Applying the Practice Pyramid to Social Work Practice

The main way in which this model applies to social work practice is through the emphasis on social work values. Over the years many different lists of social work values have been introduced. These have largely reflected the dominant ideology of social work practice at the time. Values lists from the 1960’s tended to emphasise the idea of accepting the individual as a way of providing a “corrective emotional experience.” (Alexander, 1953). This is perhaps best exemplified by the work of Felix Biestek who defined “The Casework Relationship” in social work as 'the dynamic interaction of attitudes and emotions between the caseworker and client, with the purpose of helping the client achieve a better adjustment between himself (sic) and his environment' (Biestek, 1961, p. 17). For Biestek the core values of social work were individualisation; purposeful expression of feelings; controlled emotional involvement; acceptance; non-judgmental attitude; client self-determination and; confidentiality. (Biestek, 1961)

This individual model of social work practice changed by the late 1980’s and 1990’s when CCETSW developed a new set of values for social work based upon a model of anti-oppressive practice. This included the value and dignity of individuals; the right to respect privacy and confidentiality; the right of individuals to choose and; the strengths and skills embedded in local communities (CEETSW, 1991).

With the move from the Diploma in Social Work to the Degree in Social Work and with the creation of the General Social Care Council there was a move from a values base linked to professional autonomy and responsibility to one with a more managerial basis. Values became linked to Codes of Practice. The emphasis was placed less on why a social worker should do something to what specifically a social worker should do.

Despite this changing culture of values one thing remains unchanged. That is that individual social workers have individual ways of making sense of the world and value things differently. One social worker may value complete honesty and openness above all. Another social worker may value enabling a service user to achieve their goals as being the most important thing. When these two social workers are in a situation where a degree of dishonesty will be the most effective way to meet the service user’s goals (for example saying you are very confident something will help rather than being honest that you are only moderately confident it will help) one social worker will choose honesty over effectiveness, the other will choose effectiveness over complete honesty.

In this dilemma different readers are likely to assume that one or other social worker is ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong’. However this merely reflects the values base of the reader. Both social workers value honesty and seek to be as honest as possible. Both social workers values effectiveness and seek to be as effective as possible. But in life people are often in positions where they have to rate one value as ‘higher’ than another.

The desire to empower and liberate service users to live the way they want to live is a core value in social work. So is the desire to ensure the well-being of those with least power in society. A service user who has a paedophilic sexual orientation cannot be empowered to fully act upon that orientation without at the same time harming children. In such cases a social worker has a clear duty to use their legal power to oppress those with paedophilic sexual tendencies in order to protect children.

In its most literal sense social work practice can never be truly anti-oppressive in a society where power is unequally distributed. As long as one person’s freedom leads to the loss of another’s freedoms social workers must always choose when, where and how to exercise power. This will often mean oppressing the relatively powerless in order to protect the most powerless.

Many parents with mental health difficulties provide good or good enough parenting for their children, despite facing multiple oppressions. In such cases the duty of social work is clear, to support the person in being a good parent. However some parents with mental health difficulties parent in ways that cause their children significant harm. In these cases even where a parent desperately wishes to continue caring for their child a social worker may need to step in and use legal powers to remove the child. It is hard to define this in any other way than oppression; however the intention is to limit the oppression to the child as the most powerless in the situation rather than to increase the oppression of the parent.

Defining a personal values and beliefs base in social work practice is hard. However it is also the best way to keep social work practice ethical and effective. Once a worker has defined their values base they have a platform from which to resist the forces that can contribute to potentially oppressive power practices, such as target focused practice and group think.

Here is a personal statement of my values and beliefs base. Please note that I am not suggesting that this list is complete or right for all workers. Each social worker must work to define their own core set of values.

People have the right and ability to set goals for their own lives. There is no single absolute definition of the right way to live. As long as people’s behaviour does not have a harmful effect upon others this freedom is supported and enhanced in social work practice.

People do what they do for many reasons. The multi-factorial nature of human behaviour means that it is important to look for causes that can lead to change instead of insisting upon finding ‘THE’ cause.

All service users have a range of skills, knowledge and resources that can help them move towards their goals.

Social workers have a range of skills, knowledge and resources that can be used in conjunction with the skills, knowledge and resources of the service user to enhance the well-being of service users.

Social workers aim to invert the normal power relationships in society. In assessing, planning, implementing and evaluating their practice social workers aim to put those with the least power at the centre of the process.

Social workers have a tripartite responsibility. Firstly, they have a responsibility to the service user to work with them to help them take control of their lives. Secondly, they have a responsibility to other stake-holders. For example in seeking to empower marginalised parents social workers must recognised that this must never leave the children of those parents with even less power than before. It also means that social workers must use their resources in the most effective and efficient way possible. Finally social workers have a responsibility to themselves; to practice in ways that are consistent with their own values and they must look after themselves. Balancing these three is far from easy.

Finally, the establishment and maintenance of a respectful, collaborative relationship is the single most important thing in determining the overall effectiveness of social work practice.

Stress related burn-out is recognised as a significant problem in social work practice. A major cause of stress is consistently behaving in a way that is inconsistent with core beliefs and values. If a person has a core our value of treating people as individuals yet is in a job where people are ‘processed’ according to set systems the conflict is likely to cause stress. This stress will be most acute when the person is unaware of the conflict as in this case conscious action is not a possibility.

