Effective Supervision in Social Work


Edited by: Kate Howe, Ivan Gray & Keith Brown

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    The social work profession has seen unprecedented public and media interest in recent years due, in part, to some well-publicised failings within the care system. However, what is often not reported are the countless stories of excellent practice, where social work professionals make a real and valuable contribution to the lives of vulnerable citizens.

    This is not only a frequently thankless task but often an emotionally draining one, which demands great personal resource and commitment from the professional.

    High quality supervision is key to supporting these front-line practitioners in order to help prevent burnout, to support reflective practice and to help professional development. Kate Howe and Ivan Gray have written this text as part of the Sage/Learning Matters leadership and management series in order to stimulate and support the best possible levels of supervision within the caring professions.

    It is packed full of advice, information and guidance for all potential and active supervisors to help them reflect on, and develop, their supervision of the staff they supervise. This text forms the basis of our supervision and leadership unit here at the Centre for Post-Qualifying Social Work but will be of value to all engaged in this area of study or development, and I warmly commend it to all social work practitioners.

    As always, the texts in this series are written to promote and support the best possible social work practice, with the aim that the users and carers of social work and care services receive the best possible support and service.

    Professor Keith BrownDirector of the Centre for Post-Qualifying Social Work Bournemouth University

    About the Authors

    Kate Howe is a a senior lecturer in social work at Bournemouth University. She is a qualified social worker and has supervised and managed teams in the statutory and voluntary sector. Her research interests include conflict management and developing good leadership skills.

    Ivan Gray holds academic and professional qualifications in social work and management and specialises in management development. Before his retirement this summer, he was programme leader for the BA in Health and Social Care Management and MA in Leading and Developing Services at Bournemouth University.


    ‘Supervision is the cornerstone of good social work practice and should be seen to operate effectively at all levels of the organisation’ (Laming, 2003: 12).

    The importance of supervision in good quality professional social work practice is very well accepted. Munro (2011a), the Social Work Reform Board (SWRB) (SWRB, 2011), and Skills for Care (2012a) have all confirmed its criticality and value. Its role in social work is quite unique in the caring services in that it usually combines management with professional supervision. Usually it is seen as central to service delivery; it is the lynchpin of good practice and practice development as well as being the way to monitor and ensure adherence to organisational policy and manage organisational performance and service quality.

    Aims of the Book

    We have written this book because we believe that effective supervision is a complex and demanding activity requiring commitment and a high level of skill and knowledge. The current initiatives to improve the quality of supervision such as the Reform Board standards are crucial to the future of the profession, but they will not be successful on their own. For genuine progress to be made there needs to be changes made at many different levels. Training supervisors is important, but needs to be set in a context of organisational policies that support good practice. Empowering and upskilling individual supervisors will make a difference to the quality of supervision only as long as they are supported to prioritise this crucial part of their workload in a workplace that has stretched resources and increasing pressures.

    We therefore aim to consider all aspects of supervision, including the personal effectiveness of the individual supervisor, the dynamics of the supervisory relationship and the organisational issues of implementing good supervision policies.

    We also recognise that there is no single model of effective supervision, or any easy answers. Rather there are a range of perspectives from different traditions that might prove useful in helping a supervisor develop their practice. We aim to examine a number of these, taken from a variety of subject areas such as leadership and management theory, professional skills and knowledge, counselling and communications theory, in relationship to supervisory practice.

    We will try and do justice to this complexity and accept that often what we are offering is tentative, inviting supervisors to consider perspectives and issues rather than offering them as proven. This is perhaps the essence of the book; it invites supervisors to engage in developing their own personal practice and ultimately it will be their response to this challenge that will determine the success or failure of current initiatives. Supervision has not been well researched, and without an evidence base sustained improvement will be dependent on this engagement and also on action learning and experimentation by supervisors to develop their practice and the organisation. Our aim and hope is that the particular approach of this book might make a small contribution to improvement initiatives, helping tip the balance towards good quality supervisory practice.

    Who is the Book for?

    This book is primarily for first line managers who supervise a team of social workers and is designed to offer a broad range of perspectives and models they can draw on. It seeks to draw together contemporary knowledge and understanding and to address, with what is available, current challenges and problems. Given the centrality of supervision to professional social work practice it is also very relevant for:

    • senior practitioners;
    • health service managers and clinical supervisors;
    • social workers undergoing qualifying training;
    • health service managers undergoing qualifying training;
    • those supervising integrated teams;
    • newly qualified social workers or those in their first year of practice (ASYE);
    • social workers undertaking post-qualifying training;
    • practice educators, academic educators and training managers;
    • middle managers supervising supervisors;
    • senior managers and policy makers.

    Recent changes in social work have given an additional responsibility for supervising and assessing newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) within a structured and time limited framework - the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE) (SWRB, 2012). Whilst this will give much needed support to the NQSWs, we think supervision will be central to the success of this venture and people charged with this task need to be confident that they have the skills and knowledge necessary to undertake the responsibility.

    Crucially we would also suggest that the book is as relevant for supervisees as it is for their supervisors. We have taken a participative approach and in our view both parties can be actively involved in sharing and developing the lessons in this book. In fact the challenge for line managers/supervisors is accepting their role as educators and considering how they might educate and engage their supervisees in a shared endeavour that is essential to the future of our profession and our services.

    Current Context

    A number of high profile reports and inquiries have categorically stated the centrality of supervision to effective social work interventions and professional judgement and decision-making (Laming, 2009; Munro 2011a) and consequently recent reviews of the role of social work have been concerned with making certain that it is fit for purpose.

    Supervision is an integral element of social work practice, not an add on. Through it social workers review their day to day practice and decision making, plan their learning and development as professionals, and work through the considerable emotional and personal demands the job often places on them

    (Social Work Task Force, 2009)

    However, concerns about the frequency and quality of supervision have also been raised. The Social Workers’ Workload Survey (Baginsky et al., 2010) reported social workers’ criticisms that supervision was reduced to caseload management and targets. Munro's interim report (2011a: 94) concurs and cites evidence indicating the major function of supervision has become managerial oversight to the cost of professional supervision.

    Reflecting on the sheer scale of the skills and knowledge that are needed to provide effective help for the range of children's needs, the review is led to question the traditional concept of an individual social worker carrying a caseload of many families, receiving only minimal supervision, much of which is overly concerned with management issues than professional casework analysis.

    There have been a number of national initiatives to improve supervision practice. In 2007, the Children's Workforce Development Council and Skills for Care (Skills for Care, 2012a) launched Providing Effective Supervision, a workforce development tool designed to provide a model of good practice. Although we have seen little take up, it is a helpful instrument to audit and develop current supervision strategies and practice, and will be referred to in this handbook as providing a useful basis for developing supervision practice.

    More recently, and perhaps having a greater impact, the Standards for Employers of Social Workers in England and the Supervision Framework produced by the Social Work Reform Board (SWRB, 2011) have been introduced. These give a clear direction to organisations that supervision needs to be professional and of high quality. The Standards make it clear that it is not sufficient to have a general agreement that supervision takes place; good quality, professional supervision needs to challenge practitioners to reflect critically on their work. All organisations must develop ‘a strong culture of supervision, reflective practice and adaptive learning’ (SWRB, 2010: 10).

    It is worth reproducing the Standards here to be able to consider how they may play a part in improving practice.

    Standard 5 of the Standards for Employers of Social Workers in England and the Supervision Framework (SWRB, 2011) states that employers should ‘ensure that social workers have regular and appropriate social work supervision’ (SWRB, 2011: 8) and lays down explicit benchmarks for agencies to follow:

    • Ensure that social work supervision is not treated as an isolated activity by incorporating it into the organisation's social work accountability framework.
    • Promote continuous learning and knowledge sharing through which social workers are encouraged to draw out learning points by reflecting on their own cases in light of the experiences of peers.
    • Provide regular supervision training for social work supervisors.
    • Assign explicit responsibility for the oversight of appropriate supervision and for issues that arise during supervision.
    • Provide additional professional supervision by a registered social worker for practitioners whose line manager is not a social worker.
    • Ensure that supervision takes place regularly and consistently.
    • Make sure that supervision takes place at least weekly for the first six weeks of employment of a newly qualified social worker, at least fortnightly for the duration of the first six months, and a minimum of monthly supervision thereafter.
    • Ensure that supervision sessions last at least an hour and a half of uninterrupted time.
    • Monitor actual frequency and quality of supervision against clear statements about what is expected.

    (SWRB, 2011: 6)

    In addition to the Standards, the Reform Board also sets out a framework for supervision. It states that the key elements of effective supervision encompass:

    • quality of decision-making and interventions;
    • line management and organisational accountability;
    • caseload and workload management;
    • identification of further personal learning, career and development opportunities.

    (SWRB 2011: 10)

    There are two more issues we think are relevant to the current situation:

    • The Reform Board has issued a clear message that the supervision of adult safeguarding and child protection should be undertaken by a line manager who is a social worker.
    • The introduction of the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment for NQSWs includes supervision being an integral part of their support.

    The overwhelming view is that social work must have effective professional supervision at its core, to ensure professional judgement and critical reflection about decision-making and reasoning as well as the emotional impact. Without this, Munro (2011a) says that social workers will only operate at an intuitive level, risking leaving bias and uncritical thinking unexplored.

    Approaches and Structure of the Book

    The difference between this book and others about supervision is that it includes knowledge from perspectives that can offer new insights into developing effective practice. As supervision is a relationship based activity, the ability to form and maintain a professional and productive relationship is at the heart of good practice. In this book we explore the concept of emotional intelligence and how specific interpersonal skills can enhance the relationship. The concept of emotional intelligence is defined by Goleman (1998: 317) as ‘the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.’

    Table 0.1 Emotional intelligence
    Intrapersonal intelligence/ personal competenceInterpersonal intelligence/ social competence
    AwarenessSelf-awareness - ability to reflect and accept own feelingsAwareness of others - ability to understand and empathise with the supervisee
    BehaviourSelf-management - ability to express and/or contain emotions appropriatelyRelationship management - ability to create and maintain relationship with supervisee through all situations

    (Adapted from Morrison 2007)

    Developing each aspect of emotional intelligence will lead to a greater capacity to manage relationships in supervision. Self-awareness will lead to an understanding and consequently an ability to monitor and manage own emotions. Awareness of own emotions will lead to an appreciation and an understanding of emotions in others. Awareness of the emotions others are experiencing, as well as the ability to manage your own personal emotions, will lead to a greater capacity to manage relationships. Understanding this ‘interrelatedness’ is key to being able to work in complex and emotionally charged situations.

    There is a growing body of work from psychology and personal development offering a practical set of tools and techniques that can be very useful in supervision. The authors have included models from fields such as neurolinguistic programming, transactional analysis and conflict resolution that offer different strategies on managing self and managing relationships. Using these strategies in the context of supervision can potentially enhance practice.

    Another body of knowledge useful for supervisors to develop an understanding about their position and role is leadership theory. Although supervision is often just one of the tasks of the team leader, there is very little written about how the theories, skills and practice from leadership research can inform supervision practice. A number of leadership theories have been included and applied to supervision throughout the book and we believe this adds a depth of analysis that can significantly improve practice.

    We have also given the management of supervision and case management careful attention. This is a crucial management function and demands organisational skills and methodical approaches as well as personal effectiveness and leadership skills. Supervision can also not stand alone. It needs to be linked to the broader management of the team and the organisation. Consideration has also been given to how organisations can approach developing supervision and develop a learning culture. This includes the supervision of supervisors.

    In seeking to integrate these different dimensions we can be seen to take a ‘holistic’ approach. There is no ‘right’ place to start a book that views supervision holistically, because all aspects are interrelated. However we have ordered the book into three themes and sections.

    The first section is ‘Fundamental concepts’ and is probably the most obvious starting point for new supervisors: it includes the essentials of organising and managing supervision and establishing a good practice regime.

    The second is called ‘Relational aspects’ and picks up the theme of emotional intelligence and how to build and maintain a professional and productive supervisory relationship, as well as managing oneself.

