By: Patty Hunter, MSW, LCSW, Chris Sims, MSW, LCSW, and Kimberley Davis, MSW
During the first week of placement, an MSW student finds herself face-to-face with an agitated agency staff member expressing strong feelings that he believes the intern is there to take his job. The employee is very confrontational and seems to hold irrational fears toward the student, refusing to teach the student anything involving the program where they work. As a first time intern with this agency, the student now finds herself dealing with a hostile staff member and unsure how to handle the conflict. Relying on her engagement skills and focusing on the issue the worker is presenting, the student attempts to tune in to the worker’s feelings. She listens to the worker’s concerns and attempts to reassure the worker that she is there to learn and that any attempt on her part to take the worker’s job would be unethical. The student leaves this confrontation feeling awkward, confused, and unsure of how to proceed. She wonders if other workers in the agency hold the same fears toward her. Are these uncommon feelings for social work students in the placement setting? Maybe not.
Conflict is a common occurrence in the workplace and can occur for a variety of reasons, including differences in personal values, professional values, gender, race, culture, or competition for scarce resources (De Dreu, 2007). Social service settings are not immune to these conflicts, which often relate to tasks, how the work is being done, or relationship issues (De Dreu, 2007). Given the demanding nature of social work and the stress that often accompanies various practice situations, social work organizations are often ripe for conflict. The scenario at the beginning of this article reflects a need to educate social work students on how to deal with conflict in the workplace.
The student in this scenario viewed the conflict as a platform from which her personal and professional growth would either flourish or wither according to the decisions she made in response to the angry employee. By choosing to build relationships with individuals who were open and willing to teach her and by respecting the disgruntled worker’s feelings, the student came to understand that the actions by the worker were not personal in nature. As a result, the student was able to remain empathetic toward the worker by acknowledging the fear behind the actions. With this, the experience became a catalyst for creating a solid foundation for building her career as a social worker.
The student in this scenario was left with two choices in relation to how she would incorporate the event into her professional and personal identity. First, she could conclude that she was wrong as evidenced simply by the manner in which a more seasoned worker had identified her. Second, she could use the incident to develop her skills as a social worker and better recognize her worth.
The learning process in this scenario was provoked by the student, instructor, and school working to develop a genuinely supportive relationship and the provision of open and honest feedback. Although the workplace might not have presented as a safe place initially, a safe place was created for the student to recognize her feelings, personal observations, experience, and to have these normalized and validated. The internship site itself was also active in supporting both the student and the school as they worked simultaneously with the disgruntled worker and the student to insure the worker’s reaction did not have a negative impact on the placement.
Through this process of mutual support and consultation, the student was able to practice being in an uncomfortable space without letting the opportunity for growth pass. In this way, an internship experience that might have been easily repudiated became an internship experience that was made significantly more meaningful.
Conflict can occur in any setting. Teaching students that “constructive conflict management fosters effective communication and clarifies appropriate boundaries” (Koch & Keefe, 1999) is a critical component of professional development in the field of social work. Helping students understand the various factors that can both contribute to and alleviate conflict in the workplace provides a context for students to develop a constructive approach to such experiences with colleagues. Additionally, helping them identify tools that they can use to clarify feelings and thoughts they may experience around the conflict will contribute to their professional and personal growth.
The opportunity for students to observe the negative impact that an angry co-worker can have on an organization’s culture and then reflect on their own professional and personal response to the conflict provides a unique window for students to examine the type of co-workers they will choose to be. Supporting students during this process may be the best approach to insuring that as practitioners they extend the professional practices of self-reflection and healthy communication beyond their work with clients and into their interactions with professionals. Both of these practices will contribute to a work environment that promotes respect and empowerment for social workers, as well as the clients they serve.
The process that field agencies use to facilitate the introduction of students to their agency staff and socialization to organizational goals, role expectations, and services is critical to the development of the learning environment. What information is agency staff provided about incoming social work students? Are the employees who are not directly involved in training students included in the preparation for students? Are agency staff clear what role, if any, they will have with students and what role the student will have in serving clients? A lack of communication around such issues can result in students having to deal with scenarios similar to the one described. Helping students view these conflicts from a systems perspective and reframing these conflicts as normal reactions to change presents an opportunity for students to grow and enhance their confidence in their ability to deal with conflict.
The parallel process of personal and professional growth is one of the true treasures of social work practice. This developmental course demands the application of practical approaches and strategies discussed in the classroom and the recognition of self in situation. No aspect of social work education presents these opportunities more clearly or consistently than internships in the field. Through the appropriate use of available supports, the student was provided the tools needed to create self-awareness, which allowed her to implement a proactive approach to dealing with the conflict. Whereas the hope might be that opportunities for such growth be limited to our work with clients, our profession necessitates that our work is not restricted to those we seek to assist. Instead, such prospects of self-development routinely extend into our professional relationships with other workers.
A social worker’s ability to recognize his or her needs and perspectives as legitimate is a critical step in developing professional integrity. Helping social workers understand strategies, tools, and approaches they can use in dealing with potential conflicts further enhances their ability to function in a professional manner. Although conflict in the field can be commonplace, such experiences hold the potential for significant benefit to the student both personally and professionally and ultimately the field of social work as a whole.
De Dreu, C. (2007, April). The virtue and vice of workplace conflict: food for (pessimistic) thought. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 29, 5-18.
Koch, S., & Keefe, T. (1999, Spring). Teaching conflict management in social work, Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 18, 1 & 2, 33-52.
Patty Hunter, MSW, LCSW, is the Director of Field Education for the School of Social Work at California State University, Chico. She has also previously served as an agency field instructor and faculty field liaison. Her current research interests include supervision, leadership, and the impact of cultural humility on social work practice.
Christopher Sims, MSW, LCSW, is a graduate of California State University, Chico’s Master of Social Work program. He has served as both an agency field instructor and faculty field liaison. He enjoys practicing with a variety of populations in both agency and private practice settings.
Kimberley N. Davis, MSW, earned her BS in sociology at California State University, Sacramento and her MSW at California State University, Chico. She is currently working with disadvantaged foster youth in a therapeutic setting and is exploring opportunities to further her interest in advocating for and working with older adults.
This article appeared in THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER, Spring 2012, Vol. 19, No. 2. All rights reserved. Please contact the publisher/editor for permission to reprint/reproduce.