The Enigma of Staff Relationships


By Cynthia Cross

After a distinguished career in child care Cynthia  now has other pursuits one of which is  looking after her dog.  She generously writes articles for the goodenoughcaring Journal and is a member of its editorial group.


The Enigma of Staff Relationships


When I supervised residential social workers I used to get cross when they told me that they could not work with someone because of a “personality clash.”

I told them as far as I was concerned part of their job was to get on with other adults and find ways of sorting things out if there were difficulties.

We put children into residential establishments and expect them to manage together regardless of their personal experiences and difficulties. Adults in the situation must demonstrate that this is possible.

I have written before about my early experience of residential work in a “cottage home” where each house had 16 children aged between 18 months to 18 years and 3 staff to look after them.

The first house I worked in was run by a rather large bullying housemother (Auntie Margaret), but she did care for the children and they knew exactly what was expected of them. As an assistant housemother I managed to work with this lady and stood my ground on a number of issues and I think I was respected for it. Unfortunately this backfired on the deputy housemother, who had worked with Auntie Margaret for about 11 years but moved houses almost as soon as I left to work as deputy in another house.

The house I moved into had been having many problems and the previous deputy had gone off with a “nervous breakdown” When I moved in the housemother (Auntie Con) went on holiday for 3 weeks leaving me with 16 unknown children and a Danish assistant who spoke more or less no English.

I was there on my own the first evening ; Auntie Margaret came over to be with me. The children, not surprisingly were messing about upstairs, (there were only 2 dormitories) rather than settling and Auntie Margaret wanted to go upstairs and sort them out, but I managed to stop her and eventually all was quiet.

Although in some ways I found it difficult, I was very grateful to Auntie Margaret for being with me that evening and retrospectively I realise how very difficult it must have been for her not to take control of the situation.

When Auntie Con came back, as much through luck as good judgement, I had group control.

Auntie Con was young (like me early 20’s) but quite uptight with a completely different mode of operation and belief system from mine. She was someone I would have never thought of as having anything to do with if we had not be “thrown together”; but I think we had the best working relationship I ever had. With split shifts and time off we did not work together that much; the house was run completely differently according to who was “in charge” but we trusted each other and the children could not play one off against the other.

We used to have one day off a week and a weekend once a month, on my day off I would go up to London and catch the last train back. Many is the time I would come back to find a note on my door saying come and see me now, whatever the time. We always shared and talked through difficult situations.

Sadly when I left the cottage home to attend my residential child care course Auntie Con left 3 weeks later.

So we have two examples of good staff relationships ending in what could be seen as negative outcomes.

When I used to train residential workers I would sometimes do a sociogram with them asking them to anonymously choose who they would most like to sit next to on a bus for an outing and then who they would want to work a shift with. I don’t remember the “stars” ever being the same.

My experience is that if staff get on too well socially they often do not work well together, the interests and feelings of the children sometimes taking second place to those of the adults.


Cynthia Cross July 2013


Please email your comments about this article to
Return to the Journal index  here.