Practice wisdom is critical to effective practice and to achieving excellence in practice because it supports creativity, breakthrough thinking and is the foundation for effective discernment, good judgement and appropriate decision making. This chapter argues that in the contemporary neo-liberalist society, practitioners need resilience, self-management and agency for practice wisdom to be possible and achievable. That is, in order to practise creatively, ethically and with good judgement, practitioners need to be psychologically well, and supported by positive workplace and societal structures and cultures.
Resilient practitioners who have self-management skills and agency will be better able to enact practice wisdom because they will be better able to cope with the realities, challenges and stressors of modern workplaces. On this basis, the support of practitioners’ wellbeing – and in particular, their resilience, self-management and agency – is a significant professional imperative.
Resilience, Self-Management and Agency in the Context of Practice Wisdom
Resilience, self-management and agency are elements of wellbeing. Wellbeing is a complex and subjective notion; however, a significant amount of theoretical and empirical research exists to help understand it. In particular, Self-Determination Theory (SDT) (Deci & Ryan, 1985), an important meta-theory of positive psychology, identifies elements of wellbeing, and provides predictors of “social conditions that promote high quality development and performance” (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 263).
SDT establishes that human beings have an inherent orientation towards growth, adaptation and development, but also are vulnerable to amotivation and psychological ill-health when they experience unsupportive conditions (Niemiec, Ryan, & Deci, 2010, pp. 174-175). An important sub-theory of SDT is Basic Psychological Needs Theory (Vansteenkiste, Niemiec, & Soenens, 2010), which identifies the three key basic psychological needs for wellbeing as autonomy, competence and relatedness (Ryan & Deci, 2008).
Sheldon and Krieger (2007) summarise the three basic needs as follows:
According to SDT, all human beings require regular experiences of autonomy, competence, and relatedness to thrive and maximise their positive motivation. In other words, people need to feel that they are good at what they do or at least can become good at it (competence); that they are doing what they choose and want to be doing, that is, what they enjoy or at least believe in (autonomy); and that they are relating meaningfully to others in the process, that is, connecting with the selves of other people (relatedness). These needs are considered so fundamental that Ryan (1995) has likened them to a plant’s need for sunlight, soil, and water. (p. 885)
If the three basic needs are absent from a person’s life, there are adverse consequences and implications for mental health, persistence and achievement. If the needs are satisfied, however, wellbeing is supported, intrinsic motivation is satisfied and intrinsic goal setting is encouraged (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
In supporting wellbeing, the three basic needs are also relevant to the development of wellbeing’s sub-elements – including resilience, self-management and agency. A resilient person has skills and attitudes that create capacity to “adapt and grow in response to adverse events” (Stallman, 2011, p. 121). Resilient people can “self-right” (Werner & Smith, 1992) and “bounce back” (Christiansen, Christiansen, & Howard, 1997) when faced with stressors or adversity (Coutu, 2002; Mandleco & Peery, 2000). Ungar (2008) argues that people with resilience experience wellbeing because they are able to navigate a range of resources, including psychological, social, cultural and physical. Seligman (2004) links resilience with high motivation, success and optimism.
A lack of resilience is associated with pessimism, depression and learned helplessness (Satterfield, Monahan, & Seligman, 1997). Resilient people are able to self-manage because they are socially competent, have good problem-solving skills, and are autonomous with a strong sense of independence and an internal locus of control. They have a positive sense of purpose and hope about the future and personal characteristics such as creative problem solving, an ability to gain positive attention, optimism in the midst of adversity and a sense of having a meaningful life. For these reasons resilient, self-managing people also experience a sense of agency.
Resilience, self-management and agency are all positive supports for practice wisdom. Conversely, practice wisdom is a positive support for wellbeing, particularly in terms of addressing the basic needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness. Practice wisdom is a form of inductive and intangible professional knowledge which is difficult to categorically define (Chu & Tsui, 2008; Samson, 2015). Elements of practice wisdom include knowledge arising out of practical experience, reflective practice (Litchfield, 1999), embodied and analytical reasoning (Chu & Tsui, 2008; O’Sullivan, 2005) and professional values (Klein & Bloom, 1995).
Practice wisdom goes beyond knowledge obtained through education and training, bringing together life experiences, belief systems and professional expertise (Higgs, 2012). Whilst intuitive, practice wisdom certainly has a foundational basis in experience, professional knowledge and theory, and reflection. DeRoos (1990) refers to the development of practice wisdom as “evolutionary epistemology” – an accumulated integration and synthesis of knowledge and ideas from multiple sources that is always in development as an influence on practice decisions.
