Tip #1
The Three Legged Stool

Imagine for a moment that social service supervision is like a three legged stool. Each leg represents one of the three essential functions we serve as child welfare supervisors. Through this illustration, Kadushin and Harkness (2014) remind us that as supervisors, we must fulfill administrative, educational, and support functions to effectively monitor and mentor a child welfare workforce.

Administrative Supervision: Monitoring the quality of practice by assigning cases, reviewing paperwork, ensuring adherence to agency policy, conducting performance reviews, and appropriately asserting administrative authority. This means noticing and acknowledging high quality performance. It may also involve having courageous conversations when performance falls below the expected standards.

Educational Supervision: Providing training regarding agency policy/procedures, practice skills, and the population; educating your staff by asking questions and engaging in clinical case reviews to enhance critical thinking skills. This involves both sharing information and developing analytical skills through questions and discussion.

Supportive Supervision: Building a respectful, give and take supervisor/supervisee relationship that allows for open communication. Being available, providing helpful feedback, encouraging self-care, debriefing stressful events, and providing a bridge between child welfare staff and upper administration are all important ways a supervisor can provide support.

Stories from the Field

I have conducted trainings on strengths-based supervision for several years now. Regardless of the location, the discussion about the three legged stool always seems to strike a chord with several people. I think part of the brilliance of the illustration is that it is a simple way to help us reflect on the varying roles we serve. By doing so, we can quickly recognize the one or two functions we prefer, and we can identify the one we need to be more intentional about embracing.

In each session, I ask for the audience to talk about the role they feel most comfortable and the one they need to strengthen. Some are organized and feel very comfortable with their administrative authority. However, they may be more directive and might shy away from clinical debriefing and the importance of asking questions to prompt discussion and critical thinking. Others love clinical supervision and seeing “light bulb” moments as part of the educational function, but they might not be comfortable with the “administrative hat” and having courageous conversations. Some identify themselves as very supportive whereas others would do anything to avoid supervision becoming too “touchy feely”.

I will always remember one supervisor who acknowledged her strengths in administration and education, but she struggled when it came to checking in on her supervisees or debriefing stressful moments. She made a commitment to slow down and provide more “check-ins” with her supervisees in between our trainings. She left the first training excited about stabilizing her stool by lengthening the “support leg”.

I will never forget when she came back to our second session. She shared with great pride that her check-ins were initially going great. She said several supervisees noticed the changes she was making and expressed appreciation for the chance to talk about things with her in addition to their cases, such as their own professional goals or their attempts at work/life balance.

She said it was great until last week. I asked, “Oh no, what happened?” and she said, with great concern, “My supervisee was so appreciative, she gave me a hug!” We smiled and laughed, but I also understood her discomfort…lengthening her “support leg” was truly stretching her own style of supervision. Although hugs are not a supervisory requirement, we should recognize the meaning supervisees attach to feeling supported. Research continually reminds us that when supervisees feel “supported”, they have increased job satisfaction and reduced burnout. Although a hug is not required, feeling supported is.

Which leg is a big short for you? The opportunity to fully develop your supervisory program such that all roles are fulfilled has real benefits for your supervisees, for you, for your agency, and most importantly, for the clients you serve.

Take Action

Think back about your supervisory conferences over the past month. Do you see all three functions represented at some point? Supervisees need different things at different times, so there will be seasons when your supervision is very much about support, other times there is a ton of education, and at times, they need lots of administration. But, if you don’t see all three roles happening over time, this suggests you might need to strengthen one leg.

Talk to a peer about your natural strength and the one leg you might want to stretch. Talking it through will increase the likelihood you take action.

Now, set a goal to increase the use of one particular leg with one particular supervisee this week. Try it and then share with someone else how it went.