29 Mar 2021

Supervisor resource 9 - Managing boundaries in supervision

Supervisor resource 9 - Managing boundaries in supervision

Support and autonomy

A key issue to explore in supervision can be how to offer support, develop autonomy while avoiding creating dependency. Difficulties in the supervisory relationship at the beginning may be related to hidden concerns, including adjustment to a new role or developing trust.

Sorting out what styles are usual for the supervisee and what may be signs of difficulty needs to take place in a trusting relationship, particularly when new workers want to impress their competence to a line manager and are mindful of oversight.

This emotional work takes time which could be squeezed out by a focus for both parties on casework details. One option is to acknowledge that covering all aspects in one supervision session can be difficult, so using an alternating focus or mentoring and peer groups can be helpful to ensure all aspect of supervisee’s needs are covered over time.

Some supervisors raised concerns during test sessions for this resource that the ‘restorative’ mode (see more on this in the supervision models resource) may lead to a counselling mode that is not always appropriate or the supervisor does not feel trained for. If personal needs were having a significant and repeated impact on the NQSW role, the supervisor must at least feel confident to identify this and signpost the supervisee to other appropriate resources.  

Transparency is helpful and even subtle ‘gear’ changes in a supervisor’s style, e.g. when moving from a more relaxed and supportive style to introducing a little more structure or challenge may need to be explained beforehand. Clearly agreeing where the responsibilities lie, what is optional and what the expectations and organisational scrutiny are, can help the supervisee.

Thinking about each person’s learning style could be helpful. If the supervisor has a strong reflective style and the supervisee has a strong activist style it will take some negotiation to avoid conflict. Peer groups for supervisors may be one tool that can support best practices.

Supervision records

There are compliance issues to consider in relation to keeping supervision records and notes. Supervisors and NQSWs should ensure that all local and national guidance and regulations are followed in respect of discussion and decisions recorded.

Supervisors may also make a record of supervision which would be agreed by the NQSW. Although subject to the local policies and regulations noted above, making secure and confidential process notes for supervision and reflective learning purposes which are later safely destroyed can be considered, as long as all direct work with people using services is appropriately recorded.

Limits to confidentiality are very often covered by detailed organisational policies and all registered social workers should be mindful of the Codes of Practice for social services workers and employers and their duty to report breaches as part of public protection ethics and maintaining public trust in the profession.

Difficult conversations

Although it can be hard to deal with difficult tasks and conversations, delays often make situations more challenging, as we may be seen to have created acceptance by not acting sooner.

If difficult conversations can be normalised and less threatening they will be an effective way of supporting the personal development of the NQSW. They can also be expressed as part of a comprehensive individual learning plan.

Tracy (2004) encourages us to tackle the most difficult tasks first, which he argues reduces anxiety and increases later productivity.

Helpful ideas for managing difficult conversations:

  • Contextualise any concerns in terms of the supervision contract
  • Specify if feedback is personal reflection or managerial view
  • Keep the message simple
  • Stay with any awkwardness to be sure a message is received
  • Balance any critical reflection in the round with other good work
  • Plan to revisit it later or set SMART goals (see ‘implementation’ section (link)

A supervisee who feels unprepared for criticism may be initially defensive so plan to work with any resistance and treat it gently by repeating and refocusing. Giving critical feedback is a delicate balance. Apologising when you get it wrong sets an example of realistic leadership with imperfections. If we were never to get it wrong, perhaps we would reflect if we are staying too safe.

Most interviews for job roles now require behavioural examples for any of the key criteria, similarly, asking for a change with an employee should also use specific behavioural examples. The DESC model by (Bower & Bower 1991 cited in Davys and Beddoe 2020), is one approach to help plan this. The four steps are:

Describe the behaviour you want to be changed

Expressing your concern

Specifying the behaviour you want

Setting out the Consequences or reason the change is required

Useful ideas

  • Recall a person you have witnessed managing a difficult conversation well.
  • Identify any useful techniques or phrases used and the interpersonal style and body language that helped the message come over clearly without being vague or critical.

Go to supervisor resource 10 – Diversity, power and professional development

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