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Spreading the Word
In an agency of more than 300 people, establishing networks of personal connections throughout the organization is a challenge. For YIN to get stronger as an agency and a community of practice, everybody had to get out of their cozy cubbyholes and do their best to get to know everybody else, whether via team meetings, over lunch, or just a brief chat at the end of the day. If we wanted to be a strengths-based and relationship-oriented agency, we needed to demonstrate that we took our philosophy seriously and personally. We decided that, to forge more “togetherness” around our emerging theme, all staff would participate in a training that came to be called “Strengths-Based 101.” Since I taught it, the name later became “Bob’s Brainwash 101.”
The training began with questions to help staff explore their personal thoughts and biases about clients, treatment, and clinical philosophy. “What are the core beliefs and ideas you have about children, youth, and families?” “Do you believe that change is possible even with the most ‘difficult’ and ‘challenging’ children, youth, and families?” “How do you believe that change occurs?”
Through body language and verbal responses, it was quickly obvious among staff, as it had been among EMT members, who was on board with a strengths-based approach, and who wasn’t. Some smiled at the tenor of the conversation and said they felt they were “working at the right place.” A few others folded their arms across their chests and said, “If you help them with one problem, five others pop up; what are we supposed to do about that?” or “Some people can’t change, no matter what you do.”
We followed up with more questions, such as: “Where does that idea come from?” “How does it help you to think about it that way?” and “What difference might it make if you were to revise your perspective?” These questions remained largely unanswered by those who disagreed, but their lack of participation in discussion, deep sighs, and slumped postures spoke volumes. One youth-care worker, however, was quite outspoken in her skepticism of the new agency philosophy and voiced an attitude shared by others. “It’s harmful to think these kids can change after coming from broken homes,” she said, to which an employee from a completely different program quickly replied, “Actually, I think it’s harmful to think that way. I believe the fact that the kids who come here are alive and resilient to the core—in our programs, they can show their strengths.” The response of the second employee prompted agreement from others—it was, in effect, an antibiotic against the staff infection, administered by the group itself in the form of collective self-monitoring. If any kind of sustained change in the culture of YIN was going to take place, it was going to have to be through staff’s taking responsibility for themselves, their programs, and their attitudes.
The purpose of our questions wasn’t to search for the answers—we wanted to get people to connect emotionally with the questions and to think, which now seemed to be happening. We could then provide support and help them to figure out which path to take. We were also unabashedly trying to create a common culture among everybody in the agency. At the end of this process of what might be called “Bob’s Socratic Questioning 101,” we hoped that staff members would be better prepared to answer the fundamental question: Should I stay or should I go?
The training delved into specific strategies for finding out about client strengths, resiliencies, and coping skills. We explored how to better involve clients in services, collaborate in meetings inside and outside the agency, and have conversations with clients or each other that focused on how to help people move forward in their lives. We asked attendees how they might bring a more strengths-based philosophy into their settings. A home visitor providing child development activities in our Early Childhood Programs said she could begin her visits by asking clients not what had gone wrong over the week (which needed no prompting) but what had gone well. A person from human resources remarked that she could be more active pursuing new ways to improve outdated, time-consuming practices.
What made these trainings increasingly uplifting was the spirit of optimism and enthusiasm such lines of questions evoked: just hearing each other talk in positive terms about what was good about their work and what they could do to make it even better provided an infectious high. Because the impact of “Strengths-Based 101” was so positive, EMT decided to make it a requirement for all new employees—administration, clinical, human resources, maintenance, secretarial—everyone, no matter their role. Even members of the agency’s board of directors have been trained in 101. If you work at YIN, you will get the training.
Once the philosophy had been communicated to the collective YIN community, we wondered how it would work in practice. We soon got a fairly severe test of the new system.
During the mid-1990s, YIN had established an after-hours and weekend on-call system for the three residential programs and out-client counseling, comprising a therapist or case manager and a back-up supervisor, drawn from the staff on a weekly, rotating basis. In a given week, a designated on-call therapist could receive anywhere from 4 to 30 calls—any time of day or night. On-call workers also had the responsibility of doing on-site, face-to-face assessments, if needed, which meant traveling to the site, no matter how far away. Even more onerous, when a regularly scheduled staff person called in sick or had to cancel a shift, it was the responsibility of those who were on-call to either find a relief worker for that shift or to do it themselves—even if they’d already been up all night. It wasn’t uncommon to come in on Monday and find a therapist seeing clients who’d been the on-call person on the overnight shift or the weekend. Since YIN, like most other agencies, was dependent on fee-for-service billing, we simply couldn’t afford to send therapists home to bed and forgo billing. But something had to give—those on call were exhausted and their morale was declining.
The on-call system had been a point of debate for many months. A decision was finally made to move to a voluntary system: staff who volunteered would be paid extra to be on call. Unfortunately, few were enticed by this offer—the extra pay didn’t compensate for the stress. The system continued in crisis, with no solution in sight. We met again and regrouped. We focused on the escalating number of residential staff calling in and canceling their night and weekend shifts, which put clinical staff on the spot.