The Team as a Secure Base Model with Dr. Laura Biggart

Join Cassie as she talks with Dr. Laura Biggart about The Team as Secure Base Model. The Team as a Secure Base model is an adapted version of Gillian Schofield and Mary Beek’s Secure Base model used in foster care, adoption, residential care and schools; and draws from social workers’ experiences and their articulation of what helps create trust as a foundation for effective teamworking.

Guest Info:

Dr. Laura Biggart is an Associate Professor in Psychology and Social Science Research Methods and member of the Centre for Research in Children and Families (CRCF) at the University of East Anglia. She is a Graduate member of the British Psychological Society and Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Laura’s research is focused on emotional resilience. Laura was lead investigator on an ESRC-funded project (2012-15) examining Emotional Intelligence in the social work profession. From her research, Laura has developed The Team as Secure Base model and Emotional Resilience training which has been delivered for organizations in the public and private sector. Laura is also co-inventor of a student support app – OpenUp UEA with colleague Dr Kamena Henshaw.

Host Info:

Cassie Gillespie, LICSW is the host of Welcome to the Field. Cassie is the Workforce Training Team Lead at VT- CWTP and a former Vermont Family Services Division worker. Cassie is also a part-time faculty member in the Social Work Department at the University of Vermont.


Cassie Gillespie (00:02):

Hello, I’m Cassie Gillespie, and you’re listening to Welcome to The Field, a podcast produced by the University of Vermont’s Child Welfare Training Partnership and the State of Vermont. Welcome to the Field is designed for child welfare workers, caregivers, and community partners. However, this season we will be talking all about uncomfortable conversations, and each episode will touch on a different type of uncomfortable conversation. So even if you’re not working or caregiving than the child welfare field, this season might be for you. Today’s episode is a bit of a part two, and if you didn’t already, you might wanna go back to last episode and listen to the secure base model with Dr. Gillian Scofield to get a little bit of baseline information before we dig into today’s episode. Today, we will be building on what we talked about last time in the secure base model episode and we’ll be speaking with Dr. Laura Biggart about the team as a secure base model. Dr. Biggart is also coming to us from England, and she works in the School of Psychology in the University of East Anglia. Since Dr. Biggart is here, I’m gonna pass the mic to her and have her introduce herself. Welcome, Laura.

Laura Biggart (01:14):

Thanks, Cassie. It’s great to be here.

Cassie Gillespie (01:16):

We’re super excited to have you. Would you mind introducing yourself to our listeners and let us know a little bit about who you are and the work you’ve done?

Laura Biggart (01:24):

Sure. Essentially, I’m sort of late to academia. I used to work in local government. It’s my first career spanning across community development managing parks and open spaces, which was great fun. Working on local planning issues. And then I moved across to academia probably in my late thirties. Did my PhD on work life balance and emotional intelligence, and then did my postdoc with Gill on, looked after children and, and offending on a 15 month project there. And then I got a research grant where I looked at emotional intelligence in social work, and that’s where the team as secure base model came from that work. And then since then we’ve been developing training for supervisors and teams on team as a secure base. And we are currently working on developing a way of measuring it in teams.

Cassie Gillespie (02:13):

Ah, very cool. And, I should disclose, and anyone who works in the Vermont Family Services system is no doubt aware, that our team is a huge fan of the team as a secure base model. And we’ve done the train the trainers with your team so that we can deepen our skills in implementing that model for teams around the state. So we are well on our way to a team as secure base implementation here in Vermont. But for those who don’t know what that would look like or what that is, can you tell us about the team as a secure base model and specifically how it connects to the secure base model that we talked about last time with Gillian? I just keep hearing myself say secure base, secure base, and I imagine that people may begin to get a little confused.

Laura Biggart (02:55):

Yeah, sure. It, can be a bit confusing, I suppose. It’s, it’s a, a development from Gill’s work with children and families to adults I guess, but particularly adults at work. And work is, can be particularly emotionally demanding, especially in occupations where there are high stakes such as social work, policing, teaching, those sorts of very interpersonal related roles. And we spend a significant amount of time at work

Cassie Gillespie (03:21):

We do.

Laura Biggart (03:21):

So when we talk to social workers as part of our project, we talked to around 200 of them. We were in, we asked them what sustains you at work? What keeps you at work? What stops you burning out? What stops you leaving? And what they told us mapped really well onto the secure base. We didn’t go into the work expecting that necessarily, but we really saw a lot of parallels with, with the secure base model. And the main difference is that we’re working with adults, but adults still have a set of emotional regulation needs. We’re not any different. We’re still part of the human species. We might pretend that emotions don’t affect us as much as kids, but they do. So emotion regulation at work is just as important. And the five dimensions we’ve sort of tweaked slightly, but they’re pretty similar. And we’ve kind of worked with those to, to help supervisors think about their team needs.

