Changing Organizational Culture

(Originally published August 2017)

Caseworkers, supervisors and managers who have worked in a state's child welfare system for several years are likely to have encountered local offices with idiosyncratic cultures that are resistant to change despite nearly 100% turnover of staff. Organizational cultures can be cloned; they do not necessarily depend on specific persons to be sustained in the midst of high turnover, even when they are clearly dysfunctional.  Over the years, I have encountered offices that were highly conflictual and/or stubbornly incompetent in which these characteristics persisted through the complete turnover of supervisors and managers and most of the office's caseworkers. Regional administrators and agency directors were often at a loss regarding what to do about these offices. On a positive note, some local offices have maintained a culture of fierce independence, exceptional community collaboration, and pride in professionalism, some remnants of which have survived destructive and bullying regional managers or top administrators. Strong cultures, positive or negative, which have persisted for years are hard to stamp out.


The sources of organizational culture may, at first glance, appear to be mysterious, but upon reflection, the factors that create and sustain organizational cultures are prosaic and hard to identify only because they are so commonplace. First and foremost, organizational cultures develop through social modeling, especially modeling of behaviors and attitudes of high status persons within units or offices. High status is not the same as “officially in charge.” I have worked in regions and on statewide management teams in which one or more of the top managers were sometimes openly disrespected or intensely disliked.  However, when a top manager is both competent and widely admired inside and outside the agency,  that person's values and attitudes can have a huge impact on organizational culture in a short period of time.


Many years ago, a friend of mine employed in one of Washington State's juvenile institutions told me the following story:


Several teenagers incarcerated in the institution barricaded themselves in a conference room and refused to exit the room until on-duty staff made various concessions regarding rules. The on-duty supervisor was negotiating with the boys when a veteran middle manager entered the building. After being informed regarding the situation, without saying a word to either staff or the boys, the manager kicked in the door and ended the stand-off in less than a minute. No staff member who witnessed this incident ever forgot it. 


The point of this story is not that the manager's refusal to negotiate with the boys in the barricaded room was right or wrong, but that decisive action in a challenging and ambiguous circumstance had a tremendous impact on the values and attitudes of

inexperienced staff. Leaders can, in fact, strengthen or weaken features of an organizational culture, but they must pick their moments.  Furthermore, actions speak louder than words, a lot louder given that organizational leaders, like political leaders,  often feel compelled to engage in false, disingenuous or insincere speech. 


Social Behavior is Contagious


Every culture, including organizational culture, is always in flux due to one main cause, i.e., the contagious effect of social behavior. Every behavior of every person employed by an organization has an effect on it's culture, though not an equal effect.  Status, power and authority matter. Nevertheless, top-down intentional cultural change is difficult to achieve given that culture is, in some respects, like the weather or the sea: vast, all encompassing, affected by a multitude of small interconnected events and actions that sometimes have large unintended consequences and are subject to sudden violent alterations. Nevertheless, leaders can have dramatic effects on an organizational culture by their actions during crises and by creating incentives and disincentives for various behaviors. How did Volkswagen and Wells Fargo Bank create cultures in which illegal and corrupt practices flourished?  These organizations rewarded managers who engaged in and went along with systematic corruption.  Why has the entry of fraudulent information in case records become more common in child welfare agencies around the country?  Because child welfare agencies have unintentionally created incentives for fraudulent recording by placing impossible workload demands on caseworkers, and then holding caseworkers and supervisors accountable for not meeting these demands.


Incentives and disincentives shape organizational culture. Intentional cultural change needs to begin with an analysis of incentives/disincentives as perceived by practitioners and middle managers, followed by thoughtful actions which bring incentives into line with organizational mission and values.


Extreme Conditions Require Cultural Responses


My parents and grandparents lived through the Great Depression in the 1930's and then World War II; these experiences shaped their attitudes and values for the remainder of their lives. They had a visceral experience of the possibility of starvation and homelessness followed by a world war in which the country's existence was threatened. They did not believe that their children or grandchildren could ever come close to understanding these experiences. Nevertheless, the values and attitudes that came out of the Depression and World War II were wide ranging, far from uniform.  Despite these differences, some commonalities stood out: a concern with personal and national security and an involvement in civic institutions, as discussed in Robert Putnam's book,  Bowling Alone (2000).


African Americans and Native American communities in the U.S. have endured oppression, violence and suffering to an extent that is unimaginable to most, perhaps all, White Americans.   However, a community's suffering and it's experience of oppression is not it's culture.  Culture is the total sum of widely shared creative responses, both positive and negative, to a community's experience, everything from it's music, art and humor, it's sages, spirituality, community solidarity and strong extended families to the violence of inner city neighborhoods and high rates of alcoholism and domestic violence on many Indian reservations.


The extent of cultural blindness among educated people is surprising. I was once involved in a discussion among graduate students in which otherwise smart people questioned whether they even had a culture! It took me a few minutes to understand that these students identified culture with special foods and ethnic cultural celebrations. Anyone who doesn't understand that every behavior and thought is influenced by cultural expectations is likely to respond quickly and unconsciously to culturally determined beliefs and promptings, i.e., both desires and biases. This is easy to see when watching old movies from bygone eras, but often hidden when observing contemporaries in familiar settings.


