Tip #7
Using Your Authority Wisely

Authority legitimizes the power inherent to the role of supervisor and is part of what establishes the supervisee/supervisor relationship. As a supervisor you have a hierarchical relationship with your supervisees. You have the authority to issue directives and require compliance. Understanding how to use your given authority wisely allows for improved relationships with supervisees, an ability to monitor performance, and ultimately improved client outcomes.

Effective use of authority involves:

  • Setting and communicating clear goals and objectives.
  • Offering consistent and regular feedback.
  • Remaining flexible and open to suggestions.
  • Creating structure and predictability.
  • Being impartial and transparent.
  • Remaining aware of each employee’s abilities and performance.

Stories from the Field

Some social service supervisors are hesitant to exert authority. This may be due to self-consciousness about how to exercise authority, a reluctance to enforce certain expectations, or a concern about delegating work to an overwhelmed workforce. Sometimes supervisors may feel as though they are just the messenger and only have an illusion of power and feel stuck as a “middle manager” creating further ambivalence about supervisory authority.

Due to the resistance to exert authority, sometimes, as supervisors we try to base our authority off of our position as supervisors. As a manager, I worked with a supervisor who was very serious about holding her staff highly accountable. This initially gained the supervisor praise for her consistency in meeting data point expectations, however it soon became clear that her use of authority was not effective in areas such as ensuring family centered practice and positive outcomes for children. The supervisor used her office as an authoritarian space, placing a large desk between herself and her supervisees and consistently reminding staff of her position of authority. The level of surveillance the supervisor used to control her supervisees disempowered them, and they lacked self-efficacy in decision making. It was found that the supervisor’s use of authority was mirrored in her supervisees’ work with their clients. The parallel processing resulted in staff that struggled to engage in family centered practice.

I also worked with a supervisor who was confident in her use of authority. This supervisor exerted her authority with intentionality and led the team through non-authoritarian actions such as modeling and empathy. The supervisor was able to form healthy relationships with her supervisees and establish firm yet respectable boundaries. She balanced holding her staff accountable while allowing for autonomy. The supervisor did not rely on her expertise or her position to exert her authority. Rather, she worked through issues with her supervisees, modeling critical decision making skills. The supervisees internalized the supervisor’s expectations and were able to work independently, without micromanagement, in the way that the supervisor expected. The supervisor’s modeling influenced the supervisees in their work with clients, and through parallel processing, the supervisees assumed empowering relationships with their clients. The outcome resulted in positive client outcomes with few complaints. This team became highly regarded for their work and many attributed their success to the effective leadership of the supervisor.

Take Action

Think about your current comfort level in exerting authority. Do you have any level of resistance? If yes, what is the root cause of your concern?

Plan three strategies to increase your effective use of authority. Can you set clearer goals? Become more aware of each supervisee’s abilities?

Watch this brief video related to use of authority and strategize how you would proceed with this courageous conversation: Click to Watch