How Trust-Based Leadership Can Improve Child Welfare Outcomes

I have recently been reading Start with Why by Simon Sinek. A story about Southwest Airlines in the book caught my attention. Sinek described how Southwest focused on making their employees happy, and with making Southwest an enjoyable place to work. The theory was that if employees were happy, clients/customers were happy, and therefore share holders would be happy. Creating connection and trust through incentive programs and through open feedback forums improved company outcomes overall. Leadership sent a message: we value you and trust you. Therefore, employees valued and trusted the company leadership.

While I don’t recommend child welfare agencies measure success as private sector companies do looking at numbers, deadlines, and putting cost effectiveness at the forefront of decision making, there are also general leadership principles that these companies employ that child welfare can gain insight from.

Success and good outcomes start with how child welfare leadership treats its lowest agency members. In most cases, these are case managers, who also incidentally have the highest amount of direct contact with the children and families the agency seeks to serve. If leadership does not focus on building trust first with these employees, they may have a passion for their clients but reside in a mental place of discontentedness, leading to poor outcomes and case manager turnover. Even worse, many will lose their passion for clients and let their compassion devolve into apathy, directly creating poor outcomes. This is simple social science.

However, when a child welfare agency makes it clear that the priority of leadership should be supporting the frontline staff who have the most direct contact with clients, we will find that cared for people care for other people. This principle is especially important in this work, as these children and families who are hurting need a compassionate, patient and persistent case manager who won’t stop fighting on their behalf. Leadership trust leads to employees that trust the direction and policies given. This in turn creates a client base that trusts the agency, which is perhaps most important. But we can’t expect to focus only on the happiness of clients and the quality of service to them, without first turning our attention to the workers themselves.

Furthermore, a culture of frontline employee care within a child welfare agency will only go as far as the middle managers are willing to take it. It must infect every training, every interview, and every policy the agency participates in. It must be an expected norm, and this can only start with leadership at the highest level. Low level actors such as case managers and supervisors can try to perpetrate this culture on their own, but this will only create one well functioning unit instead of system wide change.

Here are some tangible ways child welfare agencies can value frontline workers first:

  • open feedback forums where case managers have the opportunity to talk to the highest levels of leadership directly (And leadership should reward employees for creatively brainstorming helpful ideas)
  • Leadership should inspire employees and constantly be making clear the big “Why” of the organization
  • adequate compensation and regular merit based raises
  • various and evidenced based opportunities for training, and time off regular duties to do this training (not webinars that review information you already know, or that provide no practical advice for doing the work)
  • Supervision that focuses not just on cases, but on individual strengths and weaknesses of the employee, and their career ladder
  • Freedom to work from home when possible
  • cutting out needless high level bureaucratic positions (I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a title for a state level position and thought: What would a person in this position even do?! And why do they get paid $20,000 more than me?) Perhaps some of these units are to some level necessary, but lets wait to create them until we are sure all of the county offices have an adequate level of case management positions.
  • provide incentives to stay in case management positions, so that all of the experience in the agency isn’t top heavy. We need the people with the most experience choosing to continue to work with clients.

As Simon Sinek says in his book “Average companies give their people something to work on. The most innovative organizations give their people something to work towards. The role of a leader is not to come up with all the great ideas. The role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen. It is the people inside the company, those on the front lines, who are best qualified to find new ways of doing things.”


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