    The third theme and section locates supervision in its ‘Organisational context’ and looks at how the quality of supervision can be enhanced by initiatives in the team and workplace.

    Good supervision is dependent on the participants being reflective, analytical and critical and so this book includes practice development activities and exercises designed to encourage consideration of aspects of self and practice as well as experimenting with new strategies.

    Our overall aim is to develop the professional understanding, skills and practice to provide and develop good quality supervision.

    Summary: Developing Capability

    This introduction has laid out the foundations of the book. It is clear that, in the current context, supervision is a high profile activity and there are many exhortations to ensure that it needs to be of good quality. However, whilst it is indisputable that high quality supervision is dependent on the ability of the supervisor and the skills and experience they bring to the relationship with their supervisee(s), we also suggest that the organisational context in which supervision takes place can make a significant contribution. The aim to ‘facilitate a safe environment for critical reflection, challenge and professional support’ (SWRB, 2011: 9) demands considerable cultural change. We believe that the themes developed in this book -ranging across personal effectiveness, the management of supervision, leadership and organisational development - can make a contribution to the development of effective supervisory practice that reaches for the breadth of perspectives necessary for such a complex and demanding endeavour. In candidly engaging supervisors and supervisees, on the grounds that they are the ones best able to develop practice, we hope we have done a little to assist in empowering front-line practitioners and develop both organisational and individual capability.

  • Personal Reflection on a Supervision Session: Some Key Questions

    The full Effective Supervision Unit provides the basis for reflection on supervision practice. However, some useful quick questions to consider after a session are:

    Reflecting on the Management of the Task
    • Did you get the information you needed to prepare?
    • Had your staff member prepared?
    • Did you check progress on actions from the previous session?
    • Did you agree an agenda and cover it?
    • Did each case/item get the time it needed according to its priority?
    • Did you achieve good depth of discussion in exploring each case?
    • Are you both clear on actions i.e. who, what and when?
    • Are there any other issues that the session didn't cover or information that you need? What will you do about this?
    • Are all cases getting the attention they need?
    • Did you make opportunity to reflect on and discuss learning and personal development?
    • Did you give feedback on good practice and identify any practice that needed improving?
    • Were key issues and decisions and actions recorded?
    • Did you plan together for your next supervision session?
    Reflecting on the Relationship

    (based on the National Occupational Standards for Counselling CLG2.1, ENTO, 2007)

    • Were there any areas of conflict? Have they been resolved? How were they resolved?
    • Did you leave sufficient space for your staff member's agenda and allow your staff member to contribute?
    • What feelings did you experience during the sessions and what generated them?
    • How do you feel at the end of the session? What might be generating those feelings?
    • Are you in any ways stuck or struggling to work with this staff member? What might be causing this? What can you do?
    • Did your staff member show any signs of discomfort during the session? What might have caused this?
    • When did they seem engaged and positive? What might have caused this?
    • What do you think your staff member might be feeling at the end of the session? What might have caused this?
    • Are you developing and improving your practice as a supervisor?
    • Thinking back over sessions, are there any common themes emerging that may be significant in case management, the supervisees’ reactions and practices or in our relationship?

    ENTO, 2007. National Occupational Standards for Counselling CLG2.1. Leicester: ENTO

    SCIE Learning Organisation Audit: Auditing Organisational Development

    Please rate the following with regard to the information systems used within your organisation:

    Please rate the following statements in terms of how they apply to the structure of your organisation:

    Please rate the following statements in terms of how far they apply to the culture of your organisation:

    Are the following examples of human resource practice present in your workplace?

    Are the following leadership strengths established in the organisation you work for?

    These questions have been adapted from the SCIE website (see: www.scie.org.uk/publications/learningorgs/files/key_characteristics_2.pdf).

    Effective Supervision Unit Audit Tool

    In the following table we have added a commentary to the Effective Supervision Unit audit tool which is based on the supervisee's perspective.

    How could you use the audit tool to improve the quality of your practice as a supervisor?

    How could you use it to improve the quality of the supervision that you receive?

