Collaborations in Social Work – How to Effectively Serve Clients Through Teamwork

As executive director of Disability Rights Tennessee, social worker Lisa Primm manages lawyers and relies on information from researchers, analysts, community leaders and other social workers to do her job.

“There’s no way that I could do this job in a vacuum,” Primm said. “I rely constantly on others who are in other professions, who have other types of knowledge in order to inform the work that I do.”

The ability to work on a team and collaborate effectively is a necessary skill to succeed in the field of social work. Whether they are working at a macro level to pass legislation to improve public health or providing direct client care, social workers at all levels often find themselves collaborating with different stakeholders.

Those stakeholders can include:

  • Clients: Individuals or communities.
  • Close client support system: Family members or members of the community.
  • Extended client support system: Experts from other disciplines.

What Are the Benefits of Collaboration in Social Work?

For social workers, there are a number of advantages to working collaboratively:

  • Greater knowledge. Different team members can bring their individual expertise to the group, ensuring that any problems are addressed from all angles and there are no blind spots when considering how to tackle a challenge. Allowing various professionals to contribute ideas creates opportunity for innovation.
  • Shared responsibility. Social work is challenging. Being able to rely on others to help shoulder the responsibilities of the job ensures that individuals don’t burn out. Clients also benefit from having a larger support system.
  • Greater resources. Partners have access to different tools. Pooling resources can reduce costs for individuals and ensure that teams work efficiently.
  • Fewer professional barriers. Bureaucracy, protocols and procedures are easier to navigate with team members who have existing relationships with agencies and organizations.

Why Is Collaboration Important?

As Primm explained, social workers often can’t solve problems alone.

Take, for example, the delivery of health care. While a more traditional model may have been physician-centered, practitioners in the field are increasingly recognizing the need for interprofessional collaborators to perform different functions to improve a client’s health. A physician may be better equipped to provide treatment for a client, but a social worker plays an important role serving as an advocate for the client and bringing attention to social justice issues that may be overlooked by others on the team.

With the help of a team, social workers can take a more holistic approach to solving problems for clients. Indeed, many social workers believe teamwork results in the best outcomes for clients.

Who Do Social Workers Collaborate With?

Social workers have many specialties and collaborate with a host of professionals.

Professionals that social workers collaborate with.
Type of social worker Potential partners
School social worker Parents/guardians, teachers, school administrators, health professionals, community members and organizations.
Health care social worker Family members, primary care physician, physician specialists, nurses and home caregivers.
Social workers in the older adult community Attorneys, senior centers, housing agencies, union retirement groups and caregiver agencies.
Police social workers Police, firefighters, paramedics, hospital staff, mental and behavioral health counselors and family.
Social work administrators Legislators, attorneys, data analysts, researchers, community organizations, municipalities and social workers in the field.
Military social worker Family members, mental health counselors, physicians, physical therapists and housing agencies.
Psychiatric social worker Family members, psychiatrists, nurses and other hospital staff.
Child welfare social worker Caregivers, foster care and adoption agencies, teachers, community leaders, attorneys and judges.

Many in the field also benefit from professional collaborations and affiliations that allow them to interact with their peers. They find support from organizations such as the American Council for School Social Work, Association of Oncology Social Work, Clinical Social Work Association, National Association of Social Workers, School Social Work Association of America, Rural Social Work Caucus, Society for Social Work Leadership in Health Care and the International Federation of Social Workers.

Why Are Collaborative Partners Important?

While social workers play important roles connecting clients to appropriate resources to address challenges in their lives, they are still limited in their perspective. There are likely many people in a client’s life who have pertinent information about their circumstances that will help a social worker deliver the services needed.

For example, child welfare social workers are charged with keeping children safe (PDF, 144 KB). They often make life-changing decisions informed by family history, behavioral concerns and environmental conditions. To do so, they may need to engage other family members, teachers and local authorities who can help them determine what is going on in a home.

“There’s so much going on behind the scenes before you even see a child being taken from a home,” said Cornell Davis III, a child welfare social worker in Pennsylvania.

The collaboration does not end there. If it is determined that a home situation is dangerous, social workers need to provide the resources to ensure that a child moves to a safe situation. That can require working with local agencies to find temporary housing or reuniting the child with a parent who may need help finding a stable job or housing.

Cooperation and collaboration aren’t just recommended for social workers; they are, in many cases, a routine part of the job.

What Is Interdisciplinary Collaboration?

Interdisciplinary collaboration is also an important aspect of social work. This occurs when a team of specialists from different helping disciplines, such as psychiatry, psychology, counseling, medicine and public health, join the social worker to provide services to a client. Specialists may have the authority to perform tasks outside the social worker’s qualifications.

Why Is Interdisciplinary Collaboration Important?

Social workers perform a variety of functions; some serve as advocates, while others are licensed to provide mental health treatment. However, there are specialists in other helping disciplines who have the authority to perform tasks beyond the social worker’s qualifications that are necessary to improve outcomes for clients.

A physician may be able to provide medical treatment for a client, but that client and their family may still struggle with the financial costs related to treatment. Social workers can advocate for families, inform them of their options and connect them to financial assistance.

Ultimately, the client needs both perspectives to receive the care to address their challenges.

“Interdisciplinary collaborations are important because systems and people are vast and complex, so it’s almost arrogant to think that you can see everything that your client needs from just your perspective,” Davis said.

What Are the Challenges of Interdisciplinary Collaboration?

Because their training and education varies, each partner in an interdisciplinary collaboration may have different approaches and expectations, which can lead to a number of challenges, including:

  • Disagreement. Different disciplines have different processes, and rigidity can be an obstacle.
  • Territoriality. When an individual or group aggressively takes credit for ideas or initiatives, it can foster frustration. True partners share credit.
  • Distraction. A change in a client’s condition can shift attention to smaller problems, leaving more serious problems unresolved.
  • Breaking from status quo. Previous successes or failures prevent creative thinking. “What has always worked” or “what didn’t work last time” reduces incentive to explore other possibilities.

How Social Workers Can Facilitate Collaboration

When social work collaboration produces positive results for the client, everyone wins.

Here are some ways to improve social work collaboration, adapted from the experts interviewed and National Association of Social Work’s guide to making interdisciplinary collaboration work (PDF, 517 KB):

Create guidelines for how to work together.

  • Clarify everyone’s role.
  • Establish how to deal with disagreements.
  • Clearly present information and ask questions.
  • Be clear about who will take credit for what.
  • Explore a variety of collaborative approaches that have worked.

Understand what the other disciplines can contribute.

  • Read background materials about other team members.
  • Learn about similarities and differences in each discipline’s approaches.
  • Ask questions about others’ roles.

Be transparent.

  • Be direct when speaking with collaborators.
  • Acknowledge what you don’t know.
  • Contribute your expertise to the discussion.
  • Keep everyone informed.
  • Explain how any actions will be implemented or rolled out.

Be fair.

  • Be patient as you build trust.
  • Be aware of your own frame of reference and assumptions.
  • Present yourself as an equal partner.
  • Give everyone an opportunity to share.
  • Affirm everyone’s strengths.
  • Seek compromise without sacrificing the client’s needs.
  • Try to understand others’ points of view.

Maintain collegial rapport.

  • Refrain from judgment and treat others’ judgments as concerns.
  • Offer positive reinforcement.
  • Discuss differences in the various disciplines’ expectations and duties.
  • Connect with colleagues by identifying common interests and personal similarities.

“We have to be able to work together to do better work and do greater work,” said Davis, “but we have to be humble enough to say, ‘Hey, somebody else might have a better perspective than I do.’”

More resources: