Nature vs Nurture

Nature vs Nurture

In the last blog I introduced you to Charlie: an intuitive worker who, although new to care work, was clearly someone who seemed to have arrived with a pre-disposition which suited the role. However when talking to Charlie he made it clear that he had much to learn and was diligent in developing his practice. In my mind this raises the old nature verses nurture debate. When speaking at conferences I often ask the audience the question: “Are good care and support workers born or made?” Invariably people think both forces apply but more often than not there is a bias towards nature- without any science to back up my assertion I find it is usually 60:40 in favour.

Shakespeare is less equivocal:

“A devil, born devil on whose nature, nurture can never stick” was Prospero’s view of Caliban in The Tempest!

Mercifully the “demi-devil” Calibans of this world seem to be rather rare- less than 1% of men and virtually non-existent in women. But could the opposite be true of angels (not sure what the stats are on them) or in other words our very intuitive colleagues? There is a prevailing belief that our core personality is largely inherited or at least fairly fixed from a very young age. We are all familiar with the phrase: “reverting to type”, meaning when a person is under pressure they become more instinctual and one sees the real them. If it is true that nature is the dominant force then what can be our realistic expectations for shaping a person’s practice through training, mentoring and supervision?

Personally I don’t believe in fixed personalities, accepting we all have a certain character bias eg towards introversion or extraversion, I strongly believe we can all learn, at any age, and from learning our behaviour will adapt and develop to all circumstances including the unfamiliar. As an employer this is particularly important: we all want to recruit people like Charlie but how do we find them, even if we do would we spot them in an interview and, in any case, are there enough of them out there? Surely if we have greater confidence in people’s ability to learn and adapt then that gives us more scope to recruit people who, appear to have good motivations for applying, and then support them to learn the craft of good care and support. The good news is: the vast majority of people at least start off with a good motivation. But what is the most effective way of developing good care skills?

Psychologists have studied various top achievers in music, sport and other disciplines and have found a common rule of thumb: 10,000 hours of practice, over ten years, is the biggest single determinant of outstanding performance- they conclude it is practice not talent that matters most. A brief calculation for a care and support worker who spends half of every 8 hours shift on direct contact time will take 10 years to complete 10,000 hours. This is a bit longer than it takes even our tardiest colleagues to get through the Common Induction Standards for care workers! These sector wide standards are very important as they ensure each worker gets a good start but they should only be that- the start*. You may think I am mad comparing a good care and support worker with a maestro musician and be of the view that it is just like parenting- most of us just get on with it. Well maybe it is a bit extreme but perhaps we should remember the famous quotation from Philip Larkin about parenting! (For the sake of good taste I won’t repeat it here but if you don’t know it you will find it in the introduction to his poem This Be The Verse). Learning a few basic competencies and just getting on with it is to fail to understand the complexity and extraordinary challenge of good care.

In our world what would ten years of motivating, skill enhancing, personal development look like- particularly for our tens of thousands of colleagues who wish to continue to learn while remaining within a practitioner role? For many this will mean gaining qualifications and promotion to more senior roles but for the majority it should be about improving one’s enjoyment of the role; feeling more knowledgeable and confident about the quality of one’s day-to-day practice. I am sure this is what most people want but equally sure it is far from most people’s experience.

Nature or nurture- either way it’s a challenge to the employee and the employer!

*Check out the good folk of Skills for Care for more information.