As social workers, we serve many masters—our clients; our supervisor; our program; our organization; our funders. With so many to please and with interests that sometimes compete, it can be hard to know which voice to listen to when seeking feedback that will help answer the question “Am I a good social worker?”
This is an important question. We all like to be seen as competent, efficient, compassionate, present, warm, hard working—the list goes on. And while some might think it’s a simple case of “My supervisor does my performance evaluation, and my evaluation forms the basis of whether or not I get a raise or promotion or get fired.”—it’s not that simple or clear cut.
Most of us who work in not-for-profits or for government agencies know all too well how stressed the systems we work in can be. When there’s not enough to go around, something’s got to give. At one organization I worked for performance evaluations were done consistently and very thoughtfully because the programs were adequately staffed. As such, performance evaluations were a useful tool in helping us get a sense of the quality and consistency of our performance. In my experience, this has been the exception rather than the rule.
In the single adult shelter silo at another organization I worked for, performance evaluations were rarely done on time—if at all. While not condoned, it was understood that because we were in a “high volume, high intensity” setting that was chronically understaffed, resources (time and “person”-hours) needed to be allocated toward meeting contractual obligations. Regular performance evaluations, and supervision, most of the time, went out the window—we were scrambling. In situations like this it’s much more difficult to get a sense of our effectiveness as social workers because we’re either consumed with putting out fires or we’re stepping outside our job descriptions to “get it done”—whatever that “it” was at the moment.
Fact of the matter is the answer to the question “Am I a good social worker?” is often a matter of perception. To illustrate this point, here are some of the dynamics at play when trying to answer that question.
1) You meet program goals consistently, but your clients don’t seem to respond particularly well to you. Are you a good social worker?
2) Your clients love you, but your supervisor expresses a concern that certain service indicators are falling short of the mark. Are you a good social worker?
3) What if your program is under resourced, which is fairly common? You’re paid to work eight hours, but out of five case managers you’ve been down one for the last three months. The numbers are tanking. Does that mean you’re not a good social worker?
4) The funder(s) cut your program budget by 15% without being willing to modify your program goals because you exceeded them last year (remember, no good deed goes unpunished). If you and your social worker team members don’t pull off a miracle and meet their goals again, does that mean you’re not good at what you do?
What I’m trying to get at here is this—what, exactly, does it mean to be a “good” social worker? And good to whom, and under what circumstances?
In my list of the many “masters” we serve, did you notice anyone missing?
The measure of your worth as a social worker is not in how much your clients love you. It’s not in whether or not you get all your service plans done on time. It’s not in whether or not your supervisor can check all the boxes.
At the end of the day, the answer to the question
“Am I a good social worker?” can only be answered by you.
If it is true that we are our own worse critics, then it is up to us as social workers to maintain not only our professional and ethical standards, but our own standards for how we conduct our work no matter the setting, no matter the population. Standards higher than that which is expected of us.
Toward that end I now contend that “Am I a good social worker?” is not even the right question. The right question is the one we ask ourselves while staring into the mirror before getting a well-deserved nights’ sleep.
“Have I done all that I could do today to help my clients
move toward the achievement of their goals?”
If you can look at yourself in the mirror and say “Yes,” then you could fairly claim “I am a good social worker!” In terms of what happens in the workplace, the rest will take care of itself because your best effort will always be enough (within a larger context we have little control over) and your work will be respected and appreciated.
If you look in that same mirror and the answer is “No, I wasn’t on my ‘A’ game today” the good news is that every tomorrow is another opportunity to get it right.