In my training and consultancy work I often encounter a degree of negativity towards the ideas of partnership and empowerment. This largely comes from a belief that, while they may well be worthwhile ideals, they are deemed not to be achievable in practice. I have some sympathy with that view, in so far as I would be the first to acknowledge that they are not always possible. This is in large part because many of the people we serve start from such a strong sense of mistrust and suspicion (in part fed by misleading media representations of social workers) that they are very reluctant to work in partnership with people they perceive as authority figures. Without that trust there will be no partnership and therefore little by way of empowerment. However, while partnership and empowerment will certainly be unattainable in some situations and very difficult to achieve in many others, I would argue that we should be very careful not to overgeneralise by regarding these important values as beyond our reach in practice. If we do we are being unduly pessimistic and thereby disempowering ourselves by cutting off possibilities for moving forward positively and constructively. If we decide in advance that something is not possible, then of course we render it not possible in doing so. Sadly, a culture of low morale in certain quarters can generate very negative approaches that are characterised by defeatism and, even more sadly, cynicism. In such settings there is a very real danger that low morale will contribute significantly to defeatism and a tendency to give up before we have even tried which will then contribute to low morale – hence a vicious circle of negativity is created.
Despite such common expressions of negativity, I regularly come across examples of very effective partnership working that has contributed significantly to empowerment, situations where practitioners have managed to use their skills very deftly to establish a sound foundation of collaboration as part of a process of helping people to take ownership of their problems and be supported in making progress in addressing the difficulties they face. Partnership is about being able to form a sound working relationship which enables worker and client to work together towards agreed goals (or ‘outcomes’ to use the current terminology). This shared perspective (where it can be achieved) then provides a basis for shared ownership of the problems and concerns on the one hand and the plans for reaching solutions on the other. It is this shared ownership that then provides the foundation for empowerment – that is, for helping people to achieve greater control over their lives. Empowering practice can help people to become more aware of obstacles – personal, cultural and structural – to achieving greater control over their lives in general and their current circumstances in particular.
To appreciate the importance of making the (often major) effort to work towards partnership and empowerment, it can be helpful to consider the alternatives to them. What are we risking if we are not committed to working in partnership-based, empowering ways.
Without developing an effective partnership we will be trying to bring about change without the key people involved in the situation being ‘on board’ in this endeavour. This can mean any combination of: conflict; resistance or even sabotage; game playing (disguised compliance, for example); and/or an approach that is premised on a reliance on providing services (in the hope that they will somehow be able to bring about change – even though that will be very difficult if the people concerned are not committed to bringing about such change in the first place). It can also mean, in some circumstances, having to impose change (for the protection of others, for example), and, of course, it is no secret that imposed change is the least likely to be successful in bringing about the necessary improvements in a situation. What is likely to happen is that the change, if it is achieved at all, will be shortlived, as behaviours and attitudes will very probably return to their former state once we are no longer actively involved.
Without empowerment there is a very real danger that we will be unwittingly creating dependency – the people we serve may well come to expect that we are responsible for resolving their difficulties (rather than helping them to resolve their own difficulties as far as possible). This can then be a stressful position for both parties: for the practitioner who finds him-or herself in a situation where they are being held responsible for something they have no direct control over (a widely recognised significant potential source of stress) and for the client who is unlikely to make progress if they are seeing the solution as lying in the hands of one or more professionals, thereby disempowering themselves in the process.
In addition, we need to recognise that, without a focus on empowerment we can leave people vulnerable to discrimination and oppression, in so far as we are not challenging discriminatory processes that are so often part and parcel of the lives of so many of our clientele. Anti-discriminatory practice is not simply a matter of making sure our own actions are not discriminatory, but also going beyond that to recognise how discrimination and oppression are often key factors in the problems clients are experiencing and/or are significant obstacles to tackling those problems. If we fail to see addressing discrimination as part of our approach, then we are likely to be operating at quite a superficial (and therefore largely ineffectual) level that risks doing more harm than good.
There are various ways in which we can contribute to empowerment. For example, by helping people to understand the nature and sources of their problems (unresolved grief issues, for example), we can often help them to move forward positively under their own steam or with their normal social supports. In other circumstances it may be a matter of helping to boost people’s confidence and/or address any unhelpful anxieties that might be holding them back. In yet other cases there may be conflicts that need to be addressed as part of a process of removing obstacles to progress.
Partnership and empowerment are not easy options, that is for sure; but they are clearly important parts of our value base and certainly not to be dismissed as something that is unrealistic in today’s highly pressurised social work settings. How we can move forward in making them a much fuller part of the social work world is not a simple matter to resolve, as there are many complex issues involved. However, our starting point must surely be that we recognise fully that partnership and empowerment are worthy of sustained consideration and investigation, so that we can develop a more confident and better-informed platform from which we can develop them as far as we reasonably can.
Dr Neil Thompson (@DrNeilThompson) is an independent writer, educator and adviser. He has recently developed an online professional development programme in which he acts as tutor to members of an online community of learning. His website, with a blog and Tip of the Week, is at www.neilthompson.info Dr.Thompson is a member of @SWSCmedia Expert Panel.
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