Samson (2015) argues that practice wisdom involves “knowing-in-action” and “reflecting-in-practice” (p. 123) in order to arrive at new professional knowledge, that also assists practitioners to recognise and respond to personal and professional limitations.
Practice wisdom is a critical aspect of professional mastery and artistry because it supports discernment, good judgement and appropriate decision making. The argument of this chapter is that in the context of the stressors arising from the modern neo-liberalist society (see Giroux, 2015, 2018), wellbeing in the form of resilience, self-management and agency, will make practice wisdom possible and achievable. Practitioners who have their wellbeing supported will be better able to practise creatively, ethically and with good judgement. The relationship between practice wisdom and wellbeing works conversely as well. Practice wisdom addresses the key basic needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness because it supports the development of authentic beliefs, goals and values.
A person with practice wisdom is able to identify intrinsic professional goals and – through intrinsic motivation – is able to experience enjoyment from their professional practice. Practitioners with practice wisdom therefore have potential to practise more professionally and ethically, and they will have a deep self-understanding which can enable continuous professional development and improvement. The potential beneficial flow-on effects are manifold: positive interpersonal relationships, being better able to help others and build community; achieving honesty, integrity, cooperation, respect and altruistic behaviour in professional work.
Clearly, then, the relationship between wellbeing and practice wisdom is symbiotic. For this reason, supporting practitioners’ wellbeing becomes a professional ethical imperative because practitioners who are well will be more likely to be able to develop practice wisdom. The next section discusses how a range of ethical philosophical perspectives support the imperative to promote the well-being of practitioners to enable practice wisdom.
Ethical Perspectives on the Imperative to Foster Practitioner Wellbeing to Enable Practice Wisdom
Ethical professional justifications for the promotion of practice wisdom through the support of practitioner wellbeing have not yet been explored in detail in the literature. However, as this chapter establishes, this is an area worthy of detailed exploration. There are a number of possible ways to explain and justify an ethical obligation for the promotion of practitioner wellbeing to support practice wisdom, each of them adding to the persuasiveness of a need to act on this imperative for the efficacy of contemporary professional practice.
Parker (2004) defines an ethical question as relating to “what is the good or right thing to do in particular circumstances”, and to “the moral evaluation of a person’s character and actions” (p. 51). In professional contexts of practice, our professional ethics provide the principles and values that regulate our moral behaviour and define our professional identity. These ethical principles guide us to ensure that, as far as possible, when faced with challenging dilemmas about what is fitting, appropriate or proper, we “do the right thing” and pursue what is just.
It is through our ethical principles that we know how we ought to act. Our ethics are therefore our bedrock benchmark of what is right and moral – foundational to what we do as professional practitioners and fundamental to the efficacy of our personal and professional identities. Practice wisdom is critical to ethical professional conduct.
The ethical question of what we should do, given what we know about the importance of practice wisdom, is evident – practice wisdom should be supported and one way to do that is through the promotion of practitioner wellbeing. It is simply fundamental that the ethical thing to do in this context, the good and right thing to do, or in other words, what we ought to do, is to act to promote practitioner wellbeing so that practice wisdom is fostered.
Why is the ethical nature of the imperative to act so clear? There are in fact numerous and diverse ethical theories, conceptual frameworks and practical ethical decision-making models that offer distinct support for this position – teleological, deontological, as well as models based in virtue and ethic of care perspectives. In addition, both the concept of a moral compass and deliberative ethical decision-making models, offer applied ethical frameworks, providing practical guidance on how ethical decisions in this context involve responsible action. The intention of the exploration in this chapter of the ethical justifications for working to promote practice wisdom through wellbeing is to establish the efficacy of the proposition by illustrating that the imperative is supported from a diverse range of ethical angles.
Philosopher Elizabeth Minnich (1994) has argued that professional responses to ethical challenges should start with the question: “What is at stake?”. This consequentialist question brings ethical decision making back to a fundamental issue of impact, requiring a preliminary ethical cognitive process to inform whether or not action is called for. If practice wisdom is “what is at stake”, then clearly action is needed to ensure practice wisdom is possible – and this supports the imperative to foster practitioner wellbeing.
This argument can be assisted by articulating some of the dichotomous practical realities of action as compared with inaction. That is, a choice as to whether to enable practice wisdom through the support of practitioner wellbeing – or not – could mean the difference between the capacity for practitioners to: alleviate suffering or allow suffering to occur; support fulfilled and meaningful lives, or contribute to a compromised life; prevent a death, or be complicit in failing to prevent a death; succumb to the negative impact of the broader, neo-liberalist, social contexts in which professional practice now operates, or challenge and push back against those contexts; give up and give in, or take control and empower professional practice to make a significant difference in society.
