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Revisiting how social workers learn in the workplace

We want to pause to consider what we are really talking about when we plan for supporting NQSWs to learn through the early career stage.

There are several things to reflect on: What do we mean by learning?; What do we value as individuals and organisations in terms of learning?;What is it really like to learn as a social worker and what does that actually involve?; How do we develop the best opportunities for social workers to learn through work?

What do we mean by learning?

There are many theories about how individuals learn, how organisations learn and how we facilitate learning. Social work as a profession strongly promotes reflective learning, self-awareness and reflexivity. We will be including some information about learning theories in the next stage of the website development. It is interesting to think about what we mean by learning, what we think social workers need to learn, and how they learn. In terms of workplace learning, there are rich and diverse opportunities for social workers to learn through the direct work that they do. Understanding more about the nature of how social workers learn in the workplace can help us think about how we maximise the potential and value of this aspect of professional learning.

What do we value as individuals and organisations in terms of learning?

If you can pause for a moment and think about one of the most important things you have learned as a social worker or as a professional in your career. Then make some notes.

Head icon with gears to indicate reflective thinking
  • How did you learn this?
  • What was it you learned?
  • Where did you learn this?
  • Who supported or influenced this learning?

Many different activities lead to learning. These include formal, informal and self-directed things that individuals, teams and organisations might do. Although guidance for continuing professional learning highlights the range of possibilities that count as learning, many social workers and managers focus on organised training sessions.

Our most significant learning experiences can be through so many different aspects of our work. We are drawing from some recent research in Scotland (Ferguson, 2021) that explored the lived experiences of social workers learning through work. The study highlights that learning in social workers’ workplaces can be incredibly potent in relation to the kind of work they are doing, yet it is not a primary focus in planning for continuing professional learning.

What is it really like to learn as a social worker and what does that actually involve?

The research was concerned with going back to explore the nature of learning in the workplace, for social workers. The study was located at the intersection of different fields of knowledge about individual learning; organisational learning; social work professional learning; and workplace learning. The central research question, “What are the lived experiences of social workers’ learning in the workplace?”, was at the core of the study, drawing from and contributing to these different areas of existing knowledge and offering new insights into how these fields connect.

Social workers learning in the workplace

The study found that learning to be, and learning as, a social worker in, through and at work is an intricate web of sensory and emotional experiences while negotiating and navigating places, spaces and tasks. The lived experiences of social workers can be understood as involving the seven superordinate themes for the group, Journey of the self; Navigating tasks; Navigating landscape and place; Learning through the body; Learning through others; Practices and conceptions of learning; and, Learning by chance. Striking metaphors helped social workers convey their experience of learning in the workplace that encompassed these themes.

Learning as a complex web

Learning as a complex web (Ferguson, 2021)

The themes of social workers’ learning in the workplace should not be considered merely on a surface or simplistic level. It is important to pause and consider what these different themes might mean for an individual social worker, then how these might combine. The threads of the relationship between these themes form a web that is unique to the individual social worker, deeply connected to their embodied experience of learning and the type of work opportunities that they undertake. Understanding the nature and complexity of individual social workers’ experiences can help us design more effective workplace continuing professional learning opportunities.

We will be linking to key ideas from this research and adding more information in the next stage of the website development.

You can find out more about the research and findings “When David Bowie created Ziggy Stardust” The Lived Experiences of Social Workers Learning Through Work (Ferguson, 2021).

How do we develop the best opportunities for social workers to learn through work?

Several important implications arise from Ferguson’s research for those involved in supporting social workers’ learning in the workplace.

  • We need to acknowledge the intensity of the emotional and embodied aspect of social workers’ learning.
  • Social workers are vital to each other’s learning.
  • Learning through direct work with real people who use services is absolutely vital.
  • Direct practice is essential to equip social workers with the kind of learning that they need.
  • We need to understand and value learning through work tasks and consider how we allocate tasks to social workers.
  • The personal value and commitment of social workers to their learning is of fundamental importance. We need to consider how frameworks and regulatory requirements dovetail with this.

References

Ferguson, G M. (2021). “When David Bowie created Ziggy Stardust” The Lived Experiences of Social Workers Learning Through Work. The Open University

Find out about the workshops that Martin Kettle and Pearse McCusker ran as part of our pilot work in the west of Scotland that informed the approach to the NQSW supported year.