Cassie Gillespie (04:15):

Yeah. And in our experience here in Vermont, the workforce really took to this model because social workers, you know as a group, they’re pretty familiar with attachment theory. They may be familiar with the caregiving cycle, they may have had exposure to the secure base model. And when we start to raise for people, hey, we can implement these same practices in a professional setting. Everyone kind of goes, Oh, but you know, it clicks right away.

Laura Biggart (04:40):

Yeah. And I think, I think that maybe the slight, the other slight difference to bear in mind in relation to work, particularly for managers, who tend to be very focused on outcomes and outputs in relation to work, is that you won’t get people to engage in anything related to work if they’re preoccupied emotionally. So we all have socio-emotional needs and we need to sort those emotions out if they’re overwhelming us, otherwise we can’t engage in the work. So it has an impact on effective work practices, if you like.

Cassie Gillespie (05:13):

Mm-Hmm , one of the things that Mike Cull always says when we’re talking about our safety culture implementation is that child welfare workers are engaged in such high stakes, high consequence decisions, that it’s really important to provide all of the infrastructure we can around, you know, regulation and connection and critical thinking support so that people can really lean into the complexity of one of the hardest jobs in the world.

Laura Biggart (05:37):

Yes and I’ve met with Mike and had a chat with him about the parallels in relation to safety culture as well. So it really, it really maps on well to psychological safety principles as well.

Cassie Gillespie (05:46):

It does. I know I’ve already got us off our question list, so I’ll try to, I’ll try to get us back. Can you walk us through the dimensions and I guess I’m specifically wondering about the differences between the caregiver dimensions and the team dimensions, if that makes sense?

Laura Biggart (06:02):

Yeah, sure. So availability is designed to build trust. And that’s still around physical and emotional availability. The way it comes across at work will be slightly different. It’ll be around having an open door, having regular team meetings, being approachable, walking about management by walking about, I think it can be called. So you’re kind of visible and people know how to contact you, particularly when they are stressed or have a particular need. They know how to contact you. It doesn’t mean that you have to be available 24/7, but there’ll be a substitute if you are not available. There will be routines around connecting with supervisors and colleagues so people will know that they can always connect with someone if they, if they need to. Is it, that’s kind of how it will look like, if you like.

Cassie Gillespie (06:48):

Yeah. That is so resonant. As someone who often does support work in the districts, one of the things we’ll hear sometimes is comments either about a colleague, a team member, or a supervisor or manager, you know, that they’re the person who always has their door closed. And of, of course, it’s probably not always, and there’s some hyperbole there, but folks really do notice when you don’t signal that availability.

Laura Biggart (07:09):

Yeah. And I think the danger nowadays, because we communicate so much over email, and particularly now we have working at home since the pandemic, the danger is is that we can become less available to people. So we have to think quite carefully about how we can ensure availability given the online way of working. Nowadays we’ve just finished working on a tool for an organization that works with social workers here to get supervisors and teams to think about how they can improve the elements of secure base given the online environment.

Cassie Gillespie (07:45):


Laura Biggart (07:46):

So it’s quite a hot topic.

Cassie Gillespie (07:47):

It’s very potent. Okay. I’m sorry. If you wanna keep walking us through the dimensions now, I’ll listen.

Laura Biggart (07:54):

Yeah so sensitivity that’s around helping colleagues manage their feelings if they’re feeling overwhelmed at all. So team needs, if you like, for the sensitivity dimension at work are that we need the opportunity to express feelings and to have those feelings acknowledged and accepted. The danger, I think at work, because there’s a, there’s kind of a historical work culture that feelings have no place in work. We have to be professional, we have to suppress them. There’s a whole load of concept around emotional labor where, you know, we’re supposed to mask our feelings, especially if we’re working with customers or clients or service users. So all of those things end up making people feel that they should suppress their or repress their feelings at work. But actually our needs are to be able to have a safe space to express those have them acknowledged and accepted, and then we need someone to help us make sense of those feelings.

Laura Biggart (08:50):

So if, if something is, if we had a quite nice example in the, the research. Two different colleagues. One colleague had a complaint made against them by a service user. And they were the service user, very personal set of comments, quite abusive as well. And they took that really personally, and they weren’t helped to get over that. The organization wasn’t very supportive of that colleague. They were more defensive in relation to that complaint. Whereas another colleague worked with their supervisor to think about the needs of that service user. The reason why they were making that complaint. The background to it, the fact that it wasn’t about that individual social worker, it was about the context they were in. So we can help people reframe the same situation, if you see what I mean.

