Achieving effective supervision – Games that supervisors play

Feb 2021

Written by Noel MacNamara

In the previous blog, we discussed how easy it is for the supervisor/supervisee relationship to be consciously or sub-consciously ambushed by power/defensive game play. Kadushin (1968) described games as repetitive patterns arising between supervisor and supervisee, where one or both players consciously or subconsciously adopt a strategy to maximise safety and minimise potential threat.

Even if you as the supervisor aren’t intentionally wielding power, there can still be a little voice in the supervisee’s head saying that “he/she is more senior than me, therefore has the power to make or break my career, so I cannot rock the boat.” Supervisors are not immune to role anxiety. Anxieties can arise from threats or unease about their position in the hierarchy, uncertainty about their authority or reluctance to use their authority, challenges to their role as leader, and the desire to be liked or needed.

Let’s now look at the games that supervisors play (Kadushin, 1992; Hawthorne, 1975). You might recognise some of these, either as things you have done yourself, consciously or not, or things that you have experienced from a supervisor.

I think that is a good idea, but they would never allow it.

A supervisee’s desire to take initiatives is sometimes troubling for a supervisor who fears change, making decisions or tackling something new.

As a supervisor you want to appear open-minded (recognising the supervisee’s good ideas), while leaving the actual decision to someone ‘up there’, knowing there will likely be no response and you can blame it on management. The outcome may be maintaining the status quo, restricting the supervisee’s freedom and inducing passivity, especially when the supervisee is nervous about the performance evaluation, permanency or promotion. Don’t be afraid of accountability and responsibility. 

I’m too busy.

This game emphasises how heavy and demanding your job is and can be used as an excuse for being unavailable, late or poorly prepared for supervision sessions. The supervisor can also use it to safeguard his/her integrity or image of competence. Supervisees collaborate by making few demands on the overworked (heroic) supervisor. Both parties join together and blame the organisation. The supervisee may even be relieved that the supervisor is so undemanding and is not exploring their work.

I’m really one of you.

Because of a need to feel appreciated, supervisors sometimes sides with a supervisee’s complaints about organisational and departmental pressures. The supervisor may also seek approval by emphasising her/her personal qualities rather than her/his skills (“I am a nice person, not like the others”). Either way, you are abdicating power. In the first case, no action plan is proposed to turn the situation around, and inertia sets in. In the second, supervisees may find it difficult to criticise such a talented supervisor, who in reality is displaying her/his talents and socially desirable personal qualities in the place of her/his professional competence.

You learn how to do provide good supervision by doing it for a good long time with different people and by taking chances and making mistakes. Learning is inextricably linked to questions of accountability – ‘What is it that supervisees are learning to do, how well are they doing it and to whose benefit?’

There’s a good reason for that, it’s always been done like this.

Change can make us all feel insecure and compounds feelings of fear of incompetence. In this game, the supervisor is able to keep control of situations, staff and their own anxiety by explaining how things are usually done in this team/service/organisation. As a result, the supervisee may lose faith, trust and professional esteem vis‐à‐vis the supervisor or may become passive and unwilling to open up.

Always remember the goals of supervision are to encourage reflection and exploration of the work and to develop new insights, perceptions and ways of working.

Remember who’s the boss.

In this game, the supervisor will not accept any challenges or include the supervisee or team in decision-making. This disempowers the supervisee and team from taking the initiative or making decisions that affect their care of young people, leading to a bottle-neck as they escalate every decision and more worryingly children are left at risk. Not very satisfying for the supervisee/team or the those they care for. It is important to remember what happens in supervision is often paralleled in the exchanges between staff and young people.

There is a power differential between a supervisee and a supervisor, and it must not be ignored or minimised. However, it does not have to be manifested as “power over”. You have the power. Remember – you can be magnanimous.

Are any of these familiar to you?

Both parties can work differently, in order to create more of a partnership.

Conclusion

Supervision is a relationship that needs to be cultivated over time and with dependability. The same things that happen in other relationships happen here: trust, shame and humiliation, honesty and lies, forgiveness (or holding grudges), conflict, jealousy, anger, fear, silence, dysfunctional politeness…the list goes on.

The ultimate goal of supervision in ITC is good quality practice with a view to improved outcomes for children and young people. In order to facilitate this, the more subtle issues such as game playing need to be addressed alongside practical supervision expectations, such as power, frequency and content.

Supervisors and frontline managers need to be supported and trained to identify their own trigger points and susceptibility to certain games, as well as provided with forums for discussion, exploration and assistance in managing game playing and potential conflicts with the staff who report to them.

References

Kadushin, A. (1992). Supervision in social work (3rd edition). New York, America: Columbia University Press.

Hawthorne, L. (1975). Games supervisors play. Social Work, 20(3),179–183.

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