Adaptable materials for your organisation

We introduce two templates here for supporting effective supervision for NQSW. These templates are linked with the approach detailed in the effective supervision overview for supervisors. You may already be using different approaches and templates in your practice that fit with your organisation. Please also see the training material downloads which are linked with these templates.

Tools and template downloads

You can download and adapt the reflective journal for NQSWs. This is made up of the different reflective questions that we have introduced on the website. We will be updating this as our website develops so please check back for new versions.

Supervision templates shared by organisations in Scotland (coming soon)

We also recommend SSSC Supervision Learning Resource

Developing your knowledge and skills for working with people who live with dementia

Do you work with people who live with dementia? SSSC have an online resource to help social workers and other professionals implement the Promoting Excellence learning framework and the Standards of Care for Dementia in Scotland within their practice.

This is a detailed and focused learning resource which is ideal if you want to develop more knowledge and skills for working with people who live with dementia.

You will find the link to the Enhanced dementia practice for social workers resource below.

Shared by NQSWs

  • NQSWs told us they liked to use Alzheimer Scotland resources
  • These cover many aspects of daily living for individuals and carers
  • https://www.alzscot.org

References and links

Please remember that if you click on these links they will take you to information and resourcs that are external to the SSSC NQSW website.

This is a specific learning resource for social workers which you can access from SSSC Enhanced dementia practice for social workers

The resource is currently being updated so you can let us know if you find any broken links.

For general introductory information about dementia, you can find links to guides and strategy from Public Health Scotland Public health Scotland Dementia Information

We’d also recommend the Psychology of Dementia team at NES and the resource Promoting Psychological Wellbeing people with dementia

Our new online guide for Dementia Ambassadors and other supporting people living with dementia can be found here Information and advice for Dementia Ambassadors

Different models of supervision

Many different models help explain the interaction between stakeholders and the different functions of supervision. Supervision policies often refer to a three or four-function model of supervision.

Morrison (2010) identified management, professional, and developmental aspects and added the role of mediation in recognition of the role of supervisors. He saw supervisors as the main link between frontline workers and management structures. 

These multiple dynamics of supervision are set out by Kettle (2015), who highlights that a “task-focused approach fails to take account of the interaction between these functions,” or to “situate the dynamics of the supervisory process within the wider organisational or inter-agency context”.

Proctor (2008) advocates a three-part supervision model that has been influential, and these terms are often discussed in wider literature including the very helpful SSSC Supervision Learning Resource (SSSC, 2016).

The key domains are shown in the table below.

Normative  Ensures that staff work within a safe framework for practice   Maintain trust and professional standards   Exploring options within the supervision session
FormativeThe learning function   Sharing knowledge and skills and experiences   Problem solving and skills development   Assist with understanding the people who use services better   Explore alternative ways of working  
Restorative  Support for personal/professional development   Building morale and confidence   Ensure staff function within a safe framework for practice   Maintaining their professional standards  
Supervision Domains

Proctor (2008)

Developing different methods of supervision

A learning organisation will use multiple methods to support staff development rather than expecting everything to be provided by a line manager in individual supervision (Tsui, 2017). This may incorporate peer and group approaches, mentorship as well as consultation and coaching. Peer group work is explored in the training outline for NQSWs. The supervisor training sessions included on this website has a focus on individual models that help to take account of multiple needs.

Heron (2001) set out a model which helps us think more about the variety of interventions that might happen in supervision. Both authoritative and facilitative interventions are needed but some of the facilitative needs may also be achieved in peer-group work (particularly cathartic and catalytic interventions).

Authoritative interventions
Prescriptive – Explicitly direct the NQSW by giving advice and direction
Informative – Provide information to instruct and guide the NQSW
Confronting – Challenge the NQSW’s behaviour or attitude
Facilitative interventions
Cathartic – Helping the NQSW to express/overcome thoughts or emotions that they have not previously confronted
Catalytic – Help the NQSW reflect, discover and learn for themselves. Move toward self-reflection, self-direction and self-awareness
Supportive – Build up the confidence of the NQSW by focusing on their competence, qualities and achievements
Authoritative and Facilitative Interventions

Heron (2001)

Developmental models

There are several developmental models which are helpful when thinking about the domains of motivation, autonomy and awareness in supervision.

