Effective Leadership and Creating a Learning Environment

Agency culture can be defined as “…the basic pattern of shared beliefs, behaviors, attitudes, and assumptions acquired over time by members of an organization” (Connor, 2006). In other words, the way employees actually perceive, think, believe, and behave determines the culture of an agency. Behaviors in the work setting evolve from staff attitudes and belief systems, with the agency’s formal policies and procedures acting as the framework and guidelines for those behaviors. For their pursuit to be successful, an involved, focused, and responsive management team is key. Leaders should embrace and be fully committed to a continuous quality improvement (CQI) structure and process, and their actions should set the stage for full implementation of CQI.

Uneasiness in staff, over altering procedures and change in general, can sometimes increase challenges in implementing a CQI program. A crucial factor affecting employees’ perception of change is the degree of control and involvement they have in implementing those changes. Thus, it is critically important that management involve all levels of staff (particularly field staff) in evaluating and designing change initiatives; staff should feel a degree of ownership for practice changes, as well as the implications of those changes.

Management should anticipate and proactively deal with any apprehension (particularly at the worker and supervisor level) surrounding implementation of a systematic, ongoing process of examining, shifting, and improving practice. Great care should be taken to minimize misinformation, reassure staff, and reduce any anxieties. For example, management in some agencies in the midst of significant change have held open door office hours in areas being impacted as a venue to encourage staff to express any concerns and/or offer suggestions.

By whatever means they can, leaders should continually solicit input, provide information, answer questions, and attempt to allay concerns; doing so will result in staff feeling much more empowered, positive, and engaged in change initiatives. Leaders who are committed, forward-thinking, enthusiastic, transparent, and sensitive to staff needs can enable employees, external stakeholders, and the organization as a whole to adapt and thrive in the challenging environment of change.

There should be unwavering constancy of purpose in communicating to staff at all levels and in all divisions the immense rewards of a well-functioning CQI system, and expectations regarding their full participation in the process. Staff should be helped to understand that CQI is not a time-limited project or initiative, but will instead be transformative and lasting. CQI will not just augment their work; it will become the way the agency does its work.

This section further explains how effective leaders will go about creating and sustaining a continuous learning environment that yields ongoing improvements. It also discusses using leadership to deal with challenges and promote change, with a focus on the Adaptive Leadership model.

Note: For more information about Adaptive Leadership, visit the Cambridge Leadership Associates Web site at LINK

Creating and Sustaining a Continuous Learning Environment

Questioning and thinking reflectively are of critical importance in implementing a continuous quality improvement (CQI) system, as is a thorough understanding of the continuous learning atmosphere instilled through CQI. Management and administration, including unit supervisors, should constantly reinforce with staff that there are always better ways to do things. They should not only encourage staff to question the status quo, but also reward curiosity, creativity, and bold thinking. Staff at every level should be constantly encouraged to seek ways to improve their own performance, independent of agency requirements.

A continuous learning environment will:

  • Provide openness and transparency about agency activities, goals, and performance
  • Promote the free sharing of information at all levels to increase knowledge
  • Encourage and enable questioning, feedback, and recommendations/input from all strata of staff to all levels of administration
  • Minimize bureaucratic controls that hinder implementation of improvements and better practices
  • Promote ownership and involvement in new practices and processes
  • Recognize and reward creative thinking
  • Encourage analysis and learning from mistakes and failures
  • Engage staff in “sense making” or reasoning about case practices and CQI activities
  • Foster understanding of, and pride in, the learning culture
  • Promote trust in leadership

As succinctly described by Michael Fullen in his 2004 article, Systems Thinkers in Action: Moving beyond the standards plateau, “A learning organization is a place where people are continually discovering how they create their reality and how they can change it.” A focus on continuous learning, combined with the commitment and involvement of staff at all levels to collaboratively examine and improve practice, will engender excitement for improving the status quo and encourage a CQI-rich environment to emerge.

Once a learning culture has been created within the agency and a comprehensive continuous quality improvement system set in motion, there must be unwavering commitment on the part of agency administrators, teams, and individual staff members to maintain the process. It may be easier to sustain interest and activity among external stakeholders and consumers, at least initially, as they may view anticipated changes more enthusiastically than do some staff who are dealing with the loss of established roles and ways of doing things. Maintaining an institutional improvement path is sometimes more daunting and time-consuming than the initial task of gaining staff enthusiasm and support, but it can be done.

