Youth Workers, Stuckness, and the Myth of Supercompetence: Not Knowing What To Do.
SUPERCOMPETENCE: NOT KNOWING WHAT TO DO
Anderson-Nathe, B. (2010). Abingdon: Routledge. pp.146 (pbk) 22.99[pounds sterling]
ISBN 978 0 415 99773 7
This is one of the most relevant and gripping titles in youth work publication in recent years. The book is focussed on the American youth work profession; however, parallels are drawn with the nature of the profession in other countries, for example, the United Kingdom.
On opening the book for the first time, it could appear to be a complicated and difficult read as a result of the page layout and formatting, but this impression cannot be further from the truth! This book is gripping from the start. It is written honestly and is full of examples of incidents that youth workers are reluctant to share because it makes them feel incompetent and not 'good enough' to do their jobs. The starting point is the moment of 'not-knowing' what to do and, therefore, getting stuck in a new or even routine interaction with a young person. The 'myth of supercompetence'--that all your colleagues are better at the job than you are and better equipped to deal with unexpected circumstances--is the second key theme of this innovative, thought-provoking and reflective phenomenological analysis.
Anderson-Nathe starts his account by looking at the related theory that might be able to account for the phenomena he is trying to describe. This is a thorough examination that reveals the relevance of these theories, but also the shortcomings in explaining the full extent of the phenomena that he is trying to put on the agenda. Chapter Three goes on to explore the methodological underpinning of the phenomenological nature of the research. The issues of 'not-knowing' and supercompetence must be explored from an interpretive research perspective as the value of the subjective account is in the experience and meaning that workers attach to these moments. A bonus of this chapter is that the author includes detailed, practical advice and guidance on how to conduct phenomenological research. This allows the book to develop from a reflective account that validates and exposes youth workers' meaningful experiences to a text that can be used to develop future interpretive qualitative research. However, something that seems to be missing from this chapter is the rationale as to why the author embarked on this type of research in the first place.
The rest of the book is divided into five themes. The first three themes relate to the lived reality of the 'not-knowing' moment experienced by youth workers. The remaining two themes relate to the reflection that youth workers undertake during the moment of 'not-knowing', but also afterwards.
Chapter Four provides the biographical details of the 12 participating narrators. It also provides a brief introduction to the main examples of 'not-knowing' that were shared in the interviews. This introduction of the narrators of the meaning-making experiences is extremely powerful in that it allows the reader 'access' to the study participants and also provides an insight into their reflections that led to the identification of the following five themes.
The 'paralyses of stuckness' is the first identified theme. Anderson-Nathe found that youth workers describe the moment of 'not-knowing' as a physically-restraining experience due to the uncertainty that they feel. This section starts with a vignette where a worker experienced this physical paralysis in a practice environment. It then identifies that 'reflection in practice' based on knowledge of interventions and previous experience is sometimes not enough to deal with a situation.
The second theme centres on the issue of power and the feelings that are experienced. It focuses on the hopelessness created when professionals try everything that they know and use all available resources, but it is still not enough to improve a situation or even makes it worse. This 'not-knowing' leads to feelings of being 'helpless, hopeless and out of control' (p.72). In situations like these, the carefully-constructed boundaries that separate the personal from the professional can be eroded in the overwhelming moment of 'not-knowing'.
The next theme reaches the crux of the impact that 'not-knowing' generates in youth workers. This theme differs from the others in that the example provided occurs in surroundings full of other professionals that the worker thinks of as more experienced! The worker feels under the spotlight and an inability to respond. At its core, this theme is about youth workers feeling fraudulent, as if everyone else would have known how to deal with a certain situation except for them. Feelings of vulnerability feature, due to the exposed and public nature in which a so-called lack of competence through 'not-knowing' was exposed. This leads to what Anderson-Nathe calls the 'myth of supercompetence'; the belief that workers (in all caring professions) should not only be competent at their jobs but supercompetent. This is what I hope practitioners, supervisors and educators will internalise. The understanding, but also acknowledgement, that this is a myth and is based on the caring professions not sharing enough examples of 'not-knowing' in order to generate feelings of confidence and proficiency in practitioners.
The book ends with a discussion of the implications of 'not-knowing' but also highlights the four insights that were gained through this study. This leaves the reader reassured and bolstered with the knowledge that everyone experiences moments of 'stuckness' that will end, and debunks the myth of supercompetence.
Anderson-Nathe has produced an engaging and liberating text that adds to what is known about the experiences of youth workers and one, to my knowledge, that has never been discussed in this format before. This book is a welcome and fresh contribution to the field of youth work and one that I would recommend to anyone with an interest in the practice as well as management of youth work. This is a book that should be engaged with by practitioners, their supervisors, line managers and also their educators and trainers.
Liesl Conradie, Field of Applied Social Studies, University of Bedfordshire.