As with all models it aids our thinking rather than having a linear or universal application. Factors including career history, such as a prior experience of the care sector, may impact our developmental journey.

The categories set out in the table below are adapted from a model advanced by Stoltenberg and McNeill (2010).

Level 1 self-centred (Can I make it in this work?)
We may be focused on getting it right and the feeling of ongoing assessment or may be frustrated by not being able to get on with it after intense assessments and scrutiny in successive placements.
We may be feeling overwhelmed at times by greater caseloads and conflicted about doing a ‘good enough job’ rather than a comprehensive one.
The supervisor provides a safe and structured container with regular positive feedback.
Level 2 Client-centred (Can I help this client make it?)
The supervisor may be less structured and reduce direct advice, legislation and policy guidance.
Support is offered for occasional swings between feeling skilled and not able to cope with the role and needing to negotiate or ask for help.
As the supervisory alliance grows it is seen more as support for practice than continuous assessment by the organisation.
Level 3 Process-centred (How are we relating together?)
Supervision becomes a joint task, more co-productive and with more power balance.
Supervisees are less likely to use individual theory or prescribed forms of assessment and intervention as they become more comfortable with using their strengths and different range of styles in client work.
They become more self-supervising of casework and their overall development
Level 4 Process-in-context centred (How do processes interpenetrate?)
As a supervisee’s skills become more refined they become integrated with the worker’s effective use of self.
They come knowing how they want to use the session and the supervisor’s strengths.
The supervisee may be a supervisor or practice teacher themselves by this point.  
Levels of Supervision

adapted from Stoltenberg and McNeill (2010)

Reflective questions

  • Of the Heron categories set out above note which interventions you feel are most helpful and which you may be resistant to.
  • How could the alliance with your supervisor progress to asking for a balance of these interventions including ones you may find difficult?
  • Think of different situations over the last month, did you need or desire different supports for them (e.g. direct advice, questions, encouragement)?
  • What situations required which kind of support?

Go to NQSW supervision resource 11 – Seven-eyed model for one-to-one supervision

The NQSW supported year pilots

The evaluation report from our NQSW supported year pilots, and evidence from the current longitudinal study into the experiences of NQSWs in Scotland, identified that reflective, structured supervision and mentoring was core to the NQSW supported year. Supervision provided insight into the NQSW’s practice and overall wellbeing.

Informal support was found to be an important element alongside formal and traditional supervision with a line manager. It was felt that support to develop these informal approaches would be helpful, such as peer supervision or peer mentoring. Access to online training, resources and the development of a web-based learning resource was felt to be important.

Supervision practices

While it is acknowledged that there are areas of very strong practice across the sector, some supervisors of NQSW indicated they would benefit from further training in supervision and engaging in developmental feedback.  

Grant et al. (2019), observed wide variation in practice and that professional development took a backseat to caseload concerns:

…a privileging of case-management over professional development in supervision” with only 65% of NQSW getting monthly supervision and 76% of respondents reporting a focus on caseload management.”

Grant et al. (2019)

This report also identified the importance of informal supports which:

continues to emerge as a critical if underutilised mechanism for supporting professional confidence, competence and development.”

Grant et al. (2019)

A number of issues were highlighted in the report on the supported year pilots. This included giving and receiving developmental feedback. We provide more information on this in the resource about supervision models and the resource on managing boundaries.

Peer learning for NQSW

One of the significant findings, during the pilots, was the benefits of peer supervision for NQSWs. You can find more information in the resources for NQSW and the associated training session outlines which you or your organisation can use.

Effective peer groups run will have clear boundaries of confidentiality and avoid any advice-giving. This safely helps NQSWs process thoughts and feelings arising from practice with less potential power imbalance or performance pressure than supervision with a line manager. The model also lends itself to a clear structure to avoid speaking over other participants. As a supervisor of NQSW you may play a key role in encouraging and enabling NQSWs to set up their own groups and helping your organisation to facilitate and encourage this including:

  • Understanding the model is complementary to individual supervision
  • Organisational ‘buy-in’ including access to appropriate resources
  • Helping NQSW’s decide who to include depending on local arrangements
  • Supporting NQSW’s with maintaining the contract and any problems
  • Viewing this as a valuable learning opportunity

You may also find the later section on implementation guidance of particular use since introducing such models could potentially lead to concerns of oversight or inappropriate dynamics. Advice giving is inconsistent with the group model outlined but this concern may need to be worked through with colleagues or senior managers.