Conditions That Have Shaped Child Welfare


The cultures of public child welfare agencies have been shaped by overwhelming workloads that have persisted for decades, with occasional reductions in workload demands following staffing increases or a reduction in foster care populations. However,  reductions in workload are rarely long lasting since state legislatures sometimes

reduce staffing levels during budget crises and/or increase workload demands through new legislation. Foster care increases and decreases in the U.S. have occurred in multi- year cycles for almost four decades. In many states, including Washington, workload problems have been compounded by high turnover rates of newly hired casework staff and CPS investigators. Unfilled vacancies and lengthy basic training programs put tremendous pressure on line units struggling to provide children and families with minimal services. In addition, child welfare agencies cannot seem to refrain from increasing prescriptive requirements in policy and procedural manuals, even when caseworkers cannot come close to meeting current requirements.


There is a formula for undermining the efficacy and resilience of individuals, units, offices and entire organizations that some child welfare systems have followed for decades: (a) place persons and groups in difficult, next to impossible circumstances while (b) proving grossly inadequate resources to do the job mandated by law, and (c) steadily increase demands on caseworkers, units and offices while (d) using computer systems to measure compliance with a large number of bureaucratic processes, and (most importantly), (e) prohibit caseworkers, units and offices from taking reasonable steps to control their workloads. It is not stress in and of itself that undermines physical health and mental health; stressful conditions that lead to sickness and mood disorders such as depression and PTSD are conditions over which individuals and groups have little or no control.


These are the same dynamics that lead to chronic child maltreatment in families afflicted by poverty, co-occurring substance abuse and mental health disorders, and domestic violence. In a strange example of parallel process, child welfare systems have done to their employees what a combination of adversities has done to chronically referring families: first overwhelm, then dis-empower.


Common responses of caseworkers, units and offices to these conditions have included:

  • tunnel vision;

  • diminished problem solving abilities;

  • repeated attempts to limit the mission of child welfare to child safety, narrowly defined, combined with permanent planning

  • a strong focus on operations and completion of required processes rather than on the quality of work;

  • stubborn resistance to reform initiatives that add workload demands

  • chronic low morale and hopeless/helpless attitudes that mirror those of parents trapped in harsh circumstances


Why would talented young staff with tremendous potential commit to a career in such a discouraging milieu?


Building Resilience and Efficacy by Rewarding Initiative


Child welfare systems that want to build effective organizational cultures should study the literature on resilience. One of the best and most concise descriptions of the characteristics of resilience in individuals is provided in Judith Herman's Trauma and Recovery (1992). Herman asserts that more resilient Vietnam veterans, as measured by lower rates of trauma symptoms or higher rates of recovery from PTSD, had the following characteristics:


  • In dangerous conditions, these soldiers were able to join with others for mutual support and survival; they were not lone wolves.

  • They were able to regulate emotions; they were not liable to “freak outs” or berserk reactions

  • They had an active coping style in response to challenges, i.e., they took initiative rather than passively accepting whatever happened.


There is an additional characteristic of resilient individuals which is of great importance to child welfare staff and to children in foster care: a pro-social talent, appearance or skill set set which brings positive social recognition. Praise and social recognition are great healers, while the disdain of others and being treated like a non-entity, or (worse) like “trash”, deepens suffering and can lead to hatred and violence.


Cease and Desist


Public child welfare must cease and desist from managerial practices and initiatives that harm the development of effective and resilient practitioners and offices.  Any practice or initiative that weakens the cohesion of line units, adds to already overwhelming workload pressures, discourages or punishes the initiative of caseworkers, supervisors, or middle managers taken on behalf of the agency's mission, limits skill development, and treats caseworkers like paraprofessional “workers” rather than aspiring professionals, undermines the development of a positive organizational culture.


Currently, some state and county child welfare systems, including Washington State's Children's Administration, are attempting to get rid of offices and allow staff at all levels to work from home, coffee shops, etc. or reserve state office space as needed. This is an initiative that will diminish unit cohesion; doing away with offices is unwise in the extreme.


Stacking one assessment on top of another, adding one more specialized safety plan for infants to other safety plan requirements, one more case staffing to multiple other staffing formats, makes it less likely that any of these activities will be done in a way that is beneficial to children and parents on open cases.


A Few Modest Proposals


Legislatures and child welfare managers can intentionally shape effective and resilient organizational cultures through the following steps which, taken together, would announce to child welfare staff loud and clear, “henceforth, you will be treated differently in this organization”:

  1. Provide funding (a few hundred thousand to a few million dollars) annually for innovations at the local level. The most promising of these innovations should be recognized and highlighted each year at a large “Best Ideas” conference.

  2. Fund 90-100 hour certification programs in substance abuse, mental health, domestic violence, child development, therapeutic foster care and cultural competence. Child welfare staff who complete these certification programs  should receive at least a 5% raise.

  3. Pay experienced caseworkers in good standing $300 per month for six months to mentor newly hired caseworkers. An investment of $1800 per newly hired caseworker has the potential to reduce staff turnover. In some states, turnover is estimated to cost more than $50,000 for each employee who leaves the child welfare agency in the first year or two of employment.

  4. Add language to state law empowering offices to manage CPS case assignments within clearly defined parameters: The state's child welfare offices shall investigate or assess reports of alleged child maltreatment, per state law, to the extent possible given available investigative staff. Child welfare offices and regions have the authority to maintain reasonable workload standards by prioritizing CPS reports and by asking regional managers for workload assistance, as needed. The public agency has the authority to add positions within clearly defined limits, as needed, to insure that all screened in reports are investigated or assessed, per state law, while maintaining reasonable standards for newly assigned investigations and/or assessments.


The reality that #4 will be widely viewed by child welfare managers and policymakers as unthinkable even after decades of overwhelming workloads which have had devastating effects on child welfare practice and practitioners suggests how difficult it is to change an organizational culture that has depended on the widespread mistreatment of it's employees.

It's time to do something different in child welfare.


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