Sunday, 17 February 2013

Teamwork – another human factors skill for effective child protection

Continuing with posts about human factors skills necessary for the provision of safer services, I now turn to consider teamwork.

Anyone who has done a management course is likely to have studied something to do with teamwork. Famously Tuckman [1] suggested that teams develop in stages – forming, norming, storming and performing – and eventually face adjourning. Belbin [2] has introduced us to the idea that different team members, irrespective of their professional or functional status, adopt different generic team roles (such as “Chairman”, “Shaper”, “Plant” “Completer-Finisher”, etc.). He argues that a mix of such roles is essential to effective team performance.

Hackman [3] tells us that effective team performance is rarely achieved simply through bringing a group of people together. On the contrary four conscious steps are required: pre-work to determine if individual or teamwork is required to achieve the objective; creating conditions to ensure appropriate performance, such as resource allocation; forming boundaries and clarifying expected behaviours; and providing on-going support and help.

We also know that working in teams has its dangers. One of the most relevant to child protection is group think which Janis [4] defines as “… the psychological drive for consensus at any cost that suppresses dissent and appraisal of alternatives in cohesive decision-making groups”. Janis argues that excessive optimism and risk-taking can be a consequence of dysfunctional team working, with any deviation or criticism within the group being censored or discouraged. In similar vein Stoner [5] identified the ‘risky shift’ in which groups of management students were willing to make decisions involving greater risk than their individual preferences revealed.

In child protection in Britain an important factor is that teams are usually multi-disciplinary and that team members are often employed by different agencies. Joint working between the local authority and the police (often just a social worker and a police officer supported by their immediate line managers) is common in undertaking ‘Section 47 enquiries’ into child abuse and neglect. It is possible that a health professional may also be involved at this stage (e.g. a paediatrician or a health visitor). Subsequently a multi-professional group will form a Child Protection Conference and decide if the child should be made subject to a child protection plan.

There is little research into the important area of multi-agency decision-making in child protection. We do not know, for example, whether particular professionals or agencies tend to be more or less risk averse, or the extent to which individual preferences are reflected in conference decisions. Is there a risky shift when groups, rather than individuals, take a decision? To what extent do consensus decisions involve suboptimal compromises? We do not know.

From the point of view of developing greater skills in teamwork, however, the existence of the sociological and psychological research can be helpful. We should not just expect teams to work when people are thrown together. Some element of planning and design in team working is clearly necessary. And the structure and effectiveness of the team is likely to evolve as time goes by.

Diversity of role may be a factor that strengthens and enhances team working. However, we need to be alert for possible dysfunctional consequences of working in teams. Team members need to consider whether they are being drawn into a risky consensus. They should be alert to symptoms of groupthink such as illusions of invulnerability, rationalisation, excessive optimism and the suppression of dissent.

[1] Tuckman, B. (1965). "Developmental sequence in small groups". Psychological Bulletin 63 (6): 384–99.

[2] Belbin, M. (1981). Management Teams, London: Heinemann.

[3] Hackman, J. R. “The Design of Work Teams” in Lorsch, J. W. (ed.) Handbook of Orgaisational Behaviour, Prentice Hall, New jersey, 1987, pp 315-342.

[4] Janis, I. L. (1982) A Psychological Study of Foreign Policy Decision and Fiascos, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin

[5] Stoner, J.A. (1961). "A comparison of individual and group decision involving risk". Unpublished master's thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, quoted in Brown, R. (1965) Social Psychology, New York: Free Press