Groups are also valuable for supervisors and Patterson (2019), argues that small groups incorporating ‘thinking aloud’ can be used effectively to support first-line supervisors to deepen participants supervisory skills and competence.

Useful ideas

  • Review the NQSW training resource session including the model on peer groups.
  • Have a discussion with your own manager on whether this might compliment other local provision.
  • Encourage NQSWs you are supervising to access the resources or run a session for them at a local level using these outlines.

Information and links

  • Grant, S., McCulloch, T., Daly, M. & Kettle, M.  (2019) Newly qualified social workers in Scotland: A five-year longitudinal study. Interim Report 3. Dundee: SSSC.
  • Hawkins, P., McMahon, A., Ryde, J., Shohet, R., & Wilmot, J. (2020) Supervision in the helping professions (5th ed.). London: Open University Press.
  • Patterson, F. (2019) Supervising the supervisors: What support do first-line supervisors need to be more effective in their supervisory role? Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work 31(3), 46–57

Go to supervisor resource 4 – Professional values and identity in supervision

Organisational learning cultures

Most social service organisations face many pressures however, an organisational learning culture and good implementation skills can go a long way to support effective supervision.

Training or policy changes alone do not impact sufficiently. Approaches that are teachable, learnable, doable and readily assessable are needed. The use of data and collaboration with local and national stakeholders can help to develop capacity to guide, sustain and scale up. Structured improvement cycles can support local teams to identify barriers and generate potential solutions.

The application of standards and ethics to support the early career development of NQSW’s practice is well set out here against the background of supervision and professional development practice. These resources will not be of full value to people who use services through either improved practice or benefits for the workforce without local implementation activities. This must include supervisors and be situated in a wider commitment toward learning cultures.

Ongoing development and reflective practice for supervisors may perhaps feel exposing at first but also may become energising for both supervisors and NQSWs.

Innovation and change


The Active Implementation Research Network (AIRN), points out that innovation does not need to be a new practice but one that you are using for the first time. They define active implementation as being about “socially significant outcomes where populations benefit from high fidelity use of an innovation”.

persevering in using interventions carefully (fidelity) when new is effortful and may feel clunky or awkward. This is where new practices may fall down without organisational support. Impact for service users can be seen when new practices are operationalised so they are;

  • Teachable
  • Learnable
  • Doable
  • Assessable
  • Scalable in practice

Reflective questions for you as the supervisor

  • Can you think of a culture change exercise that worked well in a social work setting you experienced? List some aspects that made it effective.
  • How could these be applied to supervision and learning cultures in your organisation?
  • What could you commit to working on over the next 6 months to improve your practice as a supervisor supporting NQSWs?
  • Try expressing these as SMART goals.
  • Specific – What particular new supervision practices will you adopt.
  • Measurable – How will you know if you’ve made changes e.g. feedback.
  • Achievable – What’s a reasonable period to evidence above innovation.
  • Relevant – Aligned to development goals individually and locally.
  • Timeframe – Try a 3-6 month period to report on goals.
  • Have a discussion with a colleague who is also using these materials or even your own manager so you have a sense of accountability. You could work these into your own annual appraisal cycle and professional learning record.

Information and links

This is the final resource in the series for supervisors. You can also explore the resources for NQSWs, the learning development materials that can be adapted for your organisation and the templates for supervision.

You may want to remind yourself about the overall approach to the NQSW supported year in Scotland.

A variety of models

Many different models help explain the interaction between stakeholders and the different functions of supervision. Supervision policies often refer to a three or four-function model of supervision. Morrison (2010) identified management, professional, and developmental aspects and added the role of mediation in recognition of the role of supervisors. He saw supervisors as the main link between frontline workers and management structures. 

These multiple dynamics of supervision are set out by Kettle (2015), who highlights that a “task-focused approach fails to take account of the interaction between these functions,” or to “situate the dynamics of the supervisory process within the wider organisational or inter-agency context”.

Proctor (2008) advocates a three-part supervision model that has been influential, and these terms are often discussed in wider literature including the very helpful SSSC Supervision Learning Resource (SSSC, 2016).

The key domains are shown in the table below.

Normative  Ensures that staff work within a safe framework for practice  
Maintain trust and professional standards   Exploring options within the supervision session
FormativeThe learning function   Sharing knowledge and skills and experiences   Problem solving and skills development   Assist with understanding the people who use services better   Explore alternative ways of working  
Restorative  Support for personal/professional development   Building morale and confidence   Ensure staff function within a safe framework for practice   Maintaining their professional standards  
Key Domains of Supervision

Proctor (2008)

Developing different methods of supervision

A learning organisation will use multiple methods to support staff development rather than expecting everything to be provided by a line manager in individual supervision (Tsui, 2017). This may incorporate peer and group approaches, mentorship as well as consultation and coaching. Peer group work is explored in the training outline for NQSWs. The supervisor training sessions included on this website has a focus on individual models that help to take account of multiple needs.

Heron (2001) set out a model which helps us think more about the variety of interventions that might happen in supervision. Both authoritative and facilitative interventions are needed but some of the facilitative needs may also be achieved in peer-group work (particularly cathartic and catalytic interventions).

Authoritative interventions
Prescriptive – Explicitly direct the NQSW by giving advice and direction
Informative – Provide information to instruct and guide the NQSW
Confronting – Challenge the NQSW’s behaviour or attitude
Facilitative interventions
Cathartic – Helping the NQSW to express/overcome thoughts or emotions that they have not previously confronted
Catalytic – Help the NQSW reflect, discover and learn for themselves. Move toward self-reflection, self-direction and self-awareness
Supportive – Build up the confidence of the NQSW by focusing on their competence, qualities and achievements
Authoritative and Facilitative Interventions in Supervision

Heron (2001)

Developmental models

There are several developmental models which are helpful when thinking about the domains of motivation, autonomy and awareness in supervision.

As with all models, it aids our thinking rather than having a linear or universal application. Factors including career history, such as a prior experience of the care sector, may impact our developmental journey.

The categories set out in the table below are adapted from a model advanced by Stoltenberg and McNeill (2010).

Level 1 self-centred (Can I make it in this work?)
We may be focused on getting it right and the feeling of ongoing assessment or may be frustrated by not being able to get on with it after intense assessments and scrutiny in successive placements.
We may be feeling overwhelmed at times by greater caseloads and conflicted about doing a ‘good enough job’ rather than a comprehensive one.
The supervisor provides a safe and structured container with regular positive feedback.
Level 2 Client-centred (Can I help this client make it?)
The supervisor may be less structured and reduce direct advice, legislation and policy guidance.
Support is offered for occasional swings between feeling skilled and not able to cope with the role and needing to negotiate or ask for help.
As the supervisory alliance grows it is seen more as support for practice than continuous assessment by the organisation.
Level 3 Process-centred (How are we relating together?)
Supervision becomes a joint task, more co-productive and with more power balance.
Supervisees are less likely to use individual theory or prescribed forms of assessment and intervention as they become more comfortable with using their strengths and different range of styles in client work.
They become more self-supervising of casework and their overall development
Level 4 Process-in-context centred (How do processes interpenetrate?)
As a supervisee’s skills become more refined they become integrated with the worker’s effective use of self.
They come knowing how they want to use the session and the supervisor’s strengths.
The supervisee may be a supervisor or practice teacher themselves by this point.  
Levels of Supervision

adapted from Stoltenberg and McNeill (2010)

Reflective questions for you as a supervisor

  • Think about how the developmental model set out above also applies to you a supervisor.
  • Identify which stage you think you are at in your supervisory journey and what supports you might need to develop further.

Go to supervisor resource 13 – The seven-eyed model of supervision

Creating a safe space

Research with supervisees has highlighted the importance of supervisors being trustworthy, supportive and caring; available but boundaried; sensitive to supervisee’s needs; and able to create a safe atmosphere where perceived errors can be disclosed and learned from (Hawkins & McMahon, 2020).

Creating a safe and positive atmosphere may include considering:

  • Where supervision happens including phones, noise and interruption
  • Being away from usual workspaces to switch from reactive modes
  • Responsibility for timing and agenda of the session  
  • Intervening when initial chat leads to avoiding the agenda

A supervisor facilitates learning and just like another kind of educator in a class setting would consider, many of these aspects relate to the open and receptive emotional and mental state required for true reflection and development. The NHS Scotland (2011) toolkit for creating learning opportunities argues that managing your own state and the state of a learner are key to effectiveness though effortful.

