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Trouble in the Team

June 26, 2020 / by Patricia D. Wilcox, LCSW

Angela is very upset. As the Coordinator of the Group Home she has worked hard to be supportive and caring towards her staff. She has been proud of her team, their good relationships, and their low turnover. She has provided many staff recognition and fun activities. But lately she is hearing only complaints. A recent staff survey revealed that staff feels that management undercuts them with the youth. Staff have issues with her, the unit supervisor, and the therapist. Furthermore, Angela is starting to not like the staff much, either. The team has asked for an outside consultation.

Angela is angry at her staff. She is feeling that they are so ungrateful. And what have they got to complain about anyway; don’t they realize how hard she works and how she is always on call and responsive to them? She notices that they are getting more punitive in their responses to the kids. Naturally she has to step in and change what they have put in place, because she is not going to allow the kids to be mistreated.

As a consultant in this situation my first impulse is to work on the content of the complaints. For example, how could the team improve its cooperation when the girls do something wrong? What should the management do when the girls approach them? What should be the response when the girls hurt others? Especially because I am concerned that our responses are becoming punitive, I want to jump in and problem-solve that.

But wait—consider the parallel processes. All of the above are symptoms; they are adaptive and are solving a problem. What is the problem and how is it adaptive? Well, I know this team. They are caring, intelligent, thoughtful, and compassionate people.  This disparity is a sign that I need to look beneath the surface.

When I start asking questions about their recent experiences, I discover that the entire client population of this group home turned over within the past two months. Several kids had wonderful and positive discharges. In a couple of cases girls were finally placed in a higher structured environment, which they needed. So now all of the youth are new to the program, have scary behaviors, are feeling unsafe, and are acting in dramatic and extreme ways. Several staff have been assaulted and the atmosphere has been non-stop drama and intensity. Furthermore, the new clients are quite a bit younger than the previous clients. Younger, needing more help, with less ability, with fewer skills. The staff has reacted on the impulse to be punitive in order feel some control, and likewise are reacting to each other more dramatically.

It can be hard for staff to pull back from stressful situations and connect these kinds of dots; it’s easy to get wrapped up in the here-and-now of managing the next crisis, then the next crisis, and so on. A supervisor’s role is to be on the lookout for these patterns and create some breathing room in the form of supervision or a group meeting. For staff in the above example, time away from day-to-day operations to help manage their vicarious trauma (VT) is in order. 

In this case, the team needed to start with sharing how each person had been impacted by these last few months. We started by remembering the girls who had left. What were we proud of that had happened with all those girls, including those who left for more restrictive environments? Were there ever moments when we could not have imagined that they would ever change?

A possible intervention might look like this:

Team Exercise on the Impact of Vicarious Trauma 

  • Give each person a large sheet of paper and have them add this phrase to the top of the page: "Things that have made me feel _________ at work in the past few months." 
  • Under that phrase make 8 shapes--squares, circles, hearts, whatever you like. Make them large enough to write in. Then at the bottom make one more shape that is different from the rest. Alternatively, you could make a template of these first two steps for them to start with.  Make a sheet for yourself to participate as well.
  • Next add a category for each shape. This category is what fills in the blank in the phrase listed above: happy, sad, hopeful, like I doubt myself, energized, tired, enjoyment, proud.
  • In the bottom shape, write what your hopes are for the next three months. What would you like to do, learn, accomplish, or experience?
  • Decorate your paper, showing connections, illustrating your ideas, and making it reflect your experience at work in the last few months. If you have a crafty group, you can include time and materials to really get into it.
  • When completed, each person is given time to share their page. Look for commonalities between people and opportunities for insight.

When doing this or a similar exercise, look for themes that emerge. Is there caring and connection in the team? Is there any hopefulness? Are people worn out, have people been hurt? Has everyone had moments of doubt and moments of delight?

Make no attempt to find solutions or simplify our complex responses. It is enough just to share it.

Consider whether staff have fallen into the all-too-easy practice of judging their day by how the clients acted; consider how they could shift to judging their day by what they did.

Space and time to reflect on the recent changes in the house and to acknowledge the stressors, yes, but also the positives in their work, can help the staff recalibrate. Once they have the space to decompress and regroup, they can move toward reconnecting as a team, and supporting each other in moving forward. Then you can start the discussions of any specific necessary changes from a more connected place and with a better awareness of the importance of your mission.

When you experience troubles in your team (and you will), look beneath the symptoms and focus on how the work is affecting the people who are doing it.

Tags: Whole-System Change

Patricia D. Wilcox, LCSW

Written by Patricia D. Wilcox, LCSW

Patricia D. Wilcox, LCSW, is Vice President of Strategic Development at Klingberg Family Centers and specializes in treatment of traumatized children and their families. She created the Restorative Approach™ , a trauma- and relationship-based treatment method. She is also a Faculty Trainer for Risking Connection® and an Adjunct Faculty at both the University of CT School of Social Work and St. Joseph’s University. She travels nationally to train treaters on trauma-informed care, specializing in improving the daily life of treatment programs.