Supportive Supervision “…makes the difference between joyless submission and eager participation, between playing notes and making music” (Kadushin & Harkness, 2014, p. 162).
Supportive supervision involves building a relationship with your supervisee that is built upon mutual trust and respect. It creates a foundation that allows a supervisor to be effective in the other two legs of the stool: the administrative and educational functions. Providing support to employees in the field of child welfare is a key factor in job satisfaction and is fundamental to your success as a supervisor.
As a supportive supervisor, you motivate your employees through constructive feedback and acknowledgement of good performance and you counsel your staff through challenging and at times emotionally exhausting decisions. How you support a staff member can look different for each one of us, and should be specific to the supervisee. It is essential to understand how your supervisee wants to be supported.
In my role as a child protective services investigator I came across many difficult situations. One day, early in my career, I responded to a report of child emotional abuse. I interviewed the young child who was the subject of abuse and listened to his incredibly painful story. The child had to be removed from his parents and needed immediate psychiatric help. I had spent a full day with the child, ensuring that he would have a placement with a relative, gathering his belongings, and finally taking him to a crisis center.
I felt committed to this child and wanted to stay with him despite the fact that it was already well past the end of my work day. I had my own young child at home and was very conflicted about asking for back-up assistance. On one hand, I wanted to be home caring for my own child, yet on the other, I felt responsible to ensure that this severely emotionally abused child was looked after. As I was sitting at the crisis center the supervisor for the after-hours unit called me. I had only met this supervisor a few times, yet she knew that I had my own child waiting for me at home and that I was a dedicated worker who would most likely not ask for help. She made the decision for me. She told me that she was sending a worker to relieve me, and talked me through the day, listening to the child’s story and ensuring me that it was okay for me to take care of myself and my own family. I introduced the child to the after-hours worker, and because of the support of this supervisor, I left without a feeling of guilt and with a knowledge that because I was taking care of myself, I would be able to care for vulnerable children in the future.
This interaction with the after-hours supervisor created a connection and high level of trust and respect. Soon after I went to work for her, staying under her supervision for many satisfying years in my career. Years later when I asked her about that night, she did not recall the 20 minute phone call that she had with me, as it was just a natural part of her supervision. Yet, for me, I have remembered that moment clearly, still even 10 years later. The support she modeled that night shaped my own future supervisory role.
Supervisees who report they feel “supported” by their supervisor report higher job satisfaction and reduced intention to leave. Whether it’s practical support like approving time off or having an answer, or it’s emotional support, such as debriefing a crisis or checking in on a staff member’s stress level, support matters. Now that we are thinking about how important supervisor support is, it’s time to take action.
Think of a time you felt supported by your supervisor. What was it that your supervisor did that made you feel supported? Now think about each of your employees, are you aware of how they feel supported?
Take time to ask at least two of your supervisees about what makes them feel supported.
Try to implement a strategy to support one of those workers, and if you feel it’s appropriate, ask for their feedback.