by Adrienne McGhee, Ph.D.
We all know what it feels like to be disrespected. We may not remember exactly what happened that made us feel offended, but we often profoundly feel the smallness of being treated as if we don’t matter.
Respect is not an optional extra in social work. It is one of the foundational principles of practice, and it is promoted in professional codes of ethics in countries around the world (see, for example: Australian Association of Social Workers, 2010; British Association of Social Workers, 2012; National Association of Social Workers, 2008). Human service organizations often build the principle of respect into their values statements, customer service charters, and continuous improvement systems. And many social workers work hard at being respectful. They listen carefully to clients’ stories of disadvantage, show sensitivity to their individual vulnerabilities, and do their best to bring about positive changes in their lives. In short, social work is based upon a strong ethical regard for the dignity of our fellow human beings.
Many of us think about respect in terms of how we engage with clients, often wrestling with how to respond appropriately to people living with unique and/or complex disadvantage.
Honoring clients’ dignity is not the whole story, however, with social work codes of ethics also highlighting the importance of showing respect to colleagues, including those from diverse backgrounds and other disciplines.
I was reminded about this “other side” of respect during my Ph.D. research into the knowledge of disability support workers who provide in-home services to older people with an intellectual disability (McGhee, 2014). The disability support workers in this study were not professionals in the strictest sense of the word. They were not degree-qualified, and most were not members of professional associations. And despite having many years’ experience working with people with an intellectual disability, many had little experience working with older members of this group (people with an intellectual disability have only recently begun living into old age in large numbers), and lacked vital knowledge about how to support clients through the sometimes complex and frightening transitions into later life, such as coping with the deaths of friends and family, and developing life-limiting illness (such as cancer, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease). Workers’ lack of knowledge, along with a shortage of government and community-based services and resources, meant they were heavily reliant on other professionals to help them strengthen their evidence-based knowledge and assist them with supporting clients through some of the most challenging experiences of their lives. Social workers, in particular, played a critical role in linking disability support workers to new information and resources, as well as providing guidance on complex aspects of practice.
Whereas my research was mainly about practitioner knowledge, I also learned about a variety of environmental factors that shaped the nature and content of that knowledge. One of the themes that came through strongly was the role of respect in disability support workers’ relationships with other practitioners and professionals. I found that, when workers felt respected and valued by social workers and other specialists, they frequently sought out their advice and incorporated it into their practice. However, professionals who were disrespectful toward workers were usually perceived as arrogant and judgmental, and their advice was often criticized (and sometimes rejected). Mutual respect between professionals and practitioners was, I concluded, an important strategy for growing both strong collegial relationships and robust evidence-based practice.
My reflections in this area led me to the question: If respect is so important to the development of strong collegial relationships and practice knowledge, how can social workers become more skillful in this area of practice?
The following are five simple lessons I learned from disability support workers, social workers, and other credentialed specialists who participated in the research about how to strengthen respect in professional relationships.
1. Be polite.
Being polite is about honoring dignity. It is a practical way of showing awareness of the people around you and the effect your actions may have on them. Politeness is not about being formal. It’s about being considerate, and there are many behaviors that social workers can include in their interactions to show concern for other people’s needs and feelings. For instance, excuse yourself when your cell phone rings mid-conversation, and avoid cutting people off mid-sentence. Ask permission before accessing case notes held by other agencies (even when you have designated authority to do so) or before using resources from a colleague’s work space. If you need to take notes during a conversation, let those present know why you are taking notes and how they will be used. In short, respecting colleagues involves making it clear to them that safeguarding their feelings, well-being, and professional space are important to you.
2. Be conscious about your non-verbal communication.
Much of our communication is behavioral in nature, and the non-verbal cues we send can enhance or sabotage our efforts to build trust and get along well with fellow workers. For instance, when professionals showed interest in what workers were saying (using active listening skills such as nodding, maintaining eye contact, and asking relevant questions), workers felt listened to and valued. If, however, professionals used belittling gestures to show their disapproval of workers’ practice, such as rolling their eyes or sharing smirks with colleagues, the workers in my study reported feeling humiliated and, sometimes, enraged. These social workers were perceived as arrogant, judgmental, and unprofessional, and quickly lost the trust and cooperation of workers. Stay conscious of your non-verbal behavior, and keep your frustrations about others’ practice for a private debriefing with your supervisor or mentor.
