Effective supervision in a variety of settings

The foundations of effective supervision practice: Managing performance and challenging practice

The practice evidence suggests that supervisees value supervisors who can address difficult issues in an open and honest way rather than focusing on blame and criticism. Challenging practice and creating an environment where it is possible to learn from mistakes are essential elements in any supervisory relationship.

What knowledge, skills and values might a supervisor need in order to be able to tackle performance issues in a positive way? Here are some examples:

The use of authority will be fundamental to the process. Hughes and Pengelly [25] refer to authority within supervision as having three aspects:

All three are important in establishing an effective relationship which promotes development and allows constructive challenges. Supervisees who feel secure with their supervisor and respect their integrity are most likely to be honest about their learning needs and able to learn from both successes and mistakes. Supervisors who feel confident in their own knowledge, skill base and professional authority are also more likely to facilitate discussions which challenge and stretch their supervisees. Additionally, the capacity of supervisors to feel confident enough in their role to admit the limits of their knowledge, including when to secure additional input for the supervisee, is crucial. This may be through arranging a one-off consultation or additional clinical supervision, particularly if the supervisor and supervisee are from different professional backgrounds.

Achieving a balance is also likely to prevent the misuse of authority or an overemphasis on task completion, which may occur where role authority is emphasised at the expense of personal or professional authority.

You may wish to ask yourself how, if your supervisees had 100 points to allocate across the three types of authority, they would distribute them in reference to your own supervisory style. If the balance is towards role authority you may wish to consider whether this is resulting in a style of supervision which is focused on tasks and performance management at the expense of professional expertise and the positive use of the relationship to reflect on practice.

Managing performance where there are concerns about practice can be one of the most challenging aspects of supervision. Managing performance within supervision does not exist in isolation. Morrison [1] has identified that, in order to be effective, supervisors need:

SCIE’s people management resource contains a section on performance management. It looks at how to avoid setting people up to fail and explores how performance concerns can be positively managed.

Challenging and evaluating practice in supervision

All of social work and social care practice is underpinned by the values of equality and human rights. This applies in this context to supervisees, supervisors and everyone else. Practitioners will be aware of the law relating to equality, human rights and capacity as it is part of their core training. Applying it in practice will at times be challenging and supervision may be an appropriate place to reflect on this.

Challenging practice may include identifying with the worker any bias and assumptions they may be carrying, or practices and behaviours they exhibit as a result of interacting with specific people who use services. Both supervisors and supervisees will have to consider their own practice and their own challenges in order to ensure that their thinking and actions are not discriminatory. This may put them in an uncomfortable place and this, in turn, will have to be worked through.

If there is dissatisfaction at any point in the supervisory relationship with any matter, it should be challenged and dealt with because failure to do so may lead to a worsening situation and dysfunctional management and practice.

The balanced supervisor

The general picture of an effective supervisor from both research and practice knowledge is one who is able to provide the emotional and practical support that their supervisees need while at the same time keeping a firm eye on the standard of care being received by people who use services. Underpinning this is their own clinical knowledge and confidence in knowing what is likely to support good outcomes. Balancing responsiveness to the needs of supervisees while demanding high standards of practice based on their own clinical expertise distinguishes the authoritative supervisor from either the authoritarian supervisor (demanding but unresponsive) or the passive supervisor (responsive but undemanding). The following model, adapted from Wonnacott’s ‘Mastering social work supervision’ [13] may help you to better understand your own approach to supervision.

The passive supervisor:

The authoritarian supervisor:

The authoritative supervisor:


All SCIE resources are free to download, however to access the following downloads you will need a free MySCIE account:

Available downloads:

  • Effective supervision in a variety of settings
  • Service user and carer involvement in the supervision of health and social care workers: seminar report
  • Practice enquiry into supervision in a variety of adult care settings where there are health and social care practitioners working together
  • Narrative summary of the evidence review on supervision of social workers and social care workers in a range of settings including integrated settings