In developing an environment that identifies and sustains needed change, it is particularly critical to convert small individual and project successes by field personnel into sustained performance. Ultimately, the success or failure of the enterprise will likely hinge on the degree to which leadership engages its frontline staff in the CQI activities. It may take months for new processes to feel routine and for consumers and staff to perceive the benefits of change initiatives and an integrated CQI system. Regardless, the temptation to move away from a continuous improvement mindset must be avoided. The focus should be on consistently encouraging employee buy-in and enthusiasm for meaningful change and its rewards.

Using Leadership to Deal with Challenges and Promote Change

Effective new ways of leading and managing are critical for all levels of leadership when an agency is undergoing sweeping systems change. Absolutely essential is the ability to proactively envision and frame opportunities for the agency, as well as drive performance and innovation within teams and among employees agency-wide. Leaders in today’s changing organizations must marshal resources toward adaptation and innovation in the implementation and management of their CQI programs, and must energize and inspire those around them to achieve.

Various leadership models help develop leadership knowledge, skills, and capacity to lead effectively on a day by day basis. Others, such as the Adaptive Leadership model, are particularly effective for significant systems change efforts; they enable organizations to adapt and flourish in complex, challenging environments. The Adaptive Leadership model presents strong evaluative skills and techniques for distinguishing the necessary from the dispensable, having courageous conversationsencouraging experimentation and creativity, tolerating risk-taking and mistakes, and dealing with loss. A capable leader continually and artfully works to bring about real change, embraced by the entire organization, from the status quo.

Adaptive Leadership and other models recognize the value of individual employees and their contributions to the overall success of the organization, and stress that effectively employing a systems change leadership model will lead to much greater engagement of the workforce in the workings of the organization. These leadership models require bold new ways of thinking and responding. Even if managers have developed their own leadership styles over the years, these new skillsets and innovative ways of leading and managing can be practiced and developed.

Note: For more information about Adaptive Leadership, visit the Cambridge Leadership Associates Web site at LINK.

In the change process, one difficulty many leaders have is distinguishing technical from adaptive challenges. Technical challenges are ones that usually belong in the realm of processes or mechanics, or that, with the correct expertise and tools, are generally fixable. In the child welfare world, an example of a technical problem or challenge would be older foster youth attending college who are not receiving their Education and Training Voucher (ETV) checks in a timely way. As a solution, the ETV payment system, and processes of those involved in that system, can be examined and adjustments made so the youth begin receiving their checks on time.

Adaptive challenges are those where solutions often require people to learn new behaviors or change attitudes or beliefs. The ability to distinguish technical challenges from adaptive ones and tailor efforts to meet the challenges is a leadership skill. If technical fixes are employed for a problem and it continues to persist, that should be a clear indication that an underlying adaptive challenge exists.

For example, data may show that the State has issues locating and engaging absent fathers. Leadership initially sees this as a technical problem, and institutes an enhanced parent locator system statewide. However, data continue to show that absent fathers are not being contacted and engaged. After delving deeper into the issue, it becomes apparent that many staff believe that absent fathers contribute limited value to a case and their efforts can be better spent in other ways. It becomes obvious that the issue is a significant adaptive challenge, requiring education of staff so they begin to understand and think in new ways about the value of fathers and paternal relatives to the child.

Having Courageous Conversations

A critical leadership task that goes hand-in-hand with creating and sustaining a continuous learning environment is producing a culture that encourages creativity, flexible behaviors and attitudes, and the embracing of new ideas. An important step is having dialogue during solution-seeking that is probing and challenging, or having, in other words, “courageous conversations.” Since change often challenges deeply-held values and beliefs, courageous conversations are about confronting delicate issues and challenging assumptions, beliefs, and processes at the individual, unit, division, regional, and organization-wide levels. They are also about leaders listening to all voices, including dissenters, and being able to both give and receive tough messages. Openness to these conversations allows leaders to be perceived as more authentic, credible, and trustworthy.

For example, a far-reaching issue that impacts staff, stakeholders, and other community agencies is institutional racial/ethnic disparity and disproportionality. Courageous conversations may need to take place to reveal and articulate those deep-seated behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes that impair individual and organizational ability to ensure fairness and equity in dealing with families of different races or ethnicities. Such individual conversations may cause discomfort and even distress in some, but they are a necessary element to confront assumptions and prejudices, foster true learning and growing, and promote deep, effective, and lasting change.