Managing boundaries

For a supervisee that uses a lot of time superficially describing case activities in sessions it might mean allowing that within an agreed boundary. The supervisor might then be gently curious about whether the detail of tasks shows a desire to win approval for hard work or discomfort with the reflective analysis. Conversely someone feeling distressed about an aspect of casework is unlikely to focus on an agenda until that issue has been discussed.     

Contracting for each supervision relationship sometimes gives way to carefully developed organisational policies to which staff must adhere. However, if that does not cover negotiation around responsibilities and roles, session formats, regulatory and accountability issues and the supervisory relationship those things still require individual attention.

Such areas for discussion might include;

  • Issues with colleagues, managers & organisation
  • Themes arising in a supervisees work
  • Strong feelings e.g. supervisees have felt anger or embarrassment
  • Professional goals and individual learning plans
  • Self care, stress levels, time-management, workload
  • Personal issues that impact work or vice versa
  • When a supervisee feels awkward about a piece of work
  • Potential ethical issues e.g attachment & possible loss of objectivity

Virtual supervision

While familiar to many in remote and rural locations in Scotland, virtual working has recently become valuable for almost everyone since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. There are key tips from research across the globe about improving the quality of online supervision:

  • Strong internet connections (wired connection to broadband routers)
  • Having a backup plan for failed connection (retries followed by phone call)
  • Consider use of headphones to improve audio quality and increasing confidentiality
  • Having the camera level with your face improves eye contact and sense of listening 
  • Be about an arm’s length from the camera, as this will offer the best quality image
  • Discussions about environment including use of virtual backgrounds for additional privacy
  • Making sure your face is well lit, with no strong light behind you eliminates a silhouette
  • Try to look at the webcam at least some of the time, particularly at emotive moments
  • Once image is clear, well lit and framed consider turning off self-view to reduce distraction
  • Reduce intensity when appropriate by screen sharing useful tools from your web browser 

There are also a number of useful reflections on managing the session and the content and transfer our interpersonal skills to virtual sessions. This includes beginnings and endings and more time for ‘checking in’ so participants are in the right state for reflection. It’s important to talk about how the online medium assists or hinders your own communication style and how it impacts working with any strong emotions. Supervisors may have learned to withhold too many non-verbal cues of approval or concern in order to give space to the supervisees process. However online practice may require more expression of empathy and connection in non-verbal cues particularly at beginnings and endings.  

Information and links

  • Research in Practice – Supervision conversations using remote-working technology
  • The above guidance is generally helpful for our increasingly online world both in rural working, reducing travel, time burdens and reducing climate harms. However, many supervisors at this time will still be considering their provision in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • SSSC has also made available a resource to think about wider issues of leading in a crisis. This includes sections on managing grief and change, self-leadership and use of supervision, mentoring and coaching in the online environment. There is also detailed guidance covering ethics in social work practice during the pandemic with those using our services.  
  • SSSC – Leading in a crisis
  • Scottish Government – Covid-19 safe and ethical social practice

Useful ideas

  • Consider the way you currently negotiate and review supervision including how parties prepare.
  • How does this help avoid describing casework activities and enable reflective, meaningful and difficult conversations?

Go to supervisor resource 12 – Supervision models

Welcoming diversity

Welcoming diversity, creating a space for individual learning needs and development of new staff in a complex field of practice takes deliberate effort. Balancing this with the use of a supervisor’s professional and any line manager authority are some of the challenges of professional leadership.

Acknowledging protected characteristics, assumed cultural norms and values, with supervisees, supports the core values of anti-oppressive practice in social work.

It is important to ask about and understand subjective experience. Individual characteristics should be acknowledged even when they seem self-evident. For example, there is still a disproportionate number of male managers when 80% of social workers are women and either ignoring or overcompensating for such dynamics can impact confidence and trust.

Supervisors create a space that welcomes the use of self in our work with people using services. This might include the incorporation of LGBTQIA identities and any dynamics felt by the supervisee even if not observed by the supervisor.

Negotiation and contracting also helps when exercising multiple roles. For example, the need to offer restorative supervisory support around disability dynamics that arise in the role if raised by supervisees, while as a line manager needing to offer a clear process for any necessary employee adjustments.

