Improving Practice through Supervision

01 May

As Social Work continues to be scrutinised here in England and the numerous initiatives put in place to address perceived skill gaps we see the continuation and implementation of programs to “fix” the problems in Social Work for those who are starting out. We have the Frontline programme aimed at fast tracking “quality” candidates through Social Work training to get them on the frontline and working with vulnerable people. We have the Step Up program, which is “a training programme which enables trainees to work towards a qualification to practise as a social worker at the same time as gaining intensive hands-on experience. It has been designed to enable high-achieving graduates or career changers who have experience of working with children and young people to train to become qualified social workers.[1]” They are also looking for proposals for innovation in Social Work to improve child protection outcomes in failing local authorities. What I don’t see in these initiatives, and maybe I need to do more research, are those geared at frontline management. I don’t understand the purpose of training new workers in new ways but allowing management to continue in the way it has always been. What I see as lacking is the way we train workers who are underperforming of doing just enough to get by to be better practitioners.SUPERVISION

Of course, me being who I am, I have an idea as to how to manage these workers and help them improve and I think the answer is modelling. I think as managers we need to model the behaviour we want our practitioners to be exhibiting with clients when we have supervision. These are very simple things we can do as examples.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of the work, we can get into some very bad habits including spur of the moment supervision, allowing interruptions during supervision, being late for supervision or rescheduling consistently, allowing supervision to be unstructured and various other issues. These bad habits are mirrored if you look at the practice issues identified through case reviews and inspections. Admittedly, practitioners need to take responsibility for their work and their practice, but it is difficult to reprimand someone who is mirroring the behaviour of a manager. There needs to be some consistency in the way Social Workers are managed and the way they are managing cases. We can look at parallels in parenting or in pro-social modelling but what it comes down to it teaching those skills which appear to be missing or not up to standard and where this isn’t being proactive enough and confident enough to manage people out. The latter is harder than it sounds but this is definitely where, as a manager, you need to be aware of your role and your organizations procedures on how to manage underperforming staff. I want to deal with the former.

Looking at the literature there are three main functions of supervision, each with their associated topics and tasks that go into more depth and relate to practice. These functions are educational, supportive and administrative[2]. If you think about it supervisory relationship mirrors the relationship we have with our clients. On a basic level Social Work is about task assistance and social and emotional support facilitated by a positive relationship. This is true of the supervisory relationship between frontline manager and frontline Social Worker as well. The core tasks of Social Work are assessment, planning and intervention. Supervision is about assessment, intervention and planning just in a different context.


In assessment we are trying to ascertain where our clients need assistance, where are the gaps in functioning and those places where we can realistically effect change. In supervision we are looking at the practical work of the Social Worker in terms of responsibilities and organizational accountability. Here we are discussing our policies and procedures and ensuring that practice is mirroring the vision and responsibilities of the organization.

Intervention and Planning/Supportive and Educational

Intervention is about how we are going to address the gaps and areas for change. The educational function is about confronting the gaps in knowledge, skills and practice. It is about looking at how Social Workers are practicing. We are getting them to reflect on what is happening and figuring out those areas for improvement. The supportive element of supervision looks at worker morale and job satisfaction. This is where we would have conversations about where a worker might want support. This is also equivalent to professional development. How can we take those areas identified for improvement and turn them into skills? How are we going to address them? How are we contributing to high worker morale and job satisfaction?

Mastering these skills is the reason, sometimes, the best practitioners make very good managers. Obviously there are other key personality traits and characteristics that make a person suitable for management but here I am just talking about the key tasks of the Social Worker, whether in direct practice or in a management capacity. Being able to undertake these tasks is crucial for optimal functioning in Social Work.

There are things managers/supervisors can do with their supervisees that would begin to change the working relationship and begin showcasing those skills we expect to see in practitioners. This list is based on what I have seen and experienced in supervisory relationships but is by no means exhaustive.

–          Setting appointments: it is crucial for supervision to be planned in order for it to be effective. It gives both practitioner and manager a chance to prepare for the session. When we work with clients, appointments are our time to implement interventions, get an update on tasks, or just check in. It is important because you recognise the importance of planning in the achievement of goals.

–          Keeping appointments: I had a manager who was constantly rescheduling our supervisions then questioned why they were so long when we finally met. When I raised it, what I got was a statement akin to “you should see how often [my manager] reschedules my supervision.” This is modelling at work. The practice of her manager was filtering into her own practice. Sometimes rescheduling is inevitable but if this is constant I would say the nature of the supervisory relationship needs to be evaluated. We should always be respectful of our clients’ time. We are always quite scathing when we have a client who is consistently late for appointments or chronically missing them. We should, as practitioners, be able to live up to the expectations we have of others.