On an individual level, a courageous conversation that might take place with a caseworker would involve a situation where a State began dual licensure of both foster and adoptive homes, using the same standards and processes, and an adoption worker expressed strong resistance. She voiced that losing the specific adoption perspective would not be good for children, when, on a deeper level, she feared her loss of status as a statewide adoption expert. A courageous conversation would need to occur with that worker to help her confront and deal with her feelings of loss regarding her position within the agency, and help her learn to be of value in the new system.

Encouraging Experimentation and Creativity

Finding true solutions to adaptive challenges necessitates the involvement of not only leaders, but staff, external stakeholders, and consumers; it is critical that leadership empower these groups to explore novel solutions. Additionally, integral to leadership is a willingness to take calculated risks and encourage innovation and experimentation in problem-solving around major challenges as well as day-to-day situations.

Leaders can foster an atmosphere of exploring unprecedented ideas and measured risk-taking by framing solution-seeking efforts as experiments. To further set the stage for experimentation, it may be necessary to disrupt existing patterns and allow uncertainty and conflicts to emerge between individuals and groups. Skilled leadership involves active orchestration of the uncertainty and discomfort toward a focused dialogue of the presenting issues so that the disturbance is productive, rather than destructive; through this “disequilibrium” and dynamic, rich interaction, the seeds of change and new ways of doing things often emerge.

Encouraged by flexible leaders, many agencies have already shown great creativity in implementing change and redesigning their continuous quality improvement (CQI) programs. Some have built capacity through imaginative partnerships with other entities, both public and private, that support their CQI programs in numerous ways and foster ongoing productive relationships. For example, an agency with limited quality assurance (QA) case review resources might develop and use its foster care review board to supplement QA case reviews, with the board providing qualitative case information around permanency and well-being items while the QA case review teams focus more on safety and in-home cases. Devising this solution might pose several adaptive challenges to be resolved, such as “turf” issues and empowerment of the review board, and might also require courageous conversations.

Other agencies have devised unique and impressive ways of educating managers and supervisors to manage by data. Some States have employed their CQI model’s principles and methodology not only in their work with families, but to enhance casework and supervision as well. Still others have used the steps of their CQI model as a logical, beneficial method of dealing with difficult internal processes, such as case transfer between units or divisions when the receiving unit is resistant to taking the case. 

Tolerating Risk-Taking and Mistakes

Another critical element of effective change leadership is a tolerance of risk-taking on the part of those who, while working through the change process, make mistakes or try new ideas that prove unsuccessful. Trial and error is often an important part of successful change, which means that those navigating the change process must develop the insight to risk and know failure and be able to learn and adapt from those failures.

Traditionally, the field of child welfare has been one that does not tolerate mistakes because the stakes – children’s safety – are so high. This can make experimentation and implementation of innovations challenging. For example, in the 1980s, many child welfare practitioners were opposed to the implementation of family preservation services, as they felt that foster care was a better way to ensure child safety. In hindsight, there is evidence that working to keep children with their families with safety supports improves outcomes.

It should be noted, though, that tolerance of risk-taking as part of the change process does not mean tolerating risks that result in children being unsafe. The improvement process still requires informed, balanced risk-taking to move forward and improve outcomes for families and children, while continuing to ensure children’s safety. Leaders who accept and effectively deal with lack of success as part of the change process become stronger because lessons learned from unsuccessful efforts illustrate where assumptions were wrong and where future investments should be targeted. And, as the child welfare field moves toward implementing data-based management, expanded continuous quality improvement systems, evaluating programs and outcomes, and use of evidence-based practice, implementing change involves less risk. 

Dealing With Loss

Rather than resisting change per se, many people, instead, resist loss of their roles or of the status quo. A common factor contributing to difficulty adapting or changing is fear of, and resistance to, loss and doing things a new way. When change involves real or potential loss, even in perceptions and beliefs, it can be painful and difficult. Those affected may respond out of fear and anxiety, and these feelings, if not addressed, can slow down or even derail a thoughtful, well-managed change effort.

A key to effective leadership is the ability to anticipate and deal with the kinds of losses – from roles, job functions, status, and relevance; to beliefs, identity, and competence – that are at stake in a given situation. Capable leaders will identify, assess, provide context for, and manage losses so that people can move on to new ways of doing things. Helping people learn and appreciate that their loss is contributing to the beginning of something valuable and substantive should help move them along.