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date: 22 February 2024

Managerial Supervisionfree

Managerial Supervisionfree

  • John E. TropmanJohn E. TropmanUniversity of Michigan


Supervision is an important life skill with many applications, all of which involve the provision of helpful guidance to others. Guidance may come in the form of encouraging self-realization or the explanation of specific procedures. Generally, supervisory encounters involve one or two issues or their combination: counseling problems and coaching problems, broadly conceived. Counseling problems involve issues of attitude, more or less. Coaching problems involve issues of information.

A supervisory framework includes the identification of stairs of supervisee competence: novice, beginner, competent, proficient, expert, master, and maestro (a master who can motivate others and blend the individual skills into a larger collective product) (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1986). Each stair, or stage, has its own "flow chart," where the complexity of tasks is matched by the level of competence. When the supervisee gets to 8/9 or 9/9, it is time to move to the next level. Supervisors need to know the six supervisory competencies: professional supervision (clinical/educational), managerial, supportive, career development, reflective supervision, and coaching.

Being well supervised helps the supervisee be a better supervisor. There are several guidelines to follow to be a good supervisor: Consider what makes a supervisor “great” or a supervisor “awful” and apply what is learned to one’s supervisory practice. Organize each upcoming supervisory meeting and plan an agenda for it. It is helpful to be aware of “wicked problems” (which are multisided and complex, and often without simple resolution). Know the difference between professional work and emotion work, and between formal and informal managerial supervision. Finally, consider 19 common supervisory questions and suggestions.


  • Administration and Management
  • Macro Practice

Introduction: The Road to Becoming a Supervisor

Between the 3rd and 5th years after securing a master of social work (MSW) degree, professional social workers—both macro and micro—are asked to become supervisors (Perlmutter, 1990). Usually, the promotion comes as a surprise, as most agencies have thin to nonexistent talent management programs and succession planning. The occasion for promotion is often some precipitating organizational event (e.g., Mary had her baby and is taking a leave of absence). So, the new supervisor is typically untrained or undertrained for the job. It is also typical that the promotion is an add-on to the worker’s current workload until appropriate adjustments can be made, which might drag on for quite a while.

Discussion of supervisory competencies (knowledge plus skill) progresses along the supervisory tract from simple to more complex. Knowledge of the Dreyfus and Dreyfus staircase of seven competencies is essential, as different supervisor emphases are needed in each: novice, beginner, competent, proficient, expert, master, and maestro. Each level has its unique issues and problems (discussed later).

Similarly, each professional needs to know the six supervisory competencies: professional supervision (clinical/educational), managerial, supportive, career development, reflective supervision, and coaching. These require a different conversation and differential use of self for both the supervisor and the supervisee. The supervisor must be clear about the focus of any supervisory encounter. When such clarity is missing, confusion and ineffectiveness result.

Another rarely used component of the supervisory experience is “being supervised,” as opposed to being a supervisor. Teaching students how to “lead from the second position” and help their supervisor be better is a great way to begin. A key skill here is organizing the supervisory meeting and planning an agenda for it, involving the supervisor with requests for input.

Other meta-principles are similarly helpful, such as personal organization, attentive listening, meeting-management skills, addressing issues early, “wicked problems,” long- and short-distance supervision, the “agenda bell,” the “meaningful workplace,” and self-care modeling rather than self-exploitation.

Formal (Position) and Informal (Role) Managerial Supervision

Formal positions are typically compensated and, putatively, at least, have training associated with them. Informal positions most often do not, and in many cases are not even recognized.

The formal position of supervision is an appointed position in an organization. It includes subordinates, direct reports (to the supervisor or manager in question), students, and other assigned personnel. It can also be “open,” as in an ombudsperson, where the supervision involves organizational conflict and is initiated by one of the aggrieved parties. Another version of formal but open is sometimes called “consultant” and is available to discuss issues of interest to employees and process or advise them around organizational issues that may be their own or pertain to the organization more generally.

One example of the informal position of supervision is trying to help one’s boss become a better boss. This work is called “managing up” or “managing from the second position.” Another example is the observational role, where someone is assigned to shadow a supervisor in preparation for taking a similar organizational position or role. A collegial example: Colleagues seek counsel and advice about personal matters. And, of course, there is the ultimate informal supervisory role: managing oneself!

