Practitioners as managers: the need for theory.
Article Type: Column
Subject: Social workers (Practice)
Social case work (Aims and objectives)
Author: Murdach, Allison D.
Pub Date: 01/01/2012
Publication: Name: Social Work Publisher: Oxford University Press Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 Oxford University Press ISSN: 0037-8046
Issue: Date: Jan, 2012 Source Volume: 57 Source Issue: 1
Topic: Event Code: 200 Management dynamics; 220 Strategy & planning
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 294900198
Full Text: Social work practitioners in agencies and large organizations over the past few decades have increasingly functioned in a wide variety of nonadministrative managerial roles, acting as case managers, care managers, team leaders, care coordinators, practitioner consultants, clinical specialists, and more (Megivem et. al., 2007). In addition, it has been noted that social workers in private practice are also now immersed in managerial roles in order to both sustain and develop their businesses (Green, Baskind, Mustian, Reed, & Taylor, 2007). Despite these developments, the dual work role of practitioner and manager has been relatively unexplored in the social work literature.


Direct practice theory in social work has traditionally emphasized the centrality of practitioner--client relationships in the official mission of the profession. Although no one in the field doubts the supreme importance of client-centered practice, theoretical consideration of the organizational context in which such services must be rendered is often lacking in the direct practice literature. Consequently, insufficient attention has been devoted to understanding and mastering the newly emerging role of the practitioner as organizational actor, as participant in the organizing process itself (Gummer, 1987; Specht, 1985), For social workers who are increasingly assuming roles in settings or networks that provide services through the medium of teams, groups, or service delivery networks and systems, little direct practice theory is available to guide them through the matrix of organizational relationships that has steadily come to dominate the practice conditions of the profession (Yah, 2008). Whereas social work managers in official administrative positions have been trained to understand at least the rudiments of the dynamics and workings of organizational life, practitioner-managers have been little prepared for such exposure and often must learn by helter-skelter means how best to ply their trade under the stressful and ever-shifting conditions of organizational politics and bureaucratic games (Grove, 1995). To avoid burnout and workplace fatigue caused by the demands of their newly adopted responsibilities, practitioners must become at least marginally acquainted with the imperatives of organizational practice and managerial work (Grosch & Olsen, 1994).


Management theorists have for many years sought to prepare fledgling managers in industry and commerce for the demands of their roles (Drucker, 1985; Grove, 1995). One of the earliest and most famous of these theorists was a social worker, Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933), now deemed the mother of modern management (Linden, 1995). Follett's writings on such topics as power, authority, conflict, cooperation, decision making, and leadership can still be read with profit by social workers today (Fox & Urwick, 1973). At present, the profession has ceased to be interested in producing anything resembling management theory for direct practitioners. Social work thought on management is addressed principally to social work administrators or students preparing for this area of practice. Since general management theory is today primarily commercially or administratively oriented, it is consequently ignored by social workers in direct practice because this type of information is identified primarily as business- and not service-oriented theory. Because of this perception, it appears that none of these sources of ideas is deemed useful by educators training social workers for direct practice roles (Green et al., 2007).

In this article, I briefly review some of the seminal work of management theorist Henry Mintzberg to illustrate how his work can help social workers better understand the role requirements of practitioner-managers in direct practice settings.


Henry Mintzberg, professor of management at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, has written about management and organizational issues for over 30 years. Here, I address his early research, which focused on the daily work of managers in a variety of organizational settings, This research has since been referenced in many management articles (Mintzberg, 1973) and is now seen to possess a general applicability to many diverse fields of practice and organizational work (Lorsch, Baughman, Reece, & Mintzberg, 1978; Mintzberg, 1994).

Management can be broadly defined as the art of coordinating one's work with that of others to create and develop outputs of value (Grove, 1995). Mintzberg's goal in studying this area of activity was to construct a theoretical understanding of the nature of managerial work so as to better train, guide, and prepare future and current managers for more effective performance of their tasks (Mintzberg, 1973). To better understand what managing is and how managers manage, he and his colleagues directly studied and interviewed managers as they performed their various duties and roles. The result was a descriptive theory of managerial activity developed over the years in a number of publications, all based on real-life situations observed in multiple, diverse organizational settings (Mintzberg, 1973, 1983, 1994).

