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Celebrating grey areas, building ethical decision-making

Posted: 04/06/2015

Whenever we think about the subject of ethics in human services, the word ‘dilemma’ often comes to mind. Consequently, and for me, sadly, when decisions to questions concerning ethics are called for, human service workers can frequently react with confusion, fear or doubt. A loss of confidence can ensue, where workers look elsewhere for direction (colleagues, policies, procedures and manuals) rather than exploring their own strengths and competencies first—and we begin to hear the word ‘burnout’.

In my current role as practice development coach for St Luke’s (and in past roles as worker, team leader and manager of mental health services) I have noticed that anyone who experiences difficulty in reflecting on practice will often try to address ethical dilemmas by looking towards changes of behaviour in the people they work with rather than in themselves. When these changes don’t occur, work gets even more stressful. Grey areas can then become places to be avoided. I don’t think it has to be so. Why not  celebrate ‘the grey areas’? Rather than avoiding questions on ethics, we can embrace them.

Walking the Boundaries is a resource that can assist workers to move towards grey areas. These cards engender a sense of enquiry and curiosity; they invite us to reflect on our purpose, values, beliefs, blind spots and stories … and in so doing, they are a very useful tool for building practice wisdom.

Exploring everyday ethics provides opportunities to build cultures of positive practice development and ethical decision-making. By drawing upon the experiences, skills, creativity and strengths of a group, tools such as Walking the Boundaries can help normalise the discussion of ethical dilemmas. In this way we can begin to see these quandaries as everyday ones that human services workers have an ongoing responsibility to question and explore. Ultimately, such a dynamic and interactive practice culture helps create support for clients that is genuine, considered and reflective.

Exploring everyday ethics provides opportunities to build cultures of positive practice development and ethical decision-making.

A great deal can be learned through the ‘positive interrogation’ of everyday ethics in human services. Each card in the set features a question that begins with ‘Would you ever … ?’ By asking ourselves or others the question displayed on one or more of the cards, we arrive at a new and perhaps more important question: ‘Why?’ Walking_The_Boundaries_W

  • Do we do what we do to accord with agency codes of conduct or to agree with our own ideas about what is the ‘right thing’ to do?
  • Are these paradigms mutually exclusive or does one inform the other?
  • Do we do what we do as a response to another action?

The answers to such questions can reveal much. We can discover that what occurs in our work with our clients is as informed by our own assumptions as it is by their actions. We can find that interventions are a combination of multiple sets of values, perceptions of experiences, rich cultures and complex stories.

We can also find that our ethical decision-making process is robust. That we have the values, skills, knowledge and experience to ensure the people we work with have the best support we can provide. We can acknowledge personal agency in decision making and take responsibility for our actions. We can find a way to both accept and look beyond the essential protocols, policies and procedures that can either support or inhibit reflective practice.

I would like to congratulate Russell Deal and his team for coming together to create one of the most useful contributions to practice reflection yet seen. While Russell and his collaborators at Innovative Resources have asked 80 great questions of practitioners, it will be the plethora of responses that Walking the Boundaries invites that will be most important. Thank you, Russell, for inviting us to think, ponder and wonder ‘Would we ever … ?’

Andrew Shirres
Practice Development Coach
St Luke’s  Innovative Resources

Read more about Andrew’s training

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