Relatedly, there are many professional-managerial supervision tasks that occur in life, such as in relationships and households, often informally, and that include partners, children, parents, and others. There are also tasks of managerial supervision in a range of volunteer and community-based activities.

It is useful to consider formal and informal supervision as involving management in seven ways: oneself, personal relationships and households, within a range of volunteer and community activities, subordinates/direct reports, peers, superiors, and community participation and contribution. The list suggests that managing and supervision are not isolated activities; rather, they are ongoing and pervade daily life in a variety of ways and with a variety of clients. These “clients”—including oneself—are also in a variety stages concerning their competencies, where competencies = knowledge + skill. These stages build upon one another as one learns and grows.

Great Supervisor/Awful Supervisor

Everyone has experienced great and awful supervision. Consider a little exercise: On a piece of paper make two columns, “great supervisor” and “awful supervisor,” and reflect on the good and bad qualities of supervisors in your experience. See what conclusions can be drawn. Explore some writings on these experiences using Google (e.g., Google “great supervisor” and “awful supervisor”). There is a wealth of material on dealing with a bad or toxic supervisor. The 10 tips from The Muse are extremely helpful (The Muse Editor, 2021); some modifying suggestions are added:


Consider any personal issues that might bias you in your interaction.


Think about what your supervisor’s motivations might be.


Try not to take it personally or to let it negatively affect your work.


Anticipate the kinds of things that might come up and prepare in advance.


Try not to let conversations go on and on; if not productive, shelve the matter and work on it back at your desk.


Supervisors sometimes act like they know everything, but they don’t. Don’t point this out! But consider make suggestions like “you might consider” or “maybe something like the following.”


Don’t hesitate to make suggestions. Just don’t insist on them!


Everyone is sensitive to one trigger or another. Try to know your supervisor’s sensitivities, and plan workarounds.


In couples’ therapy, there is often assigned homework. Don’t hesitate to suggest that individual consideration might be useful.


Obviously, avoid bad supervisors in the future, as you move from agency to agency. Try to get “intel” about the supervisor ahead of time.

Good supervisors typically have the interests of their supervisees at heart. They have learned about the staircase of competence, and they provide encouragement to supervisees to keep moving, in what is called strategic supervision: Expanding competence now with an eye toward moving to the next level.

Strategic supervision is like the strategy in eight-ball pool. An easy shot is OK, but the better shot is to sink a target ball so that the cue ball is positioned for the next shot. There is always a here-and-now goal and a then-and-there goal.

Good supervisors not only know the different kinds of supervision (see the section “Kinds of Supervision”), they also know what is going on now with an eye toward what is possible in the future. Gwen Moran, in an article in Fast Company (2018), suggests eight questions that good supervisors are always mindful of.


What does success look like to you?


What is the outcome you want?


What do you want to be different in 3 to 5 years?


What are the obstacles you are facing?


What can you control?


What are the options you have come up with?


Can you tell me more?


What are you reading?

In fairness, many agencies are pressed for money, and “supervision” is often an extra task. Consequently, one cannot rule out supervisor’s exhaustion. So that is why, in managing the second position, look for ways to make your supervisor’s job easier. (See the section “Some General Discussion About the Self in Supervision.”)

Wicked Problems in Social Work Supervision

The “practice” of supervision is a many splendored thing and much more common and complicated than one generally thinks. The nature of the problems macro (and micro) practitioners face frequently fit into a well-known category of problems called “wicked problems.” Wicked problems are multisided and very complex, and they frequently require management as well as, or instead of, solutions. Originally articulated in 1973 by design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, they called such problems “wicked problems” to draw attention to the complexities and challenges of addressing planning and social policy problems (Rittel & Webber, 1973). Unlike the “tame” problems of mathematics and chess, the wicked problems of planning lack clarity in both their aims and solutions. In addition to these challenges of articulation and internal logic, they are subject to real-world constraints that prevent multiple and risk-free attempts at solving. As described by Rittel and Webber, wicked problems have 10 important characteristics:


No definitive formulation.


No “stopping rule.” In other words, these problems lack an inherent logic that signals when they are solved.


Solutions are not true or false, only good or bad.


No way to test the solution.


Cannot be studied through trial and error. Solutions are irreversible, so “every trial counts.”


No end to the number of solutions or approaches to a wicked problem.


All wicked problems are essentