December 30

How to make supervision work for you

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You probably already know this.

You need good supervision to progress as a social worker.

Not supervision that tells you what to do.

But supervision that works with you, for you.

How do you do that?

But more importantly, why should you do that?

Let’s start with what good supervision looks like, before we go into how to make your own supervision better.

Good supervision is…

Critical

I don’t mean critical in a bad sense. Good supervision doesn’t just involve telling you what’s not working.

social work supervision

It’s about telling you what’s working as well.

That’s important.

You might go to supervision expecting something to be fixed. Or you might want advice about what you are doing with a client.

The tendency is for us to focus on what isn’t working, rather than what’s working.

As Buckingham and Goodall share in their Harvard Business Review article, feedback rarely works the way it does.

Why?

Because feedback is often focused on what’s wrong, rather than what’s right. They argue that the number of wrong things you could do is infinite. But the number of right things you do is finite.

Focusing on the finite things you do right, improving them, and repeating them, will help you to grow.

Let’s talk about a real-life example. I will draw from my personal experience recently.

When I was a student social worker, I was working with a client who had been homeless for some years. I was helping him to look for a job and also to look for a home. It was frustrating. It was slow.

One afternoon, I told my supervisor about how I felt that nothing was moving.

She looked at me, and said,

What have you been doing with him?

Oh, just bringing him to the museum, having coffee with him… it’s so small! And it’s so slow! It doesn’t seem to matter!

But it matters to him.

It matters to him.

That’s when I realised that rather than looking at the change that hadn’t happened, it was better for me to look at the change that had happened.

Sometimes, supervision can focus on the negatives. Rather than asking your supervisor on what’s not working, try asking:

  • What do you see that’s working?
  • What am I doing right?
  • How can I do better on what’s happening right?
A reminder that supervision helps us be braver in looking at our failures.

Collective agenda

Here’s a fact in supervision.

You need to set your own agenda.

This is so important that I’m going to repeat it again.

You need to set your own agenda for supervision. There are many different topics you can bring up for supervision – the weather, your favourite football club, the lunch you had…

But supervision isn’t a cafe chat.

It’s a serious thing.

You can’t wait for your supervisor to bring up the questions, to tell you what to do, to set the agenda.

You need to set your own agenda.

You might be thinking:

But this is crazy! I’m just a junior social worker!

How can I know what’s important to discuss?

Yes, it’s true that good supervision should involve a collective agenda. From you, your supervisor, and your organisation.

But the truth about social work is that sometimes, social workers are too busy to handle all of that.

Whilst it’s ideal to be clear about your organisation, and your supervisor’s agenda, you need to set your own agenda first.

Being independent is about seeing the issues that are recurring in your social work. It’s about looking at the 3 areas – personal, professional, and organisational.

In the personal space, it’s about looking at what’s affecting you in your personal life. These can be personal relationships, a personal struggle, or even a family problem.

Discounting these personal issues is discounting yourself.

You’re not being fair to yourself when you try to hide them and pretend that they don’t exist.

Secondly, professional.

These are the social work issues. You might face difficulties in counselling or casework management.

You need advice about how to move forward. Or you might face a client with an issue that you haven’t encountered before. You feel out of your depth.

Seek supervision in those cases.

Lastly, the organisation.

Sometimes, colleagues can seem more difficult to deal with than clients.

You probably have that experience of workplace politics. Of backstabbing. Of poor management.

These are issues that will affect you.

The organisational health will affect your personal health.

There are some organisations that are bad.

Period.

There’s no excuse for why they are so bad.

In those cases, supervision can help you to see whether it’s a place worth staying.

Having been in bad organisations before, I find it helpful to ask these questions to raise my awareness of what’s happening in the organisation.

  • Is this common within this organisation?
  • How would you describe this organisation in one word?
  • Why?

Contrasting

Good supervision is a contrast to your normal thinking style.

Great supervisors force you to think.

To think differently.

They encourage you to use a different lens to look at a problem, rather than looking at it with the same eyes. They bring different models of supervision.

Whilst it’s good to find a fit between your supervisor’s style and your style, you can bring in greater contrast into your conversations with your supervisors by asking a simple question.

  • What am I not seeing in this issue?

How do you do this?

Now that you know this of supervision, what are the practical steps you can take to improve the quality of supervision.

Here are some simple ways.

Contract with your supervisor

Okay, this sounds basic.

But let me tell you, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

When you contract with your supervisor around things such as:

  1. How often you would like to meet
  2. How long each supervisory session will be
  3. Your supervisor’s expectations of you (what you’re supposed to prepare, how soon agendas should be sent etc.)
  4. Where you would like to be
  5. How to get there

You need to be clear about the last two questions. Essentially, supervision is a joint journey between where you are now, and where you want to be.

Your supervisor helps you along this journey to get to where you want to be.

But you will need to put in the effort to make sure that you get there.

Think: Where do you want to be at the end of this supervisory journey?

Starting with the end in mind is vital to ensuring quality supervision.

social work supervision
Where do you want to be at the end of the journey?

You might not know how to get there. But if you know where you want to be, you can co-create the journey there.

You might say:

How can I possibly know where I want to be at the end of this?

Yes, I admit, that’s a tough question.

But what’s helped me is looking at two different things.

  1. Skills – what am I good at?
  2. Passion – what am I interested in?

The intersection between skills and passion is where the sweet spot lies.

Ask yourself:

  • What are the skills that you show readily?
  • What do people often say you’re good at?
  • What can you do that no one else can do as easily?

Passion is often overrated in our search for a meaningful job. You often hear things such as follow your passion, follow your heart.

But when you do that, you might sometimes realise that you still don’t like doing what you do.

That might be you today.

Despite following your passion to help people, you find yourself struggling in a social work job. You don’t enjoy some aspects of it.

That’s okay.

It’s impossible to like every aspect of your job. No job is perfect.

But it’s about building a good fit between your work and your interests so that you minimise the things you hate doing, and amplify the things you love doing.

After you’ve thought more about your passion and your interests, you might have a clearer idea of where you want to be.

In social work, there are two tracks.

You might already know that.

There is the clinical track, and there is the management track.

Here’s the thing.

It’s not one or the other.

It’s one and the other.

I see many great social workers choosing to stay on the clinical track because they desire the continual face to face interactions with clients.

That’s not wrong.

However, I see many making the mistake of thinking that if they go onto the management track, they end up losing the client contact.

This is a myth.

Yes, you might not be having that much client contact as before.

But you can still take on a few clients if your time permits.

This helps you to keep your ear on the ground, whilst still allowing yourself to develop the organisation.

As business philosopher Jim Collins reminds us, don’t fall into the either/or fallacy.

Lean into the wholeness of both/and.

Own your own supervision

Too busy to have supervision?

Waiting for your supervisor to suggest a supervision date?

Waiting for your supervisor to raise issues to discuss?

It’s your supervision.

You own it.

If you don’t wish to have supervision, it’s your choice.

But there is much research that shows how important supervision is in helping a practitioner through difficult experiences.

For example, Ferguson (et al. 2020) has shown that the proximity of managers and social workers contribute to better outcomes for clients. When you feel emotionally supported in your work, able to talk about troubling cases, you no longer feel alone.

Don’t wait for someone else to set the date.

Set your own date.

Own your own supervision.

Adjust supervision as you move

Supervision is not static.

It can be adjusted as you move.

There are times when supervision will involve more clinical work, such as counselling and casework management.

But there are other times when the supervision will revolve around organisational issues. For example, the recent transition to working from home during COVID means that issues such as poor work-home boundaries, workload management, overworking, need to be addressed.

There are different seasons in supervision.

What matters more is that you are intentional about adjusting supervision to fit where you want to go.

Think of supervision as a Marauder’s Map.

There is a beautiful poem by Spanish poet Antonio Camacho.

Caminante, no hay camino.

Se hace camino al andar.

Traveller, there is no path.

The path is forged as you walk.

You might have an end point in your

Always prepare an agenda

NEVER go into supervision without an agenda. It’s wasting your supervisor’s time, and more importantly, wasting your time.

Supervision is a place where you can address your concerns.

It’s a safe space to bring out issues.

If you don’t attempt to even prepare an agenda, the struggles you have aren’t going to be fixed.

That’s vital.

A good agenda would be sent out 72 hours before hand so that your supervisor has a chance to prepare for the questions you have.

Tell your supervisor what you need.

After qualifying for a year, I realised that the supervision I had was not as clinically focused was I would have liked.

A lot focused on the day-to-day casework management. For example, why hadn’t you tried this? Why didn’t you try that?

What is happening?

Questions like this can help you to go so far as a professional. But to grow clinically, you need to be willing to tell your supervisor what you need.

For example, I told my supervisor:

  • What worked for me in the past with previous supervisors
  • What I had liked in previous supervision
  • What I expected from her

Doing this helps to clarify expectations on both ends. If your supervisor feels that he or she can’t do this, then there can be a negotiation of what will work best for you.

Conclusion

How to make supervision work for you is less a question of how, and more a question of if.

Do you want to make supervision work?

As a busy social worker, there are always more things to do.

But the vital thing is not about how supervision will work better.

You probably know how.

But the question now is if you will take the effort to make it better.

You might disagree.

What distinguishes great supervisors for you? Let me know in the comments.


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