Defining supervision in social work
“Supervision is a forum for reflection and learning… an interactive dialogue between at least two people, one of whom is a supervisor. This dialogue shapes a process of review, reflection, critique and replenishment for professional practitioners… It is accountable to professional standards and defined competencies and to organisational policy and procedures”.Davys and Beddoe 2020, p.22
Other definitions and information on the development of supervision and learning theories are provided here. How we define supervision shapes our expectations of ourselves and others in supervision sessions and the expectations of our own development as supervisors and the support available for this. There are many other possible definitions for seeing supervision with slightly different lenses. All stress the goal of benefitting people who use services and their carers.
This definition highlights accountability and the link between supervision and performance review or appraisal processes:
“Supervision is a process which aims to support, assure and develop the knowledge skills and values of the person being supervised (supervisee), team or project group. It provides accountability for both the supervisor and supervisee in exploring practice and performance. It also enhances and provides evidence for annual performance review or appraisal; it sits alongside an organisation’s performance management process with particular focus on developing people in a way that is centred on achieving better outcomes for people who use services and their carers.”SSSC Supervision Learning Resource
This definition focuses on social worker support to strengthen ethics:
“Supervision is the systematic, reflective process which supports social workers to make ethical decisions. It also improves confidence, competence and morale, leading to a better service for those who use social work services.”BASW Supervision Policy
This definition focuses on relationships within the wider context:
“Supervision is a joint endeavour in which a practitioner, with the help of a supervisor, attends to their clients, themselves as part of their client-practitioner relationships and the wider systemic and ecological contexts, and by so doing improves the quality of their work, transforms their client relationships, continuously develops themselves, their practice and the wider profession.”Hawkins and Shohet (2012)
The development of supervision in social work
In the late 19th century, volunteer social workers gathered around experienced leaders in an apprenticeship model and supervision was concerned with adherence to agency policy and the distribution of resources.
At the turn of the century evaluation of the perceived worthiness of clients needing help turned to greater examination of the causes of poverty and social justice. From the 1920’s onward social work supervision was strongly influenced by growing psychoanalytic thinking.
From the 1980’s onward, in common with the rest of the public sector, supervision was increasingly concerned with ideas influenced by private sector concepts around performance and accountability.
Supervision has been described as “the most original and characteristic process that the field of social casework has developed”, (Robinson (1949) in Davys and Beddoe, 2020).
Kolb’s experiential learning cycle
The learning cycle underpins much of the theory of supervision and professional development in social work. It involves four stages, namely: concrete learning, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation and active experimentation. (Kolb, 1984).
From the 1980s, building on this, various writers developed these ideas to inform social work supervision, notably by Morrison (2001). Models were set out to help social workers and the wider helping professions improve supervision practice, naming the different processes and roles involved.
Familiar to many readers will be the popular Honey and Mumford (2005) learning styles set out in the overview for supervisors. Various 40 and 80 item questionnaires are available online which can be used with new workers. This may be helpful when the supervisor is familiar with these learning styles.
Often when we are younger or in an earlier stage of career development we might exhibit a stronger style which may soften over time to inhabit a balance of styles. No style is more desirable but we all need to be aware of areas where we would benefit from the relative strengths of supervisors, colleagues and mentors who may widen our perspective.
The four styles relate to preferences for the above parts of the supervision cycle:
Experience – Activist style
Reflection – Reflector style
Analysis – Theorist style
Action Plans – Pragmatist style
Reflective questions for you as a supervisor
- Think about one or more of your current/past supervisors who represent a mix of different strengths and styles. For each supervisor note down your response to these questions.
- What stage you were at in your own professional development?
- What was good/not so good about this person’s style for you?
- How did you fit together in terms of individual characteristics?
- How might your experiences impact your style of supervision with NQSWs now?