom to prevail in an organization. Most of the time, due to resource and time constraints, social organizations and social workers sacrifice learning initiatives. Many of them, especially in India, focus on action than on documentation and journalizing. Hence a lot of learning remains “trapped” within individuals and is not accessible to others. To journey towards excellence, learning and change have to be a way of life. Speed and sustainability are the natural outcomes of learning and development.
These four cornerstones are connected by six bridges - alignment, farsightedness, conviction, focus, innovation, and clarity - that form the processes to be followed on an ongoing basis and provide the required acceleration to move towards excellence.
Farsightedness connects vision to excellence. To be on the path of excellence, the vision has to be farsighted. A farsighted vision provides not just a holistic picture but also a direction for excellence to emerge. This is a very critical dimension for social workers. When they take up a social cause, there is always a danger of devising quick-fix solutions that may not be sustainable. The basic principle of social work is ‘to help people to help themselves’. Hence every issue or problem has to be understood at the cause level, and every proposed solution has to be farsighted. Farsightedness comes only with a holistic approach to any situation. All contextual elements have to be taken into account when understanding a problem or issue.
Focus connects vision to learning. When a learner pursues a vision, focus is what makes the pursuance consistent and continuous. The growth of any organization or individual is not possible without clear focus. When the social worker works in a society, the challenges are many. It is not an easy journey to penetrate a society and bring about a lasting impact or change. It needs focus. Further, when social workers experience success in bringing about change, they start believing that they can find solutions to every small problem. This can lead to a number of distractions by them getting involved in several issues the community may be facing. It is very critical for a social worker to learn to say ‘No’ as much as to say ‘Yes’. It is the ability to focus that will enable them to journey towards their vision. Similarly the energy, efforts, and resources available in an organization can be optimized and channelized when there is a clear focus for the organization.
Innovation connects learning to excellence. When learning is constant and is channelized toward achieving excellence, innovations would follow. The society is dynamic and social workers are dealing with human issues every day. This demands creativity and innovation in several spheres. Innovation is not possible without openness and willingness to learn. Innovation throws open new avenues and new perspectives. Innovation is essential to respond effectively to the needs of the society, enhance the reach of social initiatives, deal with constraints, and optimize resources.
When Excellence, Learning and Vision are bridged through farsightedness, focus, and innovation, ‘Value addition’ is the outcome. Individuals and organizations that succeed in doing this would naturally add value to every project that they take up and influence every community or group they work with. Excellence, values and learning are connected by conviction, clarity and innovation.
Conviction connects values and excellence. Conviction is the key to achieving excellence in demonstrating and upholding values. Conviction is the threshold or the yielding point of an individual. In the context of social work, conviction is one of the traits that is constantly put to test. When the conviction is low, the social worker becomes a pawn who is used by the other people in the society to achieve their own goals and missions. The collective conviction of an organization depends on the strength of individual convictions. While it is relatively easy to formulate organizational values, it is tough to ensure that everyone in the organization lives by those values. Given the myriad contexts and paradoxical challenges that a social worker has to deal with, it is the level of conviction that determines the extent to which the values are practised.
Clarity connects values and learning. In this context, learning is not about internalizing new values; it is about constantly gaining more clarity on the existing values. Clarity enables the social worker to make appropriate choices when they have a number of alternatives to choose from. Clarity enables quick and quality decision-making. When the social worker does not have clarity, their actions and decisions would not be aligned, causing confusion and delays. When clarity is low at an organizational level, it can lead to frustration and wastage of resources.
With excellence, values and learning as the cornerstones and conviction, clarity and innovation as the bridges, the outcome is ‘Quality’. Quality is a very important dimension for the social worker to be perceived as the most preferred partner by the community. While Vision and Values are independently important focus areas, a social worker will not be able to evolve unless they are aligned. Vision without values is a risky proposition, and values without vision lead nowhere. Vision with values results in evolution. Alignment is the bridge that connects vision and values.
