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Second, how did they rate specific vignettes? Consequently, the discussion guide was in two sections. First, a more traditional qualitative approach was used to explore students' understanding of defensive practice, any messages that they may have received from colleagues or manager about defensive practice, possible motivations for engaging in defensive practice and the potential role of social work education. In the second section, there was a more structured exercise where students were presented with four vignettes providing real-life scenarios of potential defensive practice and asked to rate them.

After students had voted anonymously, they were invited to discuss the reasons for their choices in the focus group. Quantitative data were inputted into SPSS and analysed using descriptive and inferential statistics t -tests, chi-square and Cramer's V statistic. No statistically significant differences were found between the three focus groups and consequently quantitative data have been aggregated. Thematic analysis was used to analyse the qualitative data and transcripts were coded using NVivo 10 qualitative data analysis software.

The research design was chosen to enable each research method to address the traditional limitations of the other. For example, surveys provide a structured means of collecting quantifiable data about participants' opinions, but one of their main limitations is that there is no opportunity to explore responses with participants. Surveys can incorporate real-life vignettes that can contextualise broad concepts and make them more specific Wilks, Combining survey data with focus groups enables participants to provide responses that can be quantifiable but which can be explored further through open-ended discussion.

Focus groups provide an opportunity for participants to express a range of opinions and challenge and interact with one another in an open environment. Participants can explore and develop their opinions through interactions with others and this can provide insights into complex behaviours. Group dynamics in focus groups can have positive and negative effects, inhibiting or encouraging the discussion of taboo topics Kitzinger, ; Whittaker, The size of the focus groups was significantly larger than the conventional size used for focus groups. The first groups contained twenty-three and twenty-five participants, whilst the third contained forty-two participants because of practical limitations.

This was based upon previous experience of using interactive software successfully with large groups. However, a key limitation of focus groups, particularly larger groups, is that they can inhibit the free and open discussion of difficult and sensitive topics. Having such large groups meant that the nature of the discussions was different to smaller groups; for example, it was more difficult for participants to make personal disclosures.

A similar limitation of focus groups is that dominant members can express a view early and it can be difficult for other participants to publicly disagree. In this respect, the use of a survey administered through interactive software has two advantages. First, participants are not aware of the opinions of others when they make their choices so do so unencumbered by the views of others.

Participants make their choice safe in the knowledge that they can choose whether they explain it or not. The findings are divided into two parts.

Introduction and rationale for the study

The first part presents the focus group discussions about the nature of defensive practice and why practitioners might engage in such behaviour. The second part relates to the vignette exercise and how students rated specific examples of defensive practice. In the first part of the focus groups, participants discussed defensive practice in general and why practitioners might engage in it.

It begins by examining the examples given by participants in relation to direct work with service users and more widely within the organisation. Then the underlying motivations for defensive practice are explored by examining the wider organisational and emotional contexts within which defensive behaviour took place. The examples of defensive practice that participants described can be divided between behaviour that related to direct work with service users and those that related to working within the organisation.

Defensive practice with service users referred to a range of behaviour, which included avoiding challenging service users or even avoiding contact with service users:. They might do things like avoiding certain visits that they should go and attend to. You know, like arriving … what's that term: The soft knock, using the sponge on the door, you know? That sort of thing, and saying that the person wasn't in so that you don't have to deal with the situation Participant 4, Group 2.

Participants described how providing or withholding of services and working within legislation and policy could be used in a defensive way with service users:. If you've got a child protection case that is going to court, defensive practice is about making sure that you offer some services.

The chances of it working is very slim but that doesn't matter, you can prove to the court that you've offered it Participant 17, Group 1. If you don't get on with a service user, you could behave oppressively by not offering them services but hide behind the law and policies to justify it Participant 37, Group 3. Sticking overly close to your role and hiding behind legislation—doing what is lawful, not what is ethical Participant 14, Group 1.

Defensive practice could include the overestimation of risk, because practitioners and managers are aware that it is only the underestimation of risk that will have negative consequences for them personally Tuddenham, :. I work within palliative care for older people, and service users routinely have to go into residential care because workers and managers want to cover themselves. They are covering themselves, minimising the risk because they don't want that level of risk on their watch Participant 4, Group 1. As well as work with service users, defensive practice could relate to working within the organisation.

