Leading Together: A Grounded Theory Study of Women Religious, the Power of Collaborative Leadership and the Development of an Extensive Social Services Network

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Gunn, Madeline Elizabeth
The Graduate School, Stony Brook University: Stony Brook, NY.
The external events that initiate organizational change can have a significant effect on workers. Today human service organizations are being asked to adapt and adjust to an ever changing external environment causing a significant effect on workers and the clients they serve. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics almost 500,000 social workers are employed in human services organizations. Understanding how organizational change can be an opportunity for productive change becomes relevant to the world of human services organizations and social workers. This qualitative study examines a community of women religious (Roman Catholic nuns) who experienced dramatic and significant organizational change during a specific 23 year period of their 150 year history. The study seeks to understand how this organization went from a semi-cloistered, monastic, exclusively teaching community to an open, monastic community responsible for the creation, development, and continued management of a broad range of social service initiatives and agencies serving poor, disenfranchised individuals and families. The mixed methods of ethnography (participant observation) and grounded theory analysis resulted in the emerging themes of `seismic shifting' (second order change), `standing together' (empowered worker) and `leading through change' (transformational leadership). These separate themes, working together set in motion a complex, series of internal processes that created the basis for a fully energized community willing to take on new initiatives. The study focuses on the processes and seeks to understand how change can happen and the organization stay not only intact, but whole and flourishing. Drawing on the literature from organizational change, transformational leadership and worker empowerment, I discuss the ways this organization responded to external events. Also considered are ways human services organizations may consider when facing powerful external forces themselves. Based on the findings, I discuss recommendations for policy changes to foster worker empowerment and leadership development. Also discussed are recommendations for changes in social work education to include and require management and leadership development.