One person’s meet

The manager’s role in supervising individuals is linked to the manager’s role in enabling others to learn as they practice. This means leading by example and being supervised yourself, so that you are evaluating your practice too and not just perpetuating old habits.

When supervising your staff you should cover four areas:

  • Management – assigning, monitoring and reviewing work and to give space for reflecting on work, out of which may come new and creative ideas.
  • Education – coaching and mentoring staff through tasks and identifying learning and development needs. 
  • Support – identifying sources of stress and pressure, adjusting work to accommodate or address these and possibly raising performance issues in a constructive way. 
  • Mediation – giving thought and attention to complex tasks and possibly identifying other sources of expertise.

Supervision should be regular, planned, uninterrupted (as far as possible), recorded, and with an agreed format between you and your staff. This should say how often supervision will take place, in what location, who will take notes, and how will they be agreed and signed off. All of which should form part of your organisation’s supervision policy.

If your organisation does not have a supervision policy, managers and supervisors may be ambivalent about setting time aside to give workers regular opportunity to review their work and development. Without a policy there is no way of evaluating the quality of the supervision nor clarity about the training needed if someone is to provide effective supervision.

However, having a supervision policy is one thing, carrying it out is another. It is hard, for example, to avoid interruptions especially when short-staffed. One option is to make sure that everyone in the team understands the importance of supervision and respects that time. And the least you should do is divert that phone.

A mark of that respect is that the time dedicated to supervision is kept – with only exceptional circumstances intruding. Also, ensure, no matter how busy your team is, that time is made for supervision – the busier the team is, the more this time is needed. If sessions, for very good reasons, have to be cancelled, make sure they are re-arranged and not lost or missed out.

Most literature on this subject will provide tips on empathy and other skills needed for supervision. But supervision is important for other reasons – it allows managers to tick a box marked “responsibility”, and it gives workers written reassurance that their managers have approved and are aware of decisions that have to be made and so share accountability.

Supervision is also about basic considerations such as mutual respect. This isn’t bestowed with your job title – it has to be earned. If you, as a manager, don’t know what the staff you are supervising have to deal with daily, or have any experience of it yourself (be honest here), you may find your staff don’t have a great deal of respect for your advice or impressive sounding managerial platitudes. They will be more impressed with hard-earned knowledge and skills rather than a hastily bagged diploma in management studies. Similarly, if you don’t really respect the work they do, they will feel this, and the supervisory process will be little more than going through the motions.

As a manager you are there to help your staff perform in a more skilled way. Supervision is an excellent place for identifying issues and planning with each staff member as well as picking issues to discuss in the team meeting. In supervision you can balance the needs of the individual and the organisation and ask questions about the needs of service users.

There is a danger that supervision can become less frequent above front-line manager grades. But who supervises the supervisors? The current emphasis on quality assurance and performance management may mean that managerial aspects of supervision are afforded greater priority than education, support and mediation.

Supervision is often seen as separate from appraisal, which tends to be a more distanced review of, for example, a year or half-year, relating perhaps to a business plan or performance objectives. However, appraisals should contain no surprises if supervision has been properly and regularly carried out. There will have been progress and interaction taking place in relation to the tasks assigned. And that is what supervision is for – to ensure problems are nipped in the bud and staff go from being competent to do jobs, to being highly skilled in their jobs.

Christine Doorly is regional director, National Care Standards Commission; Sheena Doyle is an independent consultant; and Janet Seden is lecturer, School of Health and Social Welfare, The Open University

“When I was….

… in my first job my manager provided support and what I needed to know. He kept certain times of the day as ‘open office hours’ when you could pop in with queries. He would find out what training was available. He went on courses himself and was prepared to delegate his leadership while away to experienced team members. He also checked how people were and took account of any personal pressures. Supervision was an hour once a fortnight and always happened with a good mix of checking the work, discussing the issues and looking at training needs. Later in my career as a senior practitioner in a child protection team I was disconcerted to be told by the manager that ‘you are very experienced so you won’t need supervision so often.'” By Janet Seden

Top tips

  • The best place for supervision is a protected time and space, away from work pressures.
  • Divert phones, get on a course, review what you do, identify training needs, get feedback.
  • Delegate the supervision of newer staff members to the more senior team members and work with those carrying out the most complex work. 

Rubbish tips

  • Wait for your appraisal of someone to raise the thing that is really bothering you about their performance.
  • See a lot of your team around the office and you won’t need to do supervisions.
  • The longer someone has worked the less supervision they need.


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