This can refer to behaviour that is designed to protect the organisation as well as oneself:. However, students perceived defensive behaviour within the organisation as more commonly designed to protect the individual at the expense of others. A central focus was the relationship between practitioners and managers, particularly the sharing or avoiding of responsibility, not challenging managers and avoiding supervision.

Participants described behaviour that was designed to share responsibility with managers for any decisions made:. You always have a paper trail. Always make sure, and copy in managers when it is a decision that you need so that people can see that you're asking for things and then the responses you get, the managers can see what's happening with it and you can protect yourself Participant 19, Group 1. Share the responsibility with managers so if it doesn't pan out successfully, you're also sharing the blame Participant 31, Group 3.

Let them make your decision. I've been told that. Let the manager make the decision. If they make the decision then the baton falls with them Participant 7, Group 2. The final quote is an example of upward delegation Menzies Lyth, ; Whittaker, , where responsibility is not shared, but avoided by disowning the decision.

As well as sharing responsibility with managers, participants also described behaviour designed to share responsibility with other professionals:. Where there are child protection concerns, I have been advised that if you aren't sure, then you have to call a conference.

I think that most practitioners probably call the conference to avoid being blamed. All professionals are involved so it won't be necessarily your decision, they are all involved Participant 5, Group 2. A frequently cited example of defensive practice within organisations was recording any disagreements with managers:. I had discussions with management who directed me to take a particular course of action that I didn't agree with. Colleagues advised me to record it in the case notes, so if it comes back, I have a record that I was directed to do that Participant 12, Group 3.

I have been told by colleagues and managers to cover myself, to be clear in the recordings if I disagreed with any decision Participant 18, Group 1. Several participants cited avoiding supervision as a form of defensive practice. When this was explored, one participant said:. You avoid supervision in order to avoid blame.

Postponing your supervision so that you won't have to talk about anything that went wrong Participant 9, Group 2. Another area of defensive practice within the organisation was not being willing to challenge managers:. Defensive practice is about not challenging management decisions and following procedures in an unreflective and passive way Participant 6, Group 1. Avoiding challenging bad systems …. Avoiding challenging because there are repercussions on you as an individual, because you'll be distanced and alienated from your colleagues Participant 10, Group 2.

I was told that it is not always worth arguing with whatever you see. You know it's not right, but it's not worth it. It was a qualified social worker who told me that I've taken that on board. Social work is so incestuous so you can find that you apply to somewhere and they've spoken to your manager so they have a view of you before you even go to an interview Participant 12, Group 1. My manager told me about a colleague who argued with the management about a service user and then he was out of a job.

He's not worked in nine months and he has a mortgage to pay Participant 22, Group 1. The last two quotes identify clear messages from more experienced practitioners about the dangers of challenging managers. Participants distinguished between active behaviour sins of commission and passive behaviour sins of omission. In the discussions, sins of commission e.

One rationale offered was that sins of commission were more likely to be interpreted as deliberate, whilst sins of omission could be explained away in more benign ways. Such a matrix can provide a useful framework for understanding the moral understanding of defensive practice outlined by the participants.

Participants identified a wide range of behaviours that could potentially serve a defensive function. However, they recognised that many behaviours had positive aspects, such as shared decision making with managers and other professionals, and practitioners may not engage in such behaviour for purely or primarily defensive reasons. Defensive practice is a form of fear-based practice—fear of what might happen and the need to cover yourself just in case Participant 19, Group 2.

Participants in both groups talked explicitly about fear, frequently expressed as fear of being exposed and vilified in the press. The fear of a public inquiry or serious case review was rated as the main reason why social workers engage in defensive practice by twice as many people as the nearest alternative, which was disciplinary action by employer 51 per cent compared to 24 per cent. These discussions were often accompanied by laughter, which appeared to express both anxiety at the catastrophic nature of this imagined scenario and relief in being able to acknowledge the shared nature of their private fears.

Although there was some recognition that this scenario was highly unlikely, participants were clear that the consequences of being involved in a public inquiry could be devastating for the individual practitioner.

Defensive Practice as ‘Fear-Based’ Practice: Social Work's Open Secret?

In all three groups, participants reported frequent messages from staff on their placement that they should not leave themselves unprotected. Some participants expressed concerns that this can lead to an organisational culture where defensive practice is so embedded that practitioners are not consciously aware of this unless they consciously reflected upon it:. Why am I doing that? This raises an interesting point about the nature of defensive practice.

