How to tackle the cultural barriers to good social work supervision

Effective supervision requires strong leadership and organisational policies, as well as highly-trained supervisory staff, argues David Lawlor, director of the Centre for Social Work Supervision and Consultancy.

Sponsored by:

Editorial content is independent of the sponsor

I have spent a considerable amount of time training frontline managers in supervision and was always left feeling that the training had achieved good outcomes for individual participants, but did not address some of the more complex cultural aspects of the system, which either inhibited good supervision or enhanced it. With that in mind, I designed a new programme for a children’s social care department, which has highlighted the fact that merely training supervisors in the basic supervisory functions will not achieve deep change in an organisation.

The design had an underlying structure focused on developing the individual skills of the supervisor, but also addressed the organisational conditions that could hinder or encourage high quality supervision.

Interactional skills

All social work and social care managers are required to participate. They are put into small groups of approximately 10, which they stay in for the duration of the programme. Each group begins with an introductory day, followed by half-day monthly meetings. In the introductory day, participants are introduced to the core concepts of interactional supervision. These are: active listening, effective questioning, reflecting, paraphrasing and summarising.

In the groups there is the opportunity to practice supervisory skills and work on relevant issues. The monthly meeting combines opportunities to work on dilemmas that managers are facing in the practice of supervision plus input from the facilitators. Managers present a supervisory dilemma and another manager takes up the role of consultant and uses interactional supervision skills to aid the manager in understanding the difficulty. The other members of the group then offer feedback both on the dilemma and the interactional practice used in the session.

A joint steering group is set up to manage implementation of training in day-to-day practice.

More specific skills are also taught and practiced in the groups, for example:

  • Facilitation: “I wonder what you mean when you say you are worried about the care of the children…”
  • Eliciting: “Tell me more about the condition of the children.”
  • Probing: “You seem bothered and upset about the way the mother spoke to the children. What exactly bothers you? Why?”
  • Observing: “I have noticed that you keep going back to concerns about the mother but you haven’t mentioned the father.”
  • Confronting: “This family seems to be worrying you a great deal, but you seem reluctant to put your cards on the table with the parents on the care of the children.”

Supporting social work managers

If you’d like to learn how to promote heroic and transformational leadership within your organisation and get the best out of your social workers, come to our conference in London on 17 September 2013

Interactional skills require the supervisor to listen and reflect back supervisee’s issues as they emerge. The supervisor seeks to understand the meaning of the presenting issues for the supervisee, their team and their organisation. It is important to pay attention to underlying issues. For this to take place the supervisors needs to create an environment in which supervisee will come up with their own solutions and then support the implementation of the supervisee’s solutions. It is crucial to seek and review feedback from the supervisee.

Structuring the sessions

Before the initial supervisory meeting the supervisor should think about and empathise with the position of the supervisee. They should go on to develop a verbal or written contract to define the purpose, roles, and responsibilities of supervision, which can be used to guide the session. At the start of the session, agreement is reached on what to work on. The middle stage is the use of elaborating skills: social workers often present issues in a fragmented fashion; elaboration skills are helpful as they allow the worker to tell the full story.

One local authority invested in a nine-month training programme for managers in reflective, interactional supervision. They created a joint steering group of managers who meet regularly to support the implementation of this model of supervision, and a new policy outlining the standards expected from everyone. The deputy director for children and families, education and children’s services, said: “This whole-systems approach to embedding reflective supervision has meant that we have made significant changes in our culture and working practices.”

Their aim was to enhance professional capability by developing and maintaining a system within which all social workers are able to access professional supervision from appropriately experienced social workers. Supervision was to provide critical reflection, challenge and evidence-informed decision making in complex situations. Making sure protected time was available for professional social work supervision was key. As a result of the programme the local authority has a new supervision policy, which covers the responsibilities of staff and managers, identifying 12 standards to be met. It also provides clarity about the way supervision will be assessed and monitored.

The interactional programme has shown that a number of elements are required in order to effect organisational and cultural change, including the individual development of relationship skills, but also organisational policies that provide the scaffolding for these changes in practice. And it requires leadership and engagement at the top level of the organisation. 

If individuals and organisations can begin to engage with these tasks, the prospect of achieving sustained improvements in supervision becomes more real.

David Lawlor is director of the Centre for Social Work Supervision and Consultancy. Email David

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.