–          Setting an agenda: When working with clients having an agenda or, more appropriate in that context, an intervention plan, allows a practitioner to make the most of every session. You know from your plan what needs to be achieved with the family and you would have had conversations about how to achieve these goals. Intervention plans for each session keeps it focus and moves you toward case progression instead of stagnation. if supervision is haphazard and without focus how do you know when tasks are complete and whether they are being completed on time? How do we know if policies and procedures are being followed? How do we know what concerns have arisen? How do we know where our supervisees are struggling? You can talk for hours without coming to any conclusions or making any progress. There needs to be a structure.

–          Using authority appropriately: As people we tend to fall back on authority when we feel, threatened or challenged or frustrated. Not that this isn’t appropriate or needed at times, however, as I recently read “if you want honey, don’t kick over the beehive.” Getting the best out of someone rarely happens because we puff out and beat our chest as a show of power; that does not facilitate lasting change. Our clients may acquiesce to get rid of us but we are no closer to effecting lasting change than we were when we met them. I know a decent manage that, because she felt threatened by the challenging behaviour of an employee, missed the opportunity to grow at a critical stage in the supervisory relationship. So instead of working through the particular issue and getting beneath to the core issue, she exerted her authority and pretty much said “what I say goes and you need not challenge me,” which then shut down the worker’s momentum after having built up the courage to address those underlying issues. Their relationship is functional but limited. You have authority and those you supervise as well as our clients are well aware of that fact. We rarely achieve genuine positive results because we are powerful. It is usually because there is a quality inherent in the relationship that allows us to feel positive about that which is asked of us.

–          Documentation:

Being a manager/supervisor is not just about the functions of the organization; you have to know how to get the best out of your workers. If you’re not giving priority to your relationship with your supervisees how can we expect them to be interacting with clients? It isn’t impossible and you have those workers who thrive no matter how good or bad the supervision they are receiving. However, modelling behaviour can be crucial if you have someone who is under performing. You can use the supervisory relationship to draw parallels to their practice. You can build the relationship by engaging the practitioner which is what we would expect them to do with clients. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen training for “working with difficult/hard to reach/hard to engage clients/families”. What I don’t see are trainings on how to work with difficult professionals; however, the skills are similar.

Just a note on managing people out; a key component of supervision is documentation. If as a manager you are having difficulty with a staff member who is underperforming, it is mandatory for you to have documentation that explicitly states the identification of the issues as well all the efforts made to assist the staff member to improve with time frames so they have a realistic view as to when tasks and activities need to be completed. You will need to document exactly what needs to be improved as well as what you have asked to be done to evidence the improvement. As stated, you will need to put time frames on these. You will need to document the workers response to these and ensure that this is signed by yourself and the worker. If, based on your organizations disciplinary procedures, you have reached the limit on the allocated time for improvement and there has been no improvement these will be needed by management and human resources in order to justify someone being removed from their post. This is best done as openly and honestly as possible. It needs to be, as it would with a client, based on the behaviours that are inhibiting the work rather than on the person themselves. You need to be able to relate it back to their job description and they need to understand what is at stake. Every organization should have policies and procedures to govern this process but it starts long before you get to that stage. All of your supervisions should include a discussion about practice, those things being done well and those that aren’t. Formal processes should not be a surprise to a staff member. But I stress, keep tasks, comments and documentation focused on the work and not on the person. It may be that they are suited for another aspect of working in your organization but necessarily for your particular area.


[1] Department for Education (2013) Supporting social workers to provide help and protection to children

[2] Infed – The Functions of Supervision



Posted by on May 1, 2014 in Social Work Practice


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2 responses to “Improving Practice through Supervision

  1. Stuck on Social Work

    May 1, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    This is a great post.. thank you for sharing. I would like to elaborate on couple of points. I think it is executive and senior management that sets the tone for “frontline” managers. This is where changes starts. They need to be aware of the gaps and model appropriate ways to fill them. I also like the breakdown of tips. I am not sure how long you have been in England but social work has become a business in The States. It is based on “productivity”, “data”, “reducing cost”, but the process of doing good work and supervision seems to be slipping. Again thank you for sharing.


  2. Stuck on Social Work

    May 1, 2014 at 1:34 pm

    Reblogged this on Stuck on Social Work and commented:
    This is a great reminder of the importance of good supervision. In our focus for “productivity” we often lose focus of the good work. This is a great reminder to get back to our roots and pay attention to the “process” of good social work.



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