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Conflict between Administrators and Social Workers.
What is it? How Do You Deal With it?

Grace Rudolph, LSW

As a social worker have you ever entertained fantasies of walking into work one sunny summer morning, picking up your pay check, and heading to the beach as the administrator, on his way into the building, is holding the door open for state surveyors who have arrived unexpectedly?

As an administrator have you ever bolted upright in bed in the middle of the night in a cold sweat after waking from a dream in which you were chasing a social worker's car as it fishtailed out of the parking lot narrowly missing a car full of surveyors who had arrived unexpectedly?

There are social workers and administrators who work very well together. I know I've been there. The administrator I found to be the most empathetic was a man whose mother told him to get out and get a job at the tender age of sixteen. He peddled his bicycle to fast food emporiums, dry cleaning establishments, and mini-marts, until he finally landed a job washing dishes in a small nursing home. He worked his way up from dish washer, to laundry, to floor care, to dining room staff, to nurse's aide, and then went off to college and eventually wound up as an administrator in long term care.

Unfortunately, it's a sad reality that the honeymoon phase is frequently short lived after a social worker settles in and the administrator first discovers the bumper stickers on their car: Question Authority and/or Social Workers for Social Justice. Oh, oh! He can almost smell the exhaust fumes from the tail pipe of the car heading out of the driveway for new horizons. A friend once told me "social workers change their jobs as often as most people change their socks."

In long term care I suspect the "honeymoon" phase ends for social workers and administrators when the overlapping conflict of their roles first begins to emerge. The administrator's goal is to run a problem free facility. The social worker's role often puts them in the center of all the problems as they deal with guilt ridden families, maladjusted residents, and exhausted staff. Suddenly the administrator is wondering how he let himself get conned into hiring a pinko, liberal, socialistic, do-gooder, who seems to be the center of all his problems and will probably bring in the union and bring down the home.

When you have conflicting job goals you have the overlapping issues that can lead to anger, mistrust, and job dissatisfaction. Is there a solution? The key to resolving potential conflict is good communication and the ability to truly listen to each other. Have you ever sat across the table from someone who was venting their anger and while they were ranting you put your mind in neutral so you could plan your rebuttal? Were you really listening to their side of the issue? Or, were you simply biding your time until it was your turn.

In the crush of pressure consuming the lives of long term care providers there is very little time to walk a mile in the other fellow's shoes. But if you can't walk a mile can you jog fifteen minutes? It might prevent a sprinter's dash after the vanishing bumper sticker on the pinko, liberal, socialistic, do-gooder's car as, squealing, it takes the corner on two tires at the end of the drive way.

Maybe social workers and administrators should develop an empathetic understanding of the pressures involved in each others jobs. Shut the door to their offices, turn off their phones or tell the receptionist to hold their calls and start the day with a five-minutes exercise. Try it. Close your eyes, take three deep cleansing breaths and imagine yourself as the administrator (if you're the social worker) or the social worker (if you're the administrator).

What would your pressures be? Make a list of them and tuck them under your desk calendar for easy reference.

Take one day to notice how your burdens differ; and how they are alike.

Develop good observation skills. Don't just listen to what's being said but notice how it's being said. If you are being criticized is the criticism based on fact or emotion. If a reaction appears to be an over reaction perhaps there are underlying stresses that you're unaware of. A friend summed up the pressures of long term care very well when he said, "It's a jungle out there. That's why you don't see a lotta administrators on the floors. They hunker down in their offices and yah can't get 'em out with a flame thrower." Avoid the temptation to try to ferret out and solve each others problems. You're not therapists. You are employees and your unified goal is to the keep the facility running on an even keel.

After an angry confrontation find a quiet place to cool down and jot down what happened. How did you feel? How might you have handled the situation differently? Identify areas where you are in agreement and build on those strengths to work together for the good of the residents, their families and the facility.

If there is a sudden spate of problems that need to be managed prioritize them, find the root causes, and brainstorm with the people involved if you must but, wait for a calmer day to address conflict resolution. Then, look for the Gordian knot, untie it and go forward. Not to the beach, not to another facility because social workers and administrators are, at heart, ideal allies. Both professions appeal to problem solvers and conflict resolutionists who share a common goal of maintaining problem free facilities for the good of the residents, their families, the staff, and ultimately each other.


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