    Audit Tool

    1.1 Implement supervision systems and processes
    Performance criteriaCommentary
    a. Implement supervision in the context of organisational policies, performance management and workforce development.You need to locate and familiarise yourself with your organisation's supervision, appraisal, probationary and personal development policies and procedures.
    1  2  3  4  5
    b. Develop, implement and review written agreements for supervision.It is usual to have a supervision contract that summarises arrangements and responsibilities. They can be rudimentary, simply stating frequency, length and who has responsibility for setting them up. More complex contracts cover cancellation procedures, preparation and so on. Others may set ground rules for the relationship and identify such things as areas of interest or for personal development.
    1  2  3  4  5
    c. Ensure supervision records and agreed decisions are accurate and completed promptly.You need to keep a record, at the very least, of decisions made in supervision and whoever has responsibility for recording them will need them to be agreed and signed off. Usually it is the supervisor's responsibility, but you should have a signed copy for your records or at least access to them.
    1  2  3  4  5
    d. Enable workers to reflect on supervision issues and act on outcomes.Your supervisor/s should encourage and give you space to reflect on your practice and identify your strengths, weaknesses and development needs and review your actions and care plans.
    1  2  3  4  5
    e. Monitor and review own supervision practice and learning, reflecting on the processes and implement improvements to supervision.There should be opportunity for you to comment on the quality of the supervision you have received.
    1  2  3  4  5
    f. Identify wider issues and raise them appropriately in the organisation and with other stakeholders.Your manager or supervisor should act as a broker identifying with you practice issues that need to be picked up on in the organisation more widely, so that the quality of services can be improved.
    1  2  3  4  5
    g. Enable access to specialist supervision, support, advice or consultation as required. Specialist supervision can include peer, therapeutic or clinical supervision.Specialist supervision can be an excellent way to develop your practice and can also be essential in some roles and situations which demand more support that your manager or usual supervisor/s can provide.
    1  2  3  4  5
    1.2 Develop, maintain and review effective supervision relationships
    Performance criteriaCommentary
    a. Create a positive environment for workers to develop and review their practice.Supervision should challenge your practice but it should be a positive encounter which you value and where challenge is matched with encouragement and support. You should be encouraged to take responsibility and take control in reviewing and evaluating your practice.
    1  2  3  4  5
    b. Clarify boundaries and expectations of supervision, including confidentiality.It pays to review your previous experiences of supervision and what works or doesn't work for you. Good supervision contracts will cover these broader issues as well as clarifying confidentiality and what are (or not) suitable matters for supervision.
    1  2  3  4  5
    c. Ensure relationships are conducted in an open and accountable way.Both you and your supervisor/s are accountable for your practice so the relationship must be strong enough for you to share the details of your practice, including problems you are experiencing. Hidden practice can be dangerous practice.
    1  2  3  4  5
    d. Help workers to identify and overcome blocks to performance, such as work conflicts and other pressures.Effective practice is not just down to you. Others can influence your effectiveness in a positive fashion, as well as negatively. Your supervisor/s should also be able to help with these broader issues.
    1  2  3  4  5
    e. Assist workers to understand the emotional impact of their work and seek appropriate specialist support if needed.It is a tough job - one that can affect us all deeply. The emotion of your work needs to be on the agenda for the sake of your own health, but also because it can impact on your practice. Some people who use services can be manipulative or frightening - openness about their impact on you will help ensure your practice is purposeful and objective.
    1  2  3  4  5
    f. Ensure the duty of care is met for the wellbeing of workers.Your employer has responsibility for your health and safety including safe working arrangements outside of the office, stress and workload balance.
    1  2  3  4  5
    g. Recognise diversity and demonstrate anti-discriminatory practice in the supervision relationship.Supervision should respond to your individual needs and actively seek not to discriminate against you.
    1  2  3  4  5
    h. Give and receive constructive feedback on the supervisory relationship and supervision practice.Both you and your supervisor/s need to reflect on and discuss the quality of your supervision and aim to improve it over time.
    1  2  3  4  5