Whilst Harris defines defensive practice as deliberate behaviour, this finding suggested that it can be a subtler and less conscious process. Harris's definition of defensive practice excludes unintentional behaviour and it can be argued that this is a logical distinction. However, this finding suggested that viewing defensive practice as conscious and deliberately chosen behaviour did not capture the subtle and often unconscious aspects of many real-life situations. In the discussions, participants saw a strong link between defensive practice and procedural adherence:.

It's about making sure that you are sticking to the procedures carefully so that there is no come back to you personally Participant 3, Group 2. It's about risk avoidance; about making sure that you are sticking to procedures carefully that there is no come back on you personally Participant 2, Group 2. Another participant explicitly discussed the psychological function of defensive practice as providing a sense of control in a situation of intense uncertainty:.

We work in such anxious settings and the uncertainty is so great, that sometimes working defensively is the only control that you may have, In an area where there is such a lot of risk and uncertainty, you might want to stick to the procedures just to feel safe Participant 11, Group 2. This study was designed to examine defensive practice across social work rather than focusing upon a specific context, but the high profile that is given to child protection means that this setting is strongly represented both in the literature and in the data.

It was interesting to note that participants provided examples of defensive practice across a wide range of settings but the most extreme fears related to a public inquiry, which in the UK relate mainly to child protection or mental health. The four scenarios above were designed to represent a wide range of behaviours that were deliberately designed to portray examples of increasingly severe defensive practice.

Whilst a general consensus about the nature and motivation for defensive practice was expressed in the first part of the focus group, there was little clear agreement when rating vignettes. The preliminary hypothesis for the study was that there would be a broad degree of consensus about where each scenario would be placed along a continuum of severity and this consensus would become increasingly clear as the vignettes became more severe. This hypothesis was only partially supported.

Indeed, there was a pattern in which participants' responses appeared to become polarised into extremes as the scenarios became more serious and the discussion developed. Participants had a four-point scale for rating behaviour, ranging from not defensive to severe defensive practice. In the three final scenarios, the two responses were the most commonly and participants choosing the middle group became increasingly rare.

This pattern became more pronounced as the discussion developed and was most clearly shown in the final vignette not challenging a service user for fear of a complaint , which was designed to present the strongest example of defensive practice. We are not arguing that such accounts are simply justifications for defensive practice. Some of them made good points that demonstrated the complexities around defining defensive practice. What we are arguing is that participants' efforts to defend the practitioner's actions in the vignettes became more vigorous as the discussion developed, whilst others became more condemnatory.

Participants found discussing their choices more difficult as the focus group proceeded. Participants who had chosen this response did not express a view about why they had made their choice, despite direct prompts to do so.

ISBN 13: 9781473934528

One likely explanation is that participants felt that it was difficult to do so in a large group setting and did not wish to experience censure from others. Such polarised views were difficult to comprehend at first without reference to the focus group discussions afterwards and demonstrated the strengths of combining quantitative and qualitative data.

There are a number of potential explanations for this pattern. One explanation is that participants were simply confused about how to evaluate each example given the lack of time for reflection and the moral complexities of the vignettes. It is possible that participants may have given different responses if they had been given the vignettes in advance and had time to formulate a more considered response. It is likely that at least some of the variation can be explained by some participants judging behaviour by the intentions of the social actor whilst others make judgements based upon its likely consequences.


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Whilst this viewpoint would account for the comparatively low levels of agreement between participants, it has greater difficulty in explaining this pattern of polarisation that became more pronounced as the discussion developed. An alternative explanation is that participants were influenced by peer pressures to conform to group norms.

However, the high levels of disagreement obtained through anonymous voting made it difficult for participants to gain a sense that there were agreed group norms to conform to.

Benefits of Organizational Structure

In addition, the increasing level of disagreement as the exercise progressed would suggest against group conformity as a possible explanation. A third explanation is that this polarisation of views itself serves a defensive function at a psychological level. This viewpoint starts with the premise that participants viewed themselves as ethically sound practitioners and therefore find it uncomfortable to think of themselves as engaging in dubious and undesirable practices.

Given the emphasis on social work values in social work training courses, this does not seem an unreasonable assumption, though it may not be true in all cases. In both focus groups, the discussions after each scenario suggest that participants were considering whether they would personally engage in the stated behaviour in the situation described. Oxford Academic. Google Scholar. Cite Citation. Permissions Icon Permissions. All rights reserved. Issue Section:. You do not currently have access to this article. Download all figures.

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