Cassie Gillespie (09:34):


Laura Biggart (09:34):

Work through those feelings so that they feel supported and not abandoned in those situations. So that’s really important and particularly in a job where you have to think about the needs, the emotional needs of your clients or service users. If you can regulate your own emotions, you’re then in a better place to think about the, the needs of them as well. So it kind of has three prongs to it.

Cassie Gillespie (09:56):

Well, in one of the pieces of this whole season is this idea of uncomfortable conversations and how much we get to emote or have to kind of regulate ourselves just keeps coming up again and again. You know, this kind of like dominant culture norm of being all buttoned up at work. It, it’s so related to particular identities and particular histories and dismissive of other people’s ways of being, you know, and it also doesn’t account or leave any space for people to move through what they might need to move through so that they can put it down and get back to doing their job. So I appreciate you really calling that out. Thank you.

Laura Biggart (10:31):

No worries. Shall I keep going?

Cassie Gillespie (10:33):


Laura Biggart (10:34):

So acceptance, again, it’s around helping colleagues build self-worth and, and confidence at work. Colleagues need to feel that their contributions at work are recognized and valued, and it’s amazing that that doesn’t happen enough.

Cassie Gillespie (10:49):


Laura Biggart (10:49):

I often say that I worked 13 years in local government and the only time anyone paid much attention to me is when I did something wrong. It’s kind of, the culture is to focus on the negative rather than acknowledge the positive. So it’s really important to do that. So to recognize and enjoy success when it happens to mark and celebrate success when it happens. And to be, to help people be open to reflecting on setbacks. So that brings us around to kind of not having a blame culture. So when things go wrong, rather than blaming the person, be interested in what got us here, what could we change next? How can we all be involved in helping sort this out rather than individualizing it and, and blaming that particular person. And that’s really important in relation to that links back to safety culture as well as if you don’t have an open, safe environment to acknowledge and bring up where mistakes have happened, then they’ll get hidden and they’ll get worse.

Cassie Gillespie (11:45):

Yeah. And for, you know, for those of our listeners who aren’t terribly familiar with safety culture, although there’s a couple of episodes you can go listen to, to brush up, just the idea of how do you learn in a situation where the stakes are so high that mistakes are really something you wanna avoid. So in a child welfare setting, any mistake you’re making, you know, impacts someone’s family, someone’s life, someone’s child. And so, you know, how do we at the same time operate with the highest integrity to our position and also be really candid and vulnerable about, Ooh, I’m not sure if I did that right. So yeah, this is very helpful in that conversation.

Laura Biggart (12:19):

Yeah. And I think it really, it really ties in when you’re thinking about learning and development for colleagues in your team about how that can best be supported. How, colleagues can learn from what they’re actually doing rather than just listening to a presentation or, you know, learning by road something engaging with things that they’re, that are happening and worrying about at work. People need to have a sense of working together with the manager as well, or supervisor. So it’s really important that the manager is involved or involves the team in important decision making. Organizational change is an obvious example where teams could be involved in how things are gonna change moving forward, but also around the team. What’s the team culture going to be like, how are we going to meet? It’s really important to involve team members in those sorts of decisions to generate a sense that we’re moving together forward as a, as a team. And it gives opportunities for team members then to be heard and to exercise choice and agency. Gill talked about this a bit earlier for children as well. People want to feel like that they have some sense of control over their work, otherwise they’ll just feel permanently overwhelmed and ineffective, which is not gonna help work outcomes at all.

Cassie Gillespie (13:28):


Laura Biggart (13:31):

The other sort of side to it is encouraging team members to share their skills and expertise. Particularly in larger teams, it’s very easy to just get lost into who’s out there. Usually you don’t know the skills and expertise in your team, you don’t know who can support you when you get stuck. So supervisors manage, can encourage and facilitate team members share it, sharing those knowledge and skills so that people can work towards shared goals and have a sense of team achievement.

Cassie Gillespie (14:00):

Yeah. We just hear always that it’s the team is what keeps folks in the work, right? That it’s just so essential to feel connected and that you’re a part of a functioning strongly knit team.

Laura Biggart (14:12):

I think what’s really interesting with a lot of the training we do is we, one of the first things we ask people is what are the emotional demands they face at work? And we get them to work together in small groups, and then we do a joint feedback with everybody. And what we consistently hear is everyone shares their views, but they’re always surprised that everyone else has similar issues. So I thought that was the only one. I was the only one feeling that.