    i. Audit and develop own skills and knowledge to supervise workers, including those from other disciplines when required.Your manager should be seeking to develop their skills as a supervisor. You can help them do this by giving them positive and constructive feedback, identifying areas where supervision can be improved. Having good supervisory practice on the agenda is also useful as the supervision of others will become one of your responsibilities as your career progresses.
    1  2  3  4  5
    1.3 Develop, maintain and review practice and performance through supervision
    Performance criteriaCommentary
    a. Ensure workloads are effectively allocated, managed and reviewed.It is very difficult to come up with a definitive workload management system that determines fair workloads for all, as your work will be too complex and variable to be easily categorised and measured. Good dialogue that regularly addresses what you are being allocated, how this is done, and whether it is manageable, is essential.
    1  2  3  4  5
    b. Monitor and enable workers’ competence to assess, plan, implement and review their work.Your performance as a case manager should be evaluated and there should be opportunities for you to develop and improve your practice.
    1  2  3  4  5
    c. Ensure supervisor and workers are clear about accountability and the limits of their individual and organisational authority and duties.Induction and supervision are the best places to clarify any areas of confusion that can arise. Job descriptions and procedures are often not definitive - discussion works.
    1  2  3  4  5
    d. Ensure workers understand and demonstrate anti-discriminatory practice.Your qualifying course will have given a lot of attention to this topic, but do not let it drift -make it an explicit feature of your supervision agenda.
    1  2  3  4  5
    e. Ensure work with people who use services is outcomes-focused and that their views are taken account of in service design and delivery.Work with individuals needs to be achieving outcomes agreed with them. Supervision also needs to address the broader development of services and service quality. People who use services can be involved in this.
    1  2  3  4  5
    f. Identify risks to users of services and workers and take appropriate action.Risks need to be clearly identified, methodically assessed and actions agreed to manage them effectively. Any assessment and agreed plans should be recorded.
    1  2  3  4  5
    g. Obtain and give timely feedback on workers’ practice, including feedback from people who use services.Both you and your supervisor have a responsibility to evaluate your practice and improve it. Actively seeking feedback on your performance (especially from people who use services and carers) and discussing and acting on it is a joint responsibility.
    1  2  3  4  5
    h. Identify learning needs and integrate them within development plans.It is important that you are clear about what areas of your practice you want to develop. Make sure your learning objectives and development plans are focused on these needs.
    1  2  3  4  5
    i. Create opportunities for learning and development.You should be offered and take opportunity to make use of a range of on and off the job development opportunities. Their effectiveness in meeting your needs should be evaluated.
    1  2  3  4  5
    j. Assess and review performance, challenge poor practice and ensure improvements in standards.Supervision should encompass appraisal. Your performance should be evaluated jointly against agreed standards on the basis of readily identified evidence. The evaluation and agreed improvement plans should be recorded together with any differences of opinion.
    1  2  3  4  5
    k. Enable multi-disciplinary, integrated and collaborative working as appropriate.This is essential to service quality and demands regular review and evaluation. Many quality problems originate here and many quality improvements lie with more effective multi-agency and collaborative working.
    1  2  3  4  5

    Well-Formed Outcome Template

    State your outcome in the positive. What do you want to achieve and why is it really important? Make it as detailed as possible.

    What is the context in which it will be achieved? When, where, who with, etc.?

    Evidence: How will you know when you have succeeded (or are on the right track)? What will you see, hear and feel when you achieve it? (using your imagination)

    Resources: What are the internal (to you) and external resources you need to achieve your outcome? They need to be in your control. If not then you need to think about how you might gain control, or consider other resources, or change the outcome.

    How does this fit with the wider system? Who or what ‘in the system’ might be affected by this change positively and negatively? Does it fit with your/others’ values? What barriers might you face and how will you overcome them?

    What is good about the present situation that might cause resistance to change? (Secondary Gain)

    Is the reward of achieving this outcome big enough to compensate you for the loss of how things are now - if not, what would it take for the new outcome to be really compelling?

    Desirability check. Having got this far - do you really want this? What else could you add to this plan to make it more desirable?

    What is your first step? What specifically will you do? What is the action you will commit to?


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