How do you ensure vulnerable young people know you’re on their side? Be professional – and be human
11 Sep 2019
A workforce that can make a difference to children must draw on sincerely held values and a belief in transformation, writes Angela Morgan, responding to Call 20 of our 25 Calls campaign.
Call 20: Deliver a workforce that works for children: confident, skilled and values-driven
I had two experiences recently which have lingered in my mind and sparked this perspective on Call 20 of the 25 Calls campaign.
Two encounters with the health service: one in which I was dealt with efficiently and coldly and from which I emerged feeling angry, frustrated and powerless. The second (which had the same medical outcome) in which the professionals I met treated me as an equal, sympathised with my position and were kind, human and humorous.
Later that day I went to a dramatic performance of Red Dust Road, Jackie Kay’s wonderful story of her search for her birth parents and families and the brilliant people who adopted her, Helen and John Kay.
Talking about the experience of being assessed by an adoption agency in the 1950s (including hiding all their copies of the Daily Worker under the sofa cushions), Helen says “… and then we got a lady who we really felt was on our side…”
If I have one quibble with Call 20 it is the order of the words in the call. Explicit – but more importantly implicit – values are the starting point for organisations and for every individual in that organisation. Public-facing (including first point of contact staff like receptionists who are powerful representatives of culture and gatekeepers) as well as those behind the scenes.
Values don’t just inform but determine and drive mindset and practice. A values-driven approach demands self-reflection and self-awareness; the “how to be” in a professional role as well as the “what I can do”.
"If you are reading this and curling your lip sceptically then it shows how much we have to do."
Trust and human connection, a sense of being seen, heard and not judged are what we all seek in our vulnerable moments, as I was recently reminded. How much more so for vulnerable children and young people whose trust has been betrayed by adults in their families – and in our systems?
Use of self in role cannot be “taught” and it cannot be “trained”. It requires opportunities to reflect not just on “delivery” but on our own feelings and experience and on how these inform all our connections and relationships with others. In the same way that trust is essential for young people to grow, so it is for the workforce in their relationships with their managers and leaders and so on and so on: up, down and across hierarchies.
It means everyone living, breathing and role-modelling the stated values of their organisations. If you are reading this and curling your lip sceptically then it shows how much we have to do.
More than this though a truly values-driven organisation re-prioritises hierarchical reporting and accountability (transparency and accountability are essential; professional arrogance is dysfunctional) to focus on congruence with values as well as compliance with processes. I have no argument with the need for processes either, providing they support rather than undermine mission and purpose.
A values-driven organisation supporting and enabling a values-driven workforce also fully supports the practice of leadership “at all levels” in terms of the scope for taking personal initiative and action. Crucially, it also requires an open, challenging and critical culture for the purpose of learning and improvement; with acceptance of responsibility and ownership of errors, but not fuelled by blame.
What does this feel like in practice? As a frontline practitioner it means feeling safe to express doubt and vulnerability without being seen as failing. It means welcoming high expectations and challenge which empowers you to do your best work with and for children and young people and the people around them who are important in their lives.
It means feeling confident to take initiative and action with and on behalf of children and young people that might challenge other (more powerful professionals) and know you will be supported by your organisation. Even if on reflection you might not approach a similar future scenario in the same way.
It means feeling liked, valued, respected and cared for. It means believing and trusting that the people above you in the hierarchy are genuinely motivated by a commitment to children and young people. Even when you don’t agree with them.
It means you feel proud of the work you, your colleagues and your organisation do – but it does not mean certainty and it does not permit professional arrogance. It requires openness to challenge and discomfort – from children, young people and the people important to them in their lives – and to the continuous potential of changing your view and your practice in the best service of the people you are working with and alongside.
Overall it means being human and being professional.
Most fundamentally, in terms of purpose, it means that vulnerable children and young people will feel valued and cared for and will trust you enough to let them into their hearts and minds. Then through that connection and together in that relationship you will have the combined strength and energy for hope, growth and transformation.
Or as Helen Kay said, “…and then we got a lady who we really felt was on our side...”
Angela Morgan stepped down from full-time employment as Chief Executive of youth support charity Includem in 2018.
Since then she has maintained involvement in a range of activity focused on improving lives, as Chair of the Scottish Community Development Centre, Trustee of Vox Liminis, Scholarships Programme Committee Member of the Robertson Trust, member of Scottish Advisory Committee of the British Council in Scotland and member of the Workforce Journey Group of the Independent Care Review. She also coaches (emerging) leaders.
She is responding here to Call 20 of our 25 Calls campaign, by Liz Green and Simon Massey: Deliver a workforce that works for children: confident, skilled and values-driven.