The Practice Pyramid

The Idea in a Nutshell

Our values and beliefs, the type of person we are and the relationships we build with service users are influence our effectiveness more than the theories or techniques we use.

The idea in summary

Techniques and social work tools are based upon various theories and models. However social workers only use these tools effectively when they have developed a solid working relationship with service users. The quality of these relationship rest upon two factors: the worker’s personal qualities and attributes, such as warmth, compassion, and integrity; and their values and beliefs, such as a belief in the worth of all people and a belief that all people have strengths and resources they can use to improve their lives.

The idea in more depth

There are a range of tools and techniques that can be used in the different phases of the social work process. Some, for example active listening, can be used throughout the social work process. Others may be used during specific phases of the process, for example there are various assessment tools that can help a social worker make sense of a person’s situation; there are goal setting tools; interventions may have set or recommended tools and techniques; and evaluation requires using a range of specific tools and techniques.

It is tempting to assume that these tools are the important bit; after all they are what social workers do, and doing is important. However it is highly dangerous to use a technique or tool without understanding the theory behind it.

Example - When my eldest son was about three years old we were visited by a student nursery nurse doing a child observation. The student announced that they had been ‘doing children’s drawings’ and had learnt not to ask ‘what is it’, but to say, ‘tell me about your drawing.’ Within five minutes of this my son came over with a drawing and on cue the student said ‘Tell me about your drawing.’ My son began to explain what all the colours and squiggles were at which point the student said ‘It’s not very good, is it.’

The student had learnt the technique, she had said the right thing at the right time, but she lacked any understanding of the theories that underpinned the technique. It is vital that when working out what to do with a service user that the social worker considers not just the technique, but also the model or theory. That is the only way for a social worker to confidently and competently know what to do next and what to do if things do not go quite according to plan.

On more than one occasion I have also met social workers who are technically proficient and theoretically knowledgeable. They are capable of giving highly intelligent and evidence based explanations of what is wrong and what needs to be done to put it right. However, most service users have disliked them intensely. This is because the worker was unable to develop a positive collaborative relationship with the service user. Often in these cases the social worker was so keen to prove to the service user that they were right that they failed to empathically place themselves in the service user’s position. As a result the wisdom and intelligence of the social worker failed to make the difference.

The quality of the relationships social workers form with service users is based to a large extent on their attributes and personal qualities. Services users value social workers who are compassionate, who have a sense of humour, who are warm, who are honest, who have integrity, who are resourceful, optimistic and creative. In reviewing their evidence on effective work with families Davis et. al. (2002) found that these attributes and personal qualities have a bigger impact on the effectiveness of work than the level of training, experience or qualification of the worker.  

Finally, the qualities and attributes social workers bring to their work is a function of their core beliefs and values. When social workers genuinely believe that all people have the same value and worth (see Person-Centred Theory); when they genuinely believe that all service users have important skills and resources to solve their problems (see Task-Centred Practice, Crisis Intervention and Solution Focused Practice); and when they realise that social worker bring expertise and expert knowledge in certain areas but that service users are the experts in their lived experience, this will have a profound effect on the way they practice social work. These core beliefs are a key determinant, probably THE key determinant, for effective and ethical social work practice.

This model can be represented visually.


The Practice Pyramid

Unlike Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where the peak of the pyramid is the ultimate goal, here it is the relative sizes of the levels that represent how important each area is. This is suggesting is that it is only through sound beliefs and values that social workers can develop the qualities and attributes to build effective, collaborative relationships. This is the essential foundation of good social work practice. It is only by having this type of relationships that social workers can use their knowledge of various models and theories to select the right tools and techniques to get the job done well.

Part Two