Professional practitioners are daily put in a position of making moral and ethical decisions, working in contemporary postmodern contexts which disavow binary thinking, but which can also be experienced by practitioners as increasingly polarising. Professional practice occurs within the macro globally dominant paradigm of neo-liberalism, a context that confirms the importance of engagement with the moral obligations we have as practitioners, as a way of resisting the potential injustices and de-humanising tendencies of this paradigm.
Next, this chapter briefly canvasses some of the major ethical paradigms to illustrate that each of them supports the professional imperative of fostering practitioner wellbeing to enable practice wisdom.
Deontological ethical perspectives are rule-based approaches to ethics that focus on the existence of duties, obligations and rights, and ask us to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do (Preston, 2007). Immanuel Kant offered one of the most influential articulations of deontological ethics as a form of absolute moral science based on rationality, consistency and logic (ibid).
In Kantian ethics, rational reasoning results in a universally applicable categorical imperative to operationalise the principle of respect for others, and to “do unto others as you would have them do to you” (ibid). According to Kant, individuals exercise their autonomous authority through their rational application of universal rules, or maxims, to dictate the ethical course of action.
A deontological approach to identifying the ethical thing to do about the issue of promoting practice wisdom through wellbeing requires us to ask what rule, arrived at rationally, with universal categorical application, and grounded in the principle of respect for persons, should we follow? The answer possibly lies in the maxim to “do no harm”; a maxim which applies to all professional practice contexts.
Practice wisdom is something that can assist practitioners to “do no harm”. Therefore, it follows that enabling practice wisdom is a professional ethical imperative, and if the support of practitioner wellbeing can help to achieve this, then logically it is also an ethical imperative to support practitioner wellbeing.
Teleological ethical approaches also support this argument. Teleological ethical approaches are consequentialist ethical theories which focus on the greater good and in which the end justifies the means (Preston, 2007). Through this lens, the greater good is undoubtedly fulfilled through promoting the possibility of practice wisdom through the wellbeing of practitioners.
Further, an ethic of response adds additional weight to the position. Preston comments: “If teleology is a theory of ‘the good’, and deontology a theory of ‘the right’, then the ethics of response is one of ‘the fitting’” (Preston, 2007, p. 61). An ethic of response requires
A response to all facts relevant to a moral situation, all moral agents involved, all alternative actions available, all the possible consequences of those actions and consequences of those consequences (including whether these actions would be acceptable if they were universalisable); all this is to be interpreted within a framework of social solidarity and life’s interconnectedness, after consideration of appropriate values, principles, and the character disposition of the moral agent; and then a fitting decision is made for which the responsible self remains accountable. (Preston, 2007, p. 63)
Through the lens of an ethic of response a responsibility arises to enable practice wisdom because this is professionally “fitting” and as a consequence the imperative to support practitioner wellbeing is again justified.
Intuitive ethics offer another ethical theoretical perspective that supports the imperative to enable practice wisdom through supporting practitioner wellbeing (Haidt & Joseph, 2004). Intuitive ethics see basic moral propositions as self-evident; that is, evident in and of themselves. Intuitive ethics recognise relationality, social constructedness and the connections that exist between the cognitive and emotional aspects of our daily lives.
Haidt and Joseph (2004) propose that “human beings come equipped with an intuitive ethics, an innate preparedness to feel flashes of approval or disapproval toward certain patterns of events involving other human beings” (p. 56). Acting to enable practice wisdom through this ethical lens can be seen as intuitively something that is the right thing to do because practice wisdom is such an important aspect of excellence and efficacy in practice.
Contextual ethics are an additional way of conceiving of ethical responsibilities that support the imperative to act to enable practice wisdom through the support of practitioner wellbeing (Fletcher, 1966; Morris, 1927; Niebuhr, 1963). Contextual ethical approaches connect with, and to some extent draw from, the work of the postmodern ethicists, such as Levinas (1969), Lyotard (1984) and Bauman (1993, 1995).
Contextual ethics are ethical approaches, sometimes referred to as contextualism, occasionalism, circumstantialism and actualism (Fletcher, 1966, p. 29) that are not rule-based, but that require the ethical agent to engage with, assess and take account of, the context of the situation in which a decision must be made in order to come to an ethically justifiable position, and to determine the ethically “fitting action” (ibid, p. 72). In other words, contextual ethics are about determining what is ethically appropriate and justifiable for the circumstances of a given situation (ibid). There is little doubt that enabling practice wisdom through fostering practitioner wellbeing is fitting and apt in contemporary professional practice.