Neither vision nor values can be sacrificed in the journey toward excellence. Alignment is a process that is continuous and ongoing. With every new challenge the social worker faces, either the vision or the values may take precedence over the other. Over a period of time, although the social worker and the organization are engaged in several activities, they are actually going in circles, stuck with either the vision perspective or value perspective. The real forward movement happens only when both the vision and the values are aligned. Alignment therefore is not an one-time effort. It has to be integrated into every small or big decision-making effort in the organization. Alignment ensures that the purpose is achieved by applying the best process.
With excellence, vision and values connected by farsightedness, conviction and alignment, ‘Evolution’ is a natural outcome. Not only do the individuals evolve but they also enable the evolution of others who associate with them. The Evolutionary Excellence Model has been applied successfully across several specific projects in the social and business enterprises over the last two decades.
Processes Recommended for Evolutionary Excellence
The critical process which enables the social entrepreneur and the social organization to evolve relates to identification of three gaps within themselves. The three gaps cause conflict and lack of synergy within as well as outside in interactions with others.
They are –
If leadership has to be built and empowerment of person or society should be enabled, these gaps have to be addressed, and ways to reduce the same in individual and organizations have to be designed. In order to work on these gaps, some processes are outlined below –
Working on Beliefs
Values form an important corner stone of the evolutionary excellence model. A value is an enduring belief that a specific mode of conduct or end state of existence is personally or socially preferable to an opposite or converse mode of conduct or end state of existence (Rokeach, 1973, p.5). Values refer to the cherished end state, and the awareness of actions that direct human endeavor to reach it (Yuktananda Swami, 1989, p.2). The studies of the author have shown that values are constructs that are not stable and that are constantly subject to change (Sampath, 1999). Values can be expected to change as the environment changes (Braithwaite and Blamey,1998, p.363).
If there has to be a change at the core level, it has to be about the ‘Beliefs’ that guide the behaviour through preferences. A value is a belief upon which a man acts by preference (Allport, 1961, p. 29). The following parable gives the essence of this discussion.
“According to an ancient Indian fable a mouse was in constant distress because of its fear of the cat. A magician took pity on it and turned it into a cat. But then it was scared of the dog. So the magician turned it into a panther whereupon it was full of fear of the hunter. At this point the magician gave up. He turned it into a mouse again saying, “Nothing I do for you is going to be of any help because you have the heart of a mouse” (Sampath, 1998a,p.67).
The popular understanding of belief is that it is the acceptance of facts, statements and sets of circumstances as truths. It is a firmly held conviction, strong enough to affect attitudes and values, because a belief represents, in one’s own view, a fundamental truth. ‘Believing is an ego activity which confers the status of psychic reality on to existing mental productions (Phantasies)’ (Britton, 1995, p.20).
With regard to belief formation, there has been more than a 300-year old controversy between Descartes (1641/1984; 1644/1984) and Spinoza (1677/1982) (Gerard, 1997). Descartes declares that believing is a two-step process:
On the basis of this comparison, we decide to accept or reject the proposition. Spinoza states that we believe a proposition till it is confronted by information that disconfirms it or reconfirms it. But, initially, believing what we comprehend is automatic (Gerard, 1997). If this is true, then , it makes it even more important that we take a second look at the conclusions before they become beliefs. Based on the Spinoza theory the author proposes through his research a linear model for formation of belief (Sampath, 1999).
The popular distinction of beliefs as good and bad is actually a myth. Beliefs are identified as being facilitative to a context, and therefore appropriate or restrictive to a context, and hence inappropriate. From this viewpoint it is important to identify restrictive beliefs and work with them to modify them into facilitative beliefs. When the beliefs change, automatically the behaviour also changes. Given below are some examples of belief modifications during a workshop titled “Embedding Leadership Excellence” enabling people to work on values clarification.
Identifying beliefs and working with them are an ongoing process of growing. Living with awareness of the conclusions that one makes will hasten the process of evolution. When put in a new context, identifying the already existing beliefs that are restricting and clarifying the same will also hasten the process of evolution.