Cassie Gillespie (14:36):

Oh, wow.

Laura Biggart (14:37):

And so it’s really important to offer opportunities for teams to share worries and concerns or do case reflections or anything where they can jointly work things through together.

Cassie Gillespie (14:50):

Yeah. Are we, I was gonna say, are we tiptoeing right into the last dimension there, ?

Laura Biggart (14:54):

Yeah, so the final thing is, is well it was family membership in secure base model, but it’s team membership perhaps not surprisingly, in team secure base model. And this is around how teams can promote a sense of belonging for team members. When we are at work, we want to have a sense of pride in where we work. So we want to have a sort of a link to organizational identity, but also particularly our teams. So we want to have a sense of team identity. We want to feel valued by the team and recognized, and we want to have a sense of shared goals and values to help get that identity. So it’s really important for managers and supervisors to think about when new members join a team, how does that happen? Mm-Hmm. How do they meet everybody? How do they get to know people? How are they included in activities? How can they get up and running quickly, shadowing opportunities, et cetera. So starting is really important. And equally, when people leave, it’s just as important to recognize the valuable contribution that team members have made and to give the team a chance to say goodbye to that person.

Cassie Gillespie (15:58):

And, you know, in the child welfare system, and I imagine this is true in some of the other helping professions, beginning and leaving are such charged events. You know, people make all kinds of meaning around why someone’s leaving or what that means about that person when they’re leaving, Right. Or kind of entering into an agency. So I really appreciate the plug there to be thoughtful as not just folks enter onto the team, but as folks exit a team, that these are opportunities to really create culture in how you create a sense of belonging for people.

Laura Biggart (16:27):

Yeah. It’s an opportunity to sort of remind people what the team embodies and what those individuals have contributed to the team as well, I think, and recognizing that that’s really important. So there was a really nice example in our research where someone said our supervisor just said off the cuff, “oh, I’m leaving” in a team meeting, like without introducing it at all and to people.

Cassie Gillespie (16:51):

Listeners, you can’t see me, but I’m going, eh, making the, the scary face.

Laura Biggart (16:56):

Burst into tears. And she had no idea of the impact that I had on the team. I think particularly in teams where turnover might be an issue as well. So yeah, really, really important.

Cassie Gillespie (17:10):

Yeah. And I mean, you know, sometimes the word is overused, you know, around triggering or trauma response, but people really do, you know, they have emotional physiological responses to people leaving. It’s just so wrapped up in so much of what’s hard about that job. Okay, so thank you for walking us through those. I guess what I’m wondering about is I’m wondering if you can share a little bit about what your vision is now. Where you sit now, you know, at this point in your work with this model about how teams and organizations could use it or should use it.

Laura Biggart (17:41):

Yeah, sure. So we’ve developed the training and as you mentioned earlier, we’ve now got train the trainer program as well, it’s up and running, so we want to get that more widely delivered. But we’re also interested in working with organizations to think about how they could embed secure base behaviors into everyday activities. So for example, thinking about managers and leaders developing a team of secure base organizational culture. How can you include team as skill base behaviors into your recruitment process? If you use competency models, can you have team as a skill base behaviors as part of those performance reviews? You could include team’s, skill base behaviors there. And of course learning and development crucial there as well in terms of thinking about how that could be incorporated into there. So that’s a kind of wider view. It’ll probably take a bit of time to get there, but it would, to us, it kind of make sense because it will just make the work much more effective.

Cassie Gillespie (18:41):

And what do you think gets in the way for teams and organizations to do this?

Laura Biggart (18:44):

Well, it’s a bit like politicians, isn’t it? People tend to have quite short term perspectives, which is one issue. They tend to be too busy to think about the people and investing the time in the people. Task focus is another common issue. People tend to get very task focused and tend to think about the people as kind of widgets in the project and rather than people and humans. You tend to get either a really overly controlling management style, which is quite intrusive and doesn’t develop autonomy, or you can get quite a detached management treatment style at the other end. And it’s quite difficult to get a balance between the two. And then of course, more recently the kind of working at home issue. Everyone’s sort of busy thinking about how that’s how that’s gonna work and we’re still working our way through that. Those would be the main things I think.

Cassie Gillespie (19:34):

Yeah, that tracks all of that. And you know, the, the only other piece we see sometimes here is this idea of like, why does it matter if I like my colleagues or from a managerial perspective, we don’t have time to do this kumbaya kind of fluffy relationship building things. And so sometimes I think we have to speak to maybe the difference between, you know, the team is a secure base model, not necessarily meaning we’re all gonna be friends and do like activities together, , but more, you know, be in line with a safety culture approach to how we collaboratively as a group create a culture where we can execute our job duties and serve children and families in a more meaningful and effective way.