In relation to understanding the imperative to promote practice wisdom through supporting practitioner wellbeing, virtue ethics is perhaps one of our most obvious guides (Macintyre, 2007). Virtue ethics helps to explain how we are motivated at a deeply personal level. This view of the issue of wellbeing emphasises virtues, or moral character, compared with emphasising duties or rules, or the consequences of actions. “Virtue ethics shifts the focus … to the quality or character of the actor” (Parker, 2004, p. 54). A morally virtuous person appreciates the importance of practice wisdom for excellence in professional practice and thereby appreciates the importance of promoting practitioner wellbeing.
Finally, an ethic of care perspective provides further clear support for the imperative to enable practice wisdom through supporting practitioner wellbeing. Gilligan (1977, 1982) identified a feminist ethic of care in her work in the early 1980s. Through the lens of “an injunction to care”, the support of practice wisdom can be seen as ethical from both the practitioner and client perspective.
That is, the relationship between practice wisdom and wellbeing indicates that it is the self-caring thing to do for practitioners to empower themselves by developing practice wisdom. In addition, where practitioners are in caring professional roles, their development of practice wisdom will enable them to better fulfil that caring role. From each of these perspectives supporting practice wisdom is the caring, compassionate, and therefore right, thing to do.
Having established the ethical imperative to support practice wisdom through fostering practitioner wellbeing, the next section turns to consider who bears the responsibility of response to this ethical imperative.
Wellbeing for Practice Wisdom: Whose Responsibility?
The question of who bears the responsibility of responding to the ethical imperative to support practice wisdom through fostering aspects of wellbeing such as resilience, self-management and agency has professional and political complications. Imposing an imperative on individual practitioners to ensure their own wellbeing so that practice wisdom is possible ignores the wider complex socio-political and neo-liberal context in which professional work occurs in contemporary times.
Whilst an individual practitioner may ethically acknowledge that it is the right thing to do to build their resilience, self-management skills and agency to enhance their capacity to enact practice wisdom, there is a danger that imposing the imperative on individual practitioners buys into the neo-liberal agenda of efficiency and productivity for profit-making.
Parker (2014) has asserted that there is “a danger that the wellbeing discourse will be co-opted by powerful interests that seek to confine change to the individual and not the collective social, economic and political levels” (p. 1105). Responsibility for devising ways to operate optimally in the structurally and culturally challenged context of the neo-liberal workplace should not rest with individuals. Rather, the responsibility for creating humane workplaces, in which practice wisdom is possible because practitioners are well and enabled, lies at a more macro organisational and societal level.
This is ultimately a matter for leadership, both at a political level nationally and globally, but also within the diverse professions and areas of practice. Practitioners, as human beings, deserve the support of their profession and colleagues in building capacity, both individually and collectively, to cope with the challenges of the neo-liberalist work environment; not with the intention to increase their individual productivity or profitability, but rather to enable a professional life well-lived, and professional practice for the public good. This requires the prioritisation of psychological health over economic productivity, for public policy and public education to emphasise this focus, and for professions, institutions and communities to harness their significant influence.
Recognition of the symbiotic relationship between practice wisdom and resilience, self-management and agency helps with thinking about how practice wisdom can be made possible. The wellbeing of practitioners is clearly linked to the efficacy of professional practice because wellbeing enables the achievement of practice wisdom. This chapter argues that the relationship between practice wisdom and wellbeing creates an ethical imperative for the support of the wellbeing of practitioners.
Practitioners who are well will be better able to achieve effective and excellent practice, they will be creative, discerning, have good judgement and be able to make appropriate decisions. Resilient practitioners who have self-management skills and agency will also be better able to enact practice wisdom because they will be equipped with the skills and attitudes that enable them to cope with the realities, challenges and stressors of modern neo-liberal workplaces.
A diverse range of ethical philosophical perspectives have been shown to support the imperative in practice contexts to promote the wellbeing of practitioners to enable practice wisdom. The chapter argues, however, that whilst individuals bear some responsibility to care for their own wellbeing, thus making practice wisdom possible, in fact, in the context of the current neo-liberal environment, the ethical imperative to support practice wisdom through wellbeing sits concomitantly at a more macro level with workplaces, professions, institutions and society more broadly.
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Rachael Field PhD (ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3264-6933)
Bond University, Australia