“Humans are fundamentally judgmental”
The research that led to EPPJ supports the idea that any suggestion that human beings are instinctively objective, tolerant, open-minded, and non-judgmental is fundamentally flawed and fallacious. This has been demonstrated by many major research studies and has led to the idea of ‘cognitive bias’, which describes a human tendency to allow personal values and prejudices to inform our decision-making.
Since the concept was first introduced in the early 1970s, cognitive bias has become the subject of a large body of literature, describing how its effects surface in almost every walk of life.
Bias & social work
Felix Biestek, a priest and professor of social work, and Ruth Evelyn Sherlock were the first academics – in the 1950s and 1960s – to write extensively on the (negative) effects of judgmental attitudes in social work practitioners. Biestiek argued that, if clients fear blame and judgement, they will not be open about themselves. As a result, Biestek claimed that it is essential for professional social workers to display and deploy a non-judgmental attitude.
But this is easier said than done. As mentioned, it is impossible to avoid some level of stereotyping and generalisation in any walk of life, including social work. Furthermore, when individuals form groups in order to make recommendations, this tendency to be judgemental as a result of unconscious prejudices is just as powerful. In fact, it can be more so. But, whether at an individual or group level, such a tendency is obviously undesirable, as it can, and often does, lead to flawed decisions.
Getting started is easy
EPPJ: a unique approach
So, what can we do? First, we need to recognise how our personal values, beliefs and prejudices influence our decisions. Only then can we formulate a detailed methodology which can be followed by individuals to help minimise this influence.
EPPJ is such a methodology. And the only one of its kind.
The aim is to support, educate and empower people to be consciously aware of their inherent personal and professional biases, so that they can be significantly more effective in executing their role and function.
The Consciousness / Constructiveness axis
The starting point in achieving higher consciousness and constructiveness is to recognise that, when an individual claims to be non-judgmental, they are denying the existence of both internal prejudices and external systemic inequalities. By denying these aspects of themselves, they are missing an opportunity for real reflection. The responsibility for managing this lies with both the individual and the professional system in which they operate. Recent research has shown that, in infrastructures where this is recognised, overall functioning of the system is enhanced. The challenge lies in ensuring that individuals understand and own their biases, and that, once understood, this can be used in a positive, rather than negative, way.
How can this be done? First, we should note a key finding of a recent study: that people tend to fall into one of four categories. These categories form what is called the consciousness and constructiveness axis (CCA).
Dr. Arlene P Weekes
With over 30 years of experience in the social work profession, Arlene has held many roles, including Probation Officer, Leaving Care Team Manager, Child Protection Chair, Fostering and Adoption Panel Chair, and IRO for both foster carers and children. She has also worked as a CiN, LAC and Placements Service Manager. She currently divides her time between the roles of freelance trainer, Service Manager, and senior lecturer at University of West London. In addition to a PhD in social work, Arlene holds a Diploma in Management Studies and a Practice Teacher Award.
Arlene’s PhD research, awarded in 2021, explored how the biographies, attitudes and values of individuals influence their role and decision-making. One of the conclusions of this research was that, to execute their roles effectively, individuals need to be more self-aware, by managing conscious and unconscious influences. As a result, she introduced and developed the concept of Effective Personal and Professional Judgement (EPPJ), as a model for helping individuals improve the decisions and actions they take in meeting the needs and behaviour of children, by understanding the effect of internal and external influences. The basic premise of EPPJ is that: increased personal awareness increases professional effectiveness.