Developing an internal supervisor in every social worker

Kirsty McGregor finds out how action learning and coaching can be used to develop critical thinking and confidence in social workers.

The experts who built the Titanic failed to question their own thinking (Picture credit: Rex Feature

The experts who designed and built the Titanic were absolutely convinced it could not sink. Nobody dared to interrogate their self-belief or ask them the tough, but necessary questions. A hundred years later, we are still learning the importance of setting aside our assumptions and challenging what we think we know.

The sinking of the Titanic was a key influence on the founder of action learning, Reg Revans.  His father assisted the board of inquiry into why the ship sank and later told the young Revans that the tragedy, for him, highlighted the crucial distinction between “cleverness” and “wisdom”.

Action learning is a peer coaching method based on learning by doing, which develops critical thinking and reflection. It teaches people to ask their peers open questions, to help them to challenge their own thinking and decision making. And it is becoming an increasingly popular method in social work training, where action learning and coaching techniques can be used to build a reflective culture. 

There are myriad reasons people don’t ask questions of themselves and others, action learning consultants Jan Hall (pictured left) and Mollie Treverton (right), from Carter Hall Associates, explain. In social work organisations, these could range from an individual’s lack of confidence to oppressive working conditions. Yet reflection and analysis is a fundamental part of the job. The need to think critically is what makes social work a challenging, degree-level profession.

So why have social workers stopped asking the tough questions? Part of the problem, say Hall and Treverton, is that simply teaching the principles of reflective practice isn’t enough; social workers must develop an internal supervisor. It’s that little voice in your head asking, why am I doing this? Why are they doing that? Is this decision based on assumption and if so, how do I know that assumption is correct?

Challenging your gut feeling

These are not easy questions to ask, because they require people to challenge the things they or other people believe to be right; that gut feeling or instinct. Hall brings it back to the Titanic: “You can know all about rivets and bolts, but without that questioning approach and being willing to admit your own ignorance…”

Typically an action learning set comprises of between five and eight people, she explains, who will meet fairly regularly over a certain period of time in order to develop certain skills. Each person takes turn to bring an issue to the group, which the group works through, often with the help of a facilitator. The  group members are taught how to use coaching questions to help the person with the issue gain new insights.

“One of the real benefits is the other group members may ask questions you had not thought of,” says Hall. “It’s about creating an environment in the group and relationship with the others where that kind of challenging, critical questioning can be asked and people can think about their assumptions.”

The main session is followed by a process review. Group members are encouraged to think about what they have learned, how they have helped each other – or not – and what they could do differently next time. “You work together, then you look at how you have worked together,” says Treverton.

The groups always examine real issues, it’s never role play. And it’s not about giving advice – it’s about helping the person with the issue think it through themselves. They are asked: what are you going to do as a result of this session? And at the next session they are asked: how did it go? The internal supervisor develops as an extension of this. “When you’re practising, you start to think, ‘what would the action learning set say about this?’,” says Treverton.

But it does take practice. “Social work managers and supervisors have to model this questioning approach and look for opportunities to help social workers think differently. And the group can help each other practice, so it becomes habit.” This means instilling the coaching approach throughout all levels of the service, so it is being modelled in meetings, one-to-ones and group sessions.”

“Managers were telling us they were supposed to help recently qualified social workers reflect, but they didn’t know how best to do that; now they can use action learning”, adds Hall.

Developing an internal supervisor in each individual member of staff can reduce the burden on managers, too, because it instils more confidence in the workforce to make the right decisions. “So rather than coming to managers for advice, they develop their own capacity to work through issues, which can take a weight off the manager’s shoulders,” says Treverton.

Certitude can be dangerous

Hall and Treverton, though not solely focused on developing and training social workers, have clearly done their research. They refer to Eileen Munro’s recommendations around the need for logical reasoning: “She said you can’t just go with your judgment without interrogating it to make sure it’s serving you,” says Hall. “If your internal decisions and feelings are not questioned, it can lead to certitude, which can be dangerous.”

Munro also talks about the pitfalls of relying blindly on evidence, which can be misleading. “Social workers must have an inherently critical approach,” agrees Hall.

Hall and Treverton work mainly with learning and development officers in local authorities, teaching them how to go out and train others to develop a more critical and reflective way of thinking. They run an intensive, three-day course, which is highly experiential. In other words, every individual takes turns being the one with an issue, a group member or the facilitator. They also have an opportunity to explore how they might want to use action learning and coaching within the wider organisation.

And it often spreads further than expected once people learn the techniques, says Treverton. “For example, social workers might use coaching questions to help young people to open up and talk. Some people go home and use it with their own children.

“Usually when we ask a question, we want to know something. But coaching questions are designed to make the other person think. And it grows the courage to ask those tough questions – the ones that nobody asked the Titanic experts.”

Case study: How one council is using action learning to train its second year social workers

Hampshire council reviewed the way it trained and developed its children’s social workers following publication of the Munro report a couple of years ago. After some research, the authority asked Hall and Treverton to come in and train its workforce development officers in action learning.

These officers now run action learning sets for social workers in their second year post-qualifying, as part of the council’s wider early professional development programme. “We’re trying to embed a model they can use in their careers, that they can take into their teams; creating a reflective culture,” explains workforce development officer Morag Currie.

The council decided that newly qualified social workers required one-to-one support and development, but that second years would benefit from a group-led approach. The action learning sets provide a forum for them to discuss not only practice issues, but also some of the work they have to produce for their post-qualifying consolidation course at Bournemouth University. Each social worker has to attend eight sessions throughout the year.

Currie admits it took a while for social workers to get their heads around asking coaching questions. “The idea is to draw out reflection for the person presenting the issue and that was quite challenging for some people,” she explains. “It didn’t happen overnight; we had to chip away at it.” She recommends keeping the sets small, to around five or six people.

She also notes that some managers were initially reluctant to see social workers disappear into action learning sets for three hours a month. To get around that, she and her workforce development colleagues asked the social workers to feedback to the managers on how they were using the action learning in their day-to-day practice. “They are happy to see them take that time out now,” she says, but warns it took around a year to get to that point.

The training has been funded out of the council’s early professional development budget, but Currie says they hope to embed the approach firmly in the operational structure, so they won’t have to provide separate training in the future. “Teams will run the sets themselves,” she explains. “That’s what we mean by embedding a reflective culture.”

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