Laura Biggart (20:12):

Yes. No, it’s always about doing the work more effectively. You might get a byproduct of people being friends, but that’s not, you can enact team as a secure based behaviors without being friends with someone is usually my response. So it’s not, it’s not just about being, I like that it’s about being friendly and approachable, not about making friends necessarily.

Cassie Gillespie (20:34):

Yeah. So what has most surprised you in your work with this model?

Laura Biggart (20:39):

I think, again, you touched on it with the Gill podcast, the podcast with Gill, is that it’s really, people really connect with it very quickly because it’s quite easy to understand. The visual really helps and it’s just a constant reminder that the basics of making and sustaining relationships needs constant work and it can’t be ignored. I mean, we did some work very recently with a welfare benefits organization. So they process welfare benefits, they talk to recipients of benefits all the time, and they have to collect debt quite often, which is very difficult task. So they’re dealing with people who are really suffering from austerity and so on. It’s a really difficult job. And the team manager and the team had stopped communicating with each other. They were miscommunicating, the manager couldn’t understand what was wrong with the team. The team couldn’t communicate to the managers above that, the issues with the manager. So we sort of stepped in to try and reconnect, if you like, and everything the team told us, mapped onto the four dimensions, everything was, that was an issue mapped onto one of the five dimensions, which was quite surprising. But quite common when we work with different organizations, we see that the issues that they’re facing can be addressed in part by using team as a secure base.

Cassie Gillespie (21:55):

Yeah, I mean, I guess that’s something we should name because the majority of our listeners come from the child welfare world, but we have say, caregiver listeners who work in a totally separate field or, you know, mental health and community partners who are working in helping roles, but not child welfare roles. This model applies really to any workplace. Correct?

Laura Biggart (22:14):

Yeah, definitely. Any workplace where you’re working in high stakes environments and you’re working with people. So we’ve worked with senior managers in the NHS, for example. We’ve worked with a lot of charity sector organizations.

Cassie Gillespie (22:24):

You’ll have to tell us what the NHS is .

Laura Biggart (22:26):

Oh, yeah. Okay. The National Health Service.

Cassie Gillespie (22:29):


Laura Biggart (22:30):

Which is our health system.

Cassie Gillespie (22:32):

Okay. . We don’t have one of those here. kidding.

Laura Biggart (22:36):

It’s under a lot of pressure here, I have to say. So

Cassie Gillespie (22:40):

So you were saying you’ve worked with the National Health System?

Laura Biggart (22:42):

Yeah, charity sector. A lot of the charity sector gets commissioned quite a lot by our health system here to provide a lot of support work, particularly around mental health. So we’ve worked with quite a few of those sectors as well. And Gill has done a fair amount of work with schools although focusing primarily on the pupils, the students, but there’s scope to work with the teachers as well there as as well.

Cassie Gillespie (23:10):

Oh, that’s lovely. So, in the interest of time, I’m gonna kind of skip to our, our last question that we planned together, but I’m, I’m really just curious if our listeners only walk away with one piece of information from this chat today, what is it that you’d like them to carry with them?

Laura Biggart (23:25):

I think it’d be quite simple, really. It’s, you know, work outcomes are achieved through people, therefore you need to take care of your people.

Cassie Gillespie (23:34):

Short and sweet . Okay. So for anyone who’s listening, who wants to know more about you, about the work you do, about Gill, about the work that you know, the various folks at University of East Anglia who are doing this work where they can find you. Where should they go?

Laura Biggart (23:51):

The secure base website is a good place to start. The team is a secure base, has a section on that website so you can find me and how to contact me there. I’m also on LinkedIn, I’m on Twitter if people want to connect in those ways. And I have a profile page on the UEA website, University of East Anglia.

Cassie Gillespie (24:13):

Great. And we can link to all of that in the show notes listeners, so you can just go find it. Okay. Well, thank you so much for spending time with us today. It was a real pleasure to have you, and I really appreciate you sharing all this super valuable information. Thank you.

Laura Biggart (24:27):

Thanks, Cassie. Really enjoyed it.

Cassie Gillespie (24:32):

Welcome to The Field is produced by the University of Vermont’s Child Welfare Training Partnership and the State of Vermont. Our theme music is composed and performed by local band Brick Drop, and our sound production and engineering is brought to you by Egan Media Productions. We’d also like to give a special thank you to our in-house technical production assistant Emma Baird. For Welcome to the Field, I’m Cassie Gillespie, and we’ll see you next time.

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