“We have started using individual contracts and reflecting on supervision histories. That has allowed deeper conversations to talk about what people feel they need and the signs if they are not doing well but to the case-discussion focus is a difficult default to shift”.

Local Authority Manager

Issues such as gender, disability and sexuality that must be acknowledged in a helping relationship such as supervision. Another example of inclusion, because of excellent practice in challenging discrimination and removing barriers to training and professional roles, we are thankfully seeing more people in the workforce with lived experience of care services.

The Promise Scotland recognises that the workforce is also made up of survivors of trauma. Those with lived experience must be supported to be part of the workforce and nurture their instinct to give back, but there must be recognition of the pain that may accompany that involvement.  

Cultural issues are significant factors in supervisory relationships. Responsibility for working with that difference is shared by both parties, whether these are diversities of major cultural or faith communities, experiences of first generation Scots or workers from Scottish traveller backgrounds. Cultural diversity should be welcomed rather than subsumed by professional or role expectations.

Using our power in facilitating learning and development

The container for development is primarily the relationship rather than the content according to Lakey (2020). To facilitate rapport and trust he urges that we can make even obvious diversity issues explicit including gender, class, age and minority issues.

He suggests rather than assuming a shared understanding due to professional identity we must acknowledge organisational power and how, for different people, that may have a greater or lesser impact in their engagement. His approach applied to supervision and professional development suggests that unpacking the NQSW’s stance toward supervision and previous experiences along with emotional and learning styles ​are essential to build a strong container that allows for real development.

Acknowledging and working with those issues might give rise to resistance but going towards this can allow for real change rather than performing a role.

How do good leaders engage?

  • Value diversity
  • Validate importance of relationships
  • Are approachable and responsive
  • Model Good Practice
  • Support, Coach and mentor
  • Are Active and Purposeful

Enablers of leadership

  • People feel supported, valued and respected
  • Work and achievements are acknowledged
  • People have a voice and are treated fairly
  • There is a culture of reflection, learning and development

These ideas are drawn from the resource SSSC – Enabling Leadership

Personality styles are another factor of diversity pertinent to the learning and development task of supervision. Models often identify where we might be on a continuum informed by our ongoing trait, development, or even attachment styles.

Some traits sound like they would be more desirable however our relationships and organisations need variety. There are many models describing personality types including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. One of the most widely applied models of describing personality is the five-factor (Goldberg, 1990) or OCEAN model.     

  • Openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
  • Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. extravagant/careless)
  • Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
  • Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/callous)
  • Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. resilient/confident)

Another model of understanding diversity particularly regarding learning and development is the Multiple Intelligences Theory of Howard Gardiner. This gave rise to the more popular book on Emotional Intelligence by science journalist Daniel Goleman (1995). These can be helpful for considering the strengths and differences between supervisors and NQSW learning styles.

In working with and leading others we become vulnerable and at times may feel de-skilled given our perceived experience or seniority. A social worker who has been has applied vulnerability research to leadership roles is Brene Brown. Her work became widely known following her 2010 TEDx Houston talk, The Power of Vulnerability.

In 2019 she filmed a longer talk for Netflix which you can search for titled ‘A Call to Courage’. Brown argues that we need to work with vulnerability in all our relationships using simple self-talk such as ‘the story I’m telling myself is’… This acknowledges the way we use explanatory stories to understand our relationships but these stories may trigger our threat-protection system. This can be highly relevant to issues for supervisors of feeling they must present as confident in order to reassure supervisees or have authority to lead teams. In Call to Courage Brown says without vulnerability and tolerance of failure it’s impossible to have creativity and innovation in an organisation.

Useful ideas

  • Imagine an ethical dilemma arise of an NQSW who is feeling stuck with a risk-averse mother of a young disabled man called Robert. Robert identifies as gay and wants to be supported to go to appropriate venues and activities to seek a relationship, his mum is worried and the support provider is also hesitant.
  • What types of intervention could be used to support the NQSW to unpick the mother’s fears, the provider’s hesitance and their own views about the standard of ethical values and rights-based practice and the ethics of self-determination?
  • How could you help them to plan interventions?
  • Developed from the British Institute of Human Rights case study of ‘Robert’.

Go to supervisor resource 11 – Good supervision (including virtual practices)