A group of people standing in front of a crowd
Social Work

Social Work Literature on Supervision

Patti Thurman

At the time of this writing, just as Munson states in his book Handbook of Clinical Social Work Supervision, “no theory of supervision exists” and no attempt can even be made to create one because “social work supervision knowledge and research are not sufficient to permit development of a substantial theory at this point” (p. 22). One may be able to argue that a practice theory regarding supervision need not be developed or that if one was developed it might not even be beneficial but the absence of any intellectual practice theory regarding social work supervision should not come as a surprise when considering the fact that over 60% of supervisors had no formal academic training in supervision. What’s revealed more in Munson’s studies referenced in his book are that of those who did receive training in supervision 20% of the supervisors had done so through their agency’s job training program and the remaining 20% through on-the-job training. 13% of graduate schools requires a course in supervision, 28% didn’t have a course on supervision, and 58% offered the course as an elective.

All these facts demonstrate the declining focus on formal learning about supervision for those who would be and are supervisors. The statistics referenced above are rather alarming because supervision in practice is very important. After all, those under supervision “need assistance to integrate the many practice demands that are marginally covered in education programs” (Munson, 2002, p. 23). Munson also hypothesizes in his book that the “supervisor style gives rise to the style that the practitioner adopts in supervision” (p. 22) and thus the supervisor’s inadequate and training may severely affect supervision itself.

Of course, supervision is not completely dependent on the supervisor alone since it is a dyad relation also involving the supervised, who in this paper’s case is the intern. To define supervision, it “is a method of training and teaching in which experienced professionals interact with students and interns to provide guidance, on-site education, skill development and general support. Aspects of supervision often include direct observation of the student, training meetings arranged for specific purpose of addressing the needs of staff members and interns, weekly individual or group sessions where interns discuss their work with their supervisors, and, periodically, goal-setting and evaluation sessions” (Chiaferi & Griffin, 1997, p. 24). Mirroring this definition, Munson (2002) states that supervision is “an interactional process in which a supervisor has been assigned or designated to assist in and direct the practice of supervisees in the areas of teaching, administration, and helping” (p. 10). In supervision, the supervisee is expected to be accountable to the supervisor and unlike a consultant or a therapist, the supervisor in this relationship is a person who has some official sanction to direct and guide the supervisee’s practice.

The intern-supervisor relationship allows teaching to be tailored to the needs of the individual student so that learning is optimal and as Chiaferi and Griffin states, it is the center of the fieldwork experience. It can even be said that students, when volunteering their hours to intern in an agency, receive supervision in exchange and in lieu of financial gain. It is a relationship that demands trust from one another as “supervision cannot proceed in a climate of mistrust” (Munson, 2002, p. 12.). During each stage of the supervision, the intern and the supervisor must work together for the growth of the intern as a practitioner, which has an indirect impact on the clients the intern serves.

Particularly important to consider are the differences in personalities between the intern and the supervisor, especially since in many studies like Raskin’s (1989), it’s been shown that personality conflicts between the supervisor and the intern were a primary reason for failure in field placements for undergraduate social work students. Dettlaff (2005) in particular asked two questions in his study: (1) What is the relationship between similarity/difference in personality type (of the supervisor and of the intern) and the student perceptions of the quality of the supervisory relationship? and (2) What is the relationship between similarity/difference in personality type and supervisor perceptions of the quality of the supervisory relationship? 84 supervisors and interns participated in this study, all being from a large southern university.

With personality types defined by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and the Barrett-Lennard Relationship Inventory (BLRI), the results of Raskin’s study “suggest[ed] that the interpersonal relationship between field instructor and students may be enhanced when similarity exists in the interaction style ([extroversion vs introversion personality types]) and information processing ([sensing vs intuition personality types]). It is important to note that these results do not suggest matching students according to personality type. Rather, results suggest the need for field instructors to be aware of their own personality type and learn how to respond to students of differing types. Field instructors must be able to respond to their students according to the students’ personality type, in order to effectively relate to their students and to meet their students’ learning needs” (Dettlaff, 2005, p. 78). Differences in personality types can matter when it involves how the supervisor instructs and how the intern learns, and these matters are best addressed and resolved when both the intern and the supervisor are aware and considerate of these differences.

A good supervision functions effectively even with personality type differences and other supervisory issues. A good supervision is well-structured with clearly defined goals and boundaries, regular in frequency, consistent in style and in approach, case-oriented so as to keep supervision focused, and constantly evaluated (Munson). The structure of the supervision should be formed from the very beginning stage of the supervisory relationship. Chiaferi & Griffin suggest the creation and establishment of a contract that defines learning objectives, manner in which the intern will achieve those objectives, and various methods of evaluation of achievements. The intern should strive always for a reciprocal interaction and shared responsibility. Thus, if the supervisor asks of the intern tasks that do not seem immediately relevant to the student’s conception of the internship, they should ask the supervisor how the tasks requested are relevant to the learning objectives. The supervisor in turn should be able to take these questions critically and develop “an atmosphere that invites open discussion of both successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses,” which is “at the core of every good supervision experience” (Chiaferi & Griffin, 1997, p. 30).

One of the proponents of good supervision that was mentioned was that it is case-oriented, so that it focuses on intern’s growths in serving the clients. This focus is crucial so that supervision can be differentiated from therapy. Chiaferi and Griffin write, “In general, supervision focuses on helping the intern to develop greater knowledge of self and others (as pertaining to the interactions occurring in a given fieldwork site), enhance skills, obtain specific assistance when necessary and identify personal issues that may obstruct the performance of the intern’s work. During this process, it is not unusual for an intern or supervisor to call attention to personal characteristic, communication style, or specific issue that seems to require understanding or resolution. Interns may appropriately raise personal issues for discussion when doing so will benefit their learning, and, ultimately, the clients they serve” (p. 31). Munson writes a similar response, stating “Research has demonstrated that the supervisor needs to encourage a healthy balance with respect to the amount of self-analysis because some students seek self-analysis to avoid dealing with other components of their practice, and others avoid self-analysis to the determent of their growth and development as practitioners. Self-analysis should always be encouraged by the supervisor in context of how it will make the practitioner more effective in a specific case” (p. 32). In simple terms, personal issues of the intern and even of the supervisor are okay to discuss, if and only if the disclosure and analysis is for the growth of the intern as a social worker.

Much of the literature I read on this topic thus conclusively suggest that a good supervision is one which there is clear structure and well-defined boundaries, where personal issues do not become the focus unless it is pertinent to cases in discussion. Supervisors need their own training to conduct good supervision experience and interns need to be aware of the possibilities of the supervisor having a different personality type and also of developing and establishing a supervisory relationship that is transparent as possible and that is as full of trust as possible. Much research remains to be done in this area and training is severely lacking for both prospective supervisors and current supervisors but there does at this point exist a paradigm for how supervision should work and what function it serves. As this paradigm becomes more and more established and becomes backed up with more and more evidence and research, there is hope that standard for supervision for both the supervisor and the intern will of more than sufficient level.

Leave A Comment