Supervision Skills

The definition of Supervision is “management by overseeing the performance or operation of a person or group”.

The roots of what we have come to know as supervision lie in areas like the development of social work and casework, and other professional areas like psychotherapy or occupational therapy. As a practising Coach, I am required to have coaching supervision as part of my practice, and from its original context in professions like social work, it has become a requirement in a number of medical professions, and in the voluntary sector.

To make sense of supervision it is worth reflecting on the various forms of apprenticeship that have existed in different societies over many centuries. In ancient China, Africa and Europe, for example, there are numerous examples of people new to a craft or activity having to reveal their work to, and explore it with supervisors i.e. those recognised as skilled and wise. This process of being attached to an expert, of ‘learning through doing’ allows the novice to gain knowledge, skill and commitment. It also enabled them to enter into a particular ‘community of practice’ such as tailoring or midwifery. By spending time with practitioners, by ‘looking over their shoulders’, taking part in the routines and practices associated with the trade or activity, and having them explore our work, we become full members of the community of practice.

Supervision roots can also be found in the growth of charitable social agencies during the nineteenth century. It involved the recruitment, organisation and oversight of a large number of volunteers and, later, paid workers. The volunteers were commonly known as ‘visitors’. Their task was to call on a small number of families to offer advice and support. The main concern was to foster self help, and the adoption of ‘healthy’ habits and behaviours.

Models of Supervision

Alfred Kadushin’s approach to supervision in social work stated the functions of supervision in the following terms:

Administrative – the promotion and maintenance of good standards of work, co-ordination of practice with policies of administration, and the assurance of an efficient and smooth-running operation

Educational – the educational development of each individual worker on the staff in a manner calculated to evoke his/her fully to realise her possibilities of usefulness

Supportive – the maintenance of harmonious working relationships, the cultivation of esprit de corps, and any issues ariosing for the individual in their work (e.g. personal frustrations, annual leave, equality and access to opportunities)

This threefold education/administration/support model seems to be present in most supervision practice. As Managers we may well express a concern for the well being of those we are responsible for; we may also attend to gaining clarity around the tasks to be achieved (and how they are to be undertaken). We also have a care for staff development. We may well explore particular incidents and situations and seeing how they could be handled in different ways.

There may however be situations where these elements are not all present. For example, we may have slipped into a strong task orientation with a particular worker. Or (and this is quite common) we may focus rather too strongly on the support side. It’s also fair to say that over the last few years, there has been increased emphasis on the performance management aspect, linked to wider use of appraisal schemes, as well as more focus on the outcomes for people who use services and how these can be improved.

It’s helpful to think of the three elements as inter linked: they flow one into another. If we remove one element than the process becomes potentially less satisfying to both the immediate parties – and less effective.

Organisational challenges

Professional supervision is able to make a major contribution to the way organisations ensure quality provision and consistent outcomes for people who use services, as well as maintaining a positive and fulfilled workforce: in this context, Managers are key to making supervision work and need to have a concern for both performance and learning.

The essentially managerial aspects of Managers’ work is their responsibility for monitoring and improving the work of others; their managerial effectiveness is determined by their capacity to improve the work of others. If Managers are not able to make this contribution, then they could be challenged as to what value they are adding. The ultimate justification of Managers’ existence is the improvement of the work of their team(s). If Managers fail in this way they fail as Managers. In this way Managers are expected to develop relationships and environments that enable people to work together and respond to change. Such ‘joint performance’ involves having common goals, common values, the right structures, and continuing training and development.

I think that it’s important to look at the context of the organisation through both its overall culture and management practice. If the organisation is a true learning organisation, then they take policies and approaches to supervision seriously.

For example:

* Are Senior Managers receiving supervision, and supporting their Operational Managers to be able to practice and “protect” it as a practice?

* Is there an overall supervision policy that clearly sets out the organisations approach to supervision and is reviewed and updated on at least a bi-annual basis?

* Are Supervisors effectively trained in how to approach supervision on an ongoing basis?

* Does the organisation support individuals with a supervision contract?

The answers to some of these questions will give a clue as to whether there is the right culture to support supervision practice, although there can still be good practice on a “patchwork” basis in parts of organisations where Managers see the practice as helpful and productive.

The practicals of the Supervision session

My sense is that we all know these, and all make sense, but perhaps in the hurly burly of busy weeks, struggle always to “hold the line” on all the principles.

For instance:

  • Forward planning and booking ahead crucial, particularly where large number of people to supervise
  • Reviewing the last supervision and preparing for the upcoming one are important to see what’s happened since last time, and “shape” this one
  • The majority of people suggest between 1-1.5 hours as a good time to cover all the areas in the supervision agenda properly and spend quality time with the member of staff
  • Supervision should sit alongside informal catch ups, especially if its every 6-8 weeks
  • It should be “expected and protected”, and practicalities around time and venue clear
  • The person carrying out the supervision should work on communication strategies with individual people, thinking about what style will work best with them; some people will have lots to say, others little
  • Sustain the “positives” in the relationship where possible, and remember to thank staff. Work with staff on developing negatives
  • Good to think about Practitioners “self supervising” in between sessions using reflective practice, their own initiative, and approaches like critical thinking and evidence based practice
  • It should be clear about whose responsibility it is to write up the session, and there should be some expectation of follow up on actions between sessions, both from supervisor and supervisee

It may be worth thinking about the Coaching GROW model model to use in a Supervision context

Closing thoughts and resources

Supervision is hugely supported if the organisational culture supports the practice by trying to make it seen as positive and supportive instead of a trial to get through.

Supervision practice is one of the operational tools of management practice and approach; it’s a real skill to do well: the Supervisor needs to be able to use “situational leadership styles” (in effect different approaches with different people)

Click here to undertake a “diagnostic assessment” of your style to supervision, and reflect on how effective your preferred style would be with different people in your team.

Also see the really useful Skills for Care “providing effective supervision” booklet with more background, and examples of supervision policies, agendas and agreements.

Here is an example full Supervision policy from Slough Borough Council, setting out areas like overall Supervision context, principles of Supervision and the rights and responsibilities of the supervisee and the supervisor

Here is a useful supervision Form example