3. Treat others’ knowledge and experience as valued contributions.
Following on from the previous point: many of us think we listen well to others, but are the people you talk with confident that you are really hearing them? Many of the disability support workers in my study believed that professionals were not interested in what they had to contribute, and did not really hear what they did say. Failure to consider their perspectives not only made the workers in my study feel insignificant; it often resulted in poorly designed case plans that didn’t achieve the desired objectives. By being genuinely consultative—that is, you are listening attentively to what others say, and are incorporating their perspectives into your planning—you are more likely to develop approaches that are supported by those who must enact them and that actually work in the real world.
4. Adapt communication to meet stakeholder needs.
William Butler Yeats once said, “Think like a wise person but communicate in the language of the people.” Using jargon, acronyms, and in-house phrases may convince people that you are an expert, but they often make clients, workers, and other stakeholders who don’t use or understand them feel excluded or, worse, ignorant. Professionals who speak the “languages” of expert and lay person fluently, and who know when and how to use them, are not only showing their awareness of others’ needs, but can play key roles in educating stakeholders and contributing to systems change. So in your communications with others, pay attention to the language they use and the issues that matter to them. You are not only showing respect when you do this—you are also learning about how to offer your knowledge in ways that are more likely to resonate with a broad range of stakeholders.
5. Contribute instead of criticizing.
Lack of resources is one of the major barriers to providing best possible services to clients. I found that social workers who understood the practical limitations of service provision, and who provided disability support workers with helpful information and links to additional resources, not only gained workers’ respect but were also seen as being respectful. For instance, one of the social workers I interviewed during the study talked about how impressed she was with the high level of care workers provided to a woman with a profound intellectual disability who was living with a life-limiting illness, and whose family wanted her to die at home. This social worker went to considerable lengths to identify resources for the team, and she talked with workers about how to practically use those resources. Several of the workers told me how they deeply appreciated her efforts and, because of the trust she inspired, they followed her advice diligently. By acknowledging and supporting the efforts of workers, this social worker contributed to effective evidence-based practice in what were very challenging circumstances.
Respect as Ethical Imperative and Skills for Success
The participants in my study showed me that respect is not only an ethical imperative for social work practice; it is also a skill-set that human service professionals can use to strengthen collaboration and grow evidence-based practice. Being aware of our impact on colleagues, valuing their contributions, supporting their efforts, and upholding their dignity can go a long way in creating the collective success that is so foundational to bringing about positive change in the lives of clients and in the systems that support them.
We learned about gratitude and humility—that so many people had a hand in our success, from the teachers who inspired us to the janitors who kept our school clean...and we were taught to value everyone’s contribution and treat everyone with respect.
Australian Association of Social Workers. (2010). Code of ethics. Canberra, ACT, Australia: Author. Retrieved from https://www.aasw.asn.au/document/item/1201
British Association of Social Workers. (2012). The code of ethics for social workers: Statement of principles. Birmingham, UK: Author. Retrieved from http://cdn.basw.co.uk/upload/basw_112315-7.pdf
McGhee, A. L. (2014). The knowledge of doing: Exploring the knowledge of support to older people with an intellectual disability (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from http://eprints.qut.edu.au/74855/
National Association of Social Workers. (2008). Code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from http://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/code.asp
Obama, M. (2012, September 4). Transcript: Michelle Obama’s convention speech. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2012/09/04/160578836/transcript-michelle-obamas-convention-speech
Adrienne McGhee, Ph.D., currently works as a service development professional in the human services sector in Brisbane, Queensland (Australia), and recently completed a Ph.D. in the area of practitioner knowledge in disability service provision.
This article was accepted for publication in The New Social Worker in September 2015.