Clarity of Vision and Values Leading to Alignment
Vision and Values are the corner stones in the Evolutionary Excellence Model. While vision answers the question of ‘where to go’, values answer the question ‘how to go’. Beyond these two questions, the most critical question is ‘why of the vision and the values’. Answering why will provide Clarity. When there is clarity, determining the action in the context becomes very easy.
The lack of clarity will definitely lead to a lot of value conflicts as one is unclear on why the organization or the individual wants to achieve what they have set out to achieve. Complete awareness and full knowledge of the dynamics of an action – consequences included – define clarity. Indecisiveness and wrong decisions are outcomes of lack of clarity. Lack of clarity on purpose, therefore, will lead to distractions and result in decision-making that is not in line with the long-term vision of the organization or the individual. Lack of clarity in values will lead to ambiguity and difficulty in institutionalizing the organizational values.
Further to where to go; how to go; and why of where and how, the fourth question ‘What one wants to do?’ will give an insight into the context. But one can be sensitive to a given context only when one has the clarity of the responses to the first three questions. Context is the framework within which one carries out an activity. A context-less activity is like a lost action, rudderless and meaningless. Context is a support to understanding a situation that facilitates closeness to comprehension and appreciation.
Vision, Values, Clarity and Context are powerfully interconnected and any imbalance will lead to undesirable consequences, be it in the organizational or personal sphere. When these four dimensions are mapped, four kinds of individuals and organizations emerge. Low vision and low values, low vision and high values, high vision and low values, and high vision and high values. Each of these four styles has distinctive characteristics.
The movement from any other category to the high vision-high values space will be lasting if the change arises out of realization, and not merely out of knowledge. The change has to happen at the ‘causal level’ than at the ‘effect level’. The alignment and balancing are an ongoing act again and not an onetime effort. Every time there is a decision to be made the social workers have to pay attention to the long term vision of the project, the beliefs that are facilitative and restrictive; clarify why they are associating the issue and the solutions that they envisage, and design their interventions in the context appropriately. If the same is thought out in long term, medium term and short term spheres, there will be internal alignment that will enable evolution to be a smooth process.
Ability to Become a Master of Circumstances
A social worker comes across challenging situations almost every other day in life. It is not easy to work on empowering people and society, pushing them to let go of all the known beliefs and move into unknown. Social work is a profession that touches multiple spheres – politics, governance, public, philanthropists, educationists, health workers, private institutions, corporate bodies, and so on. Naturally the influence of the surrounding conditions plays a lead role in testing the social worker’s stamina and tenacity to remain with conviction and achieve the vision that they have set out to achieve. They have two choices – to fall victim to circumstances or to win over the circumstances.
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him... the unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself... all progress depends on the unreasonable man” – George Bernard Shaw
The social work projects call for a high level of change sensitivity, flexibility, stakeholder involvement, and responsiveness, creating an environment where teams must be constantly on their toes to achieve the project goals. The teams will be successful only if the team is committed to achieving the results under all circumstances. The challenge for a social organization is to imbibe in the team the ability to overcome their thresholds and win over circumstances.
The social workers must not adapt to the conditions that surround them and become, what we call, a Victim of Circumstance (VC). They must, instead, adapt the surrounding conditions to achieve what they want to and become, what we call, a Master of Circumstance (MC).
It is an undisputable fact that people and circumstances are interconnected and that every dimension of life is marked by a surrounding condition. And it is the response to this surrounding condition that distinguishes an individual as a Victim or a Master. An MC symbolizes an unyielding character that leverages the circumstances to achieve the desired results. An MC is characterized by:
On the contrary, a VC would feel beaten up, confused, insecure, and unwilling to change – allowing the circumstance to overpower them. The VC has five “friends” that do nothing but substantiate and shield the VC’s ego:
These friends ensure that the VC remains in a state of self-pity and coerce the VC to disown the problem. A VC is externally focused and looks for reasons why others should change and what others should do to better the situation. An MC, being internally focused, takes control of the situation and analyzes what he/she can do to address the problem effectively.