Mintzberg found that managers, though they derive their status and authority from their organizational positions, can only effectively implement their wishes and achieve their goals through the performance of several sets of key managerial tasks. With this in mind, he specified three role sets and their accompanying tasks.

Interpersonal Roles

The interpersonal role set involves several key aspects of managerial work. Although the first role Mintzberg discussed under this heading, the largely ceremonial but essential figurehead role, may not now be crucial to many social work practitioners, it is possible that this role may increase in importance as social work involvement continues to expand in practitioner-managerial assignments. Mintzberg next explored the more significant interpersonal roles of leader and liaison, which currently underlie much of the exercise of social work practitioner authority for the achievement of organizational objectives. Leadership involves encouraging or providing direction and vision to other colleagues or team members. The liaison role incorporates all managerial activities related to networking "with important contacts, both inside and outside of the manager's organization or team (Mintzberg, 1983).

Informational Roles

The information role set encapsulates all tasks related to what Mintzberg calls the "information processing" function of management (Lorsch et al., 1978). In this capacity, the manager serves in the role of monitor, or collector of information, so as to build up a "data base" regarding "trends and events" in the organizational environment (Lorsch et al., 1978). The manager also acts as disseminator, or transmitter, of essential information, gossip, or crucial details that can provide guidance and direction to others. In addition, the manager serves as spokesperson, passing on needed information to those outside his or her immediate relationships who have a need to know.

Decisional Roles

Decisional roles are a key component of all managerial work, because they involve commitments to action and results (Robbins & Decenzo, 2001). The essence of the decision-making role set is strategy formation and implementation (Mintzberg, 1994). In this process, the manager functions in three principal roles: (1) the entrepreneurial role, in which the manager's creativity, vision, and guidance become central elements in strategy design and implementation; (2) the disturbance handler role, in which the manager bargains and coordinates with others to implement strategies and resolve conflicts in a complex and ever-shifting organizational environment; and (3) the resource allocator role, in which the manager uses the authority inherent in the managerial function to negotiate, trade, distribute, and supply needed resources to the team, group, or organization setting in which work takes place and to deliver needed resources to clients and others who are the recipients of services from the work setting (Mintzberg, 1983).

Mintzberg emphasized that although these role sets may appear tidy and structured on the page, they are always mixed and not neatly defined in actual organizational work (Lorsch et al., 1978). Nevertheless, as theoretical constructs they provide us with a basic understanding of how the principal components of organizational life--such as authority, interpersonal relationships, and information-actually work together in managerial practice (Mintzberg, 1983).


How can concepts such as Mintzberg's help social work practitioner-managers more effectively achieve their goals and objectives in their daily work?

First, by helping practitioners better understand the realities and expectations of management, such theories can better prepare social workers for the tasks they need to take on as their involvement with managerial duties grows. For example, Mintzberg's focus on leadership and entrepreneurial roles emphasizes much-neglected dimensions in current practitioner training in social work (Green et al., 2007). In addition, few social work schools train social workers in the requirements and intricacies of the negotiation process, which are useful and necessary in the resource allocator role described by Mintzberg (Murdach, 2007).

Second, Mintzberg's ideas open up new avenues of study and research on organizational practice and development that can help to bolster social work's image and influence in both private and public practice venues. Many of these avenues for theory development--such as exchange theory, symbolic interactionist theory, and social network analysis--were first outlined over 20 years ago by Specht (1985) but have been neglected in the social work practice literature since then.

Third, the sociopolitical suggestions for practice improvement that stem from Mintzberg's approach, especially when combined with the elements of ecological theory steadily becoming established in the field (Schriver, 1998), can finally help to broaden social work direct practice theory by divesting it of its long dependence on psychological and clinical theory for its grounding and direction (Gummer, 1987).

doi: 10.1093/sw/swr004

Original manuscript received January 6, 2009

Accepted January 28, 2009

Advance Access Publication May 22, 2012


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Allison D. Murdach, LCSW, is a retired psychiatric social worker, formerly employed at the VA Medical Center, Palo Alto, CA; e-mail:
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