Once a social worker has explored and articulated their personal belief and values base they are equipped to deal with such conflicts. In the example just given the worker may passively resist the pressure to process people by ensuring that regardless of the actions of the system they will practice in a person-centred way. They may take a route of more active resistance by challenging dehumanising work practices and campaigning for changes in the system. They may decide to do nothing at present but to gather greater knowledge and skills so that they can take action from a stronger position. Finally, they may decide that they will seek a new job, one that more accurately reflects their values.

The values and beliefs of a social worker are likely to be reflected in their attributes and personal qualities. In their work on effective helping Davis et. al. (2002) suggest a number of essential helper qualities. These are: Respect; Genuineness; Empathy; Humility; Quiet enthusiasm; Personal strength and integrity; and Intellectual and emotional attunement.

Respect involves seeing others are unique individuals with the same worth as the worker. Genuineness means being open about what you think and feel. Empathy is the capacity to see and feel how others experience the world. Humility means being honest about the limits to your knowledge and skills base; to recognise that you do not know everything and that your ideas are no more guaranteed to succeed than those of the service user. Quiet enthusiasm is a sense of optimism that still recognises how hard life might be right now for the service user. Personal strength allows the worker to hear whatever the service user has to say without being over-whelmed by it. Doing this with integrity ensures that the display of strength does not compromise the core values of the worker. Finally intellectual and emotional attunement means that the worker can respond moment-by-moment to the changing thoughts and feelings of the service user.

In terms of qualities this is a challenge. Few workers display all of these strengths at maximum level all the time. However building upon strengths, nurturing and developing them, is essential if the worker is to create and sustain effective working relationships with service users.

In many ways it is in the relationship that the effective work of social work takes place. If a social worker uses their personal qualities and has sound beliefs and values, and if they use the theories and techniques that help build relationships, the result will be more effective work.

In an effective social work relationship both the worker and the service user will be moving towards a relationship of mutual respect. It is the social worker’s job in particular to ensure that they communicate as clearly and effectively as possible at both the level of content (what needs to be said) and at the level of emotions (the feelings about what is being said). This clarity helps the service user understand what the role of the social worker is in the particular exchange and also what their role is. It also allows the service user to feel valued and respected as a partner and not a helpless victim. Social workers must strive to build this into their work, for example by exploring, valuing and building upon the strengths and resources of the service user instead of trying to ‘fix’ them.

As far as is safe and practical a social worker must demonstrate this sharing of power by supporting service users to create goals and take decisions for themselves. This must be done by negotiation and mediation. It is easy for social workers to impose meanings on service users’ words or actions. This will undermine the complementary and collaborative nature of the relationship.

Developing such relationships is not easy. The alternative is to create relationships based on unequal power. Ultimately this will be less effective. Senge summarised this very concisely when he stated “People do not resist change. They resist being changed.” (Senge, 1990) When social workers are pressed for time it is tempting to try and build the relationship as quickly as possible to get on to the ‘real work’. This is a false economy. If the relationship building stage has been done too quickly this will result in a relationship that is not based on partnerships. As a result the work will be less effective and take longer overall.

Although relationships are essential in social work practice they are not sufficient in themselves to bring about change. Social workers must also have a range of models and theories that they can draw upon. They must also be able to use the methods and tools associated with them to bring about change for service users. That is the focus on the rest of this book.

What it’s not

The practice pyramid does not specify exactly what social workers must believe. A range of values and beliefs have been used over the years and it is unrealistic to expect that in years to come these values and beliefs will not be subject to change as the wider cultural context changes. However what is important is that social workers continue to explore their value base and are able to defend it from internal and external threats. It is sobering thought that Nazi Germany had a thriving social work profession (Sünker and Otto, 1997). We cannot assume that governments will always and forever provide an ethical base for practice. In a thousand smaller ways politicians, employers and managers can undermine the values of respect and empowerment that are the centre of social work values.

The model also does not prescribe what theories and models a social worker should use. Lambert (2005) reviewed the use of different models of change and discovered that all were about equally effective, but that not all practitioners were equally effective. In generally the quality of the relationship and the ability to use the existing theories, resources and strengths of service users made a bigger difference than the theories or techniques used.

Theory Checklist

Does the worker know what their core values and beliefs are?

Does the social worker consistently show the qualities of respect, genuineness, empathy, humility, quiet enthusiasm, personal strength and integrity, and intellectual and emotional attunement?

Does the worker seek to build a partnership based relationship with the service user?

Can the social worker give sound theoretical reason for choosing the methods and techniques they use?

Unless you can say ‘yes’ to all these questions you are not using the Practice Pyramid, regardless of what other techniques and approaches you use.

Critique of the theory

The practice pyramid is quite simple. It does not provide a theoretical explanation as to why the different elements fit together, only to suggest that it is helpful to act as if they do and that the elements that are often seen as the most technical (the techniques and theories) are relatively useless unless built upon a solid base of values, beliefs, personal qualities and relationships.

The model is also aspirational.  It sets up an ideal situation that might be far removed from the reality of everyday social work practice. It does not account for the pressure placed upon social workers to just ‘do the job.’ Many social workers cannot choose which models they use. They are also placed under pressure by high caseloads and external targets which all tend to undermine the quality of the relationships with service users.

In some ways the Practice Pyramid places the worker and the service user in something of a bubble. It does not actively take into account the levels of oppression that may be being experienced by both the service user and the worker. Although this may be a real danger these factors can be taken into account in both the core values of the worker and in the techniques and theories used by the social worker.