It is not the circumstances that make an individual a victim or a master, but it is the individual’s attitude and orientation towards life. To be an MC in everyday situations requires the person to be a self-directed individual with a strong and clear vision.
It is generally assumed that the outcome of a given situation determines whether an individual has emerged as a victim or a master. Well, that’s not true. It is actually the process that an individual adopts to deal with the situation that decides whether the individual has emerged as an MC or a VC. The social worker has to ask the question whether “he/she has done everything possible to achieve the set goal”. If the answer is ‘yes’ then he/she is an MC and if it is ‘no’ he/she falls into being a VC. Moving towards being an MC in every situation through the day and making that a way of life hastens the process of evolution.
A significant learning in the last two decades has been the truth that values are inter-dependent. This has led to the emergence of the concept of “value profiling” which is based on the philosophy that “No single value by itself is valuable. Values are inter-dependent. One needs to understand this inter-dependence to understand one’s own behaviour”. For instance, Freedom as a value by itself means nothing. In freedom, one has to have some Aspiration. Having aspiration alone again means nothing much. Along with aspiration one has to have a sense of responsibility in the absence of which the freedom becomes invalid. Along with responsibility, the social worker must be willing to take initiative, find alternatives; and be involved going into details. With all this there needs to be a sense of planning and timing that will ensure that all actions are at the right time and right place. The inter- dynamics between the various values gives meaning to the value freedom. Identifying and balancing values become an integral part of the process of evolution of the social worker as well as the institution.
Ongoing Learning Through Reflection and Self Enquiry
Along with this the key process of evolution would be ability to reflect, learn and enquire into self as a way of life. Life is nothing but a string of stories with learning attached to it. Process of evolution entails that the individuals realize that every event in their life is a story by itself and they have the choice to draw their learning from each of those stories. To hasten evolution, it is important to move away from good and bad concepts of values which are judgmental and limiting to understanding values from facilitative and restrictive perspectives.
“The human heart seeks the truth in which alone it finds liberation and delight. Alas, the first reaction to truth is hostility and fear. But, caught in the trance of ‘Once upon a time’ the message gets across to listeners, because one can oppose the truth, but who can resist the story?” Vyasa, the author of the epic Mahabharatha, says, “If you listen carefully to a story you’ll never be the same again. It is because a story will worm its way into your heart and break down the barriers to reality” (Mellow, 1987, p.xxi). Life stories and reflection on the same form powerful mechanisms to open up the inner self and sharpen the inner voice. This again is an ongoing process.
Towards Self- Actualization Process Through Work
Social work is actually a process of self actualization obtained through a process of let go leading to an outcome of being one with the consciousness. This calls for high level of Integrity, Balance, Introspection and Sadhana. The sustaining process of this lies in being humble; accept oneself the issues and the world around; find and sustain peace within and outside, and finally live in the spirit of Love. This is also an ongoing process of instilling these within self.
For the social worker and the social organization, the choices are actually limited. Either they work and move towards excellence as a way of life or they do not put the required efforts and fall into the shadow of excellence.
The shadow is characterized by mediocrity, directionlessness, compromise on values and unwilling to learn leading to value loss, poor quality, followership, and finally dissolution. The processes that will dictate the life of a social worker and the organization are distraction, shortsightedness, ambiguity, being doubtful, conservative ways, and non-alignment between task and process. This has been the state of many people and institutions that started with great ideas but did not follow through the processes of evolution to move towards excellence. For any organization or individual, excellence is a journey, an ongoing process. The most important aspect is to stay committed to the journey without going astray. When individuals and organizations pursue excellence, they can make a difference to themselves and to those around them. All the processes towards evolution indicate an ongoing continuous nature and not an one time effort. It also indicates that unless every social worker at the micro level is willing to make these as a way of life excellent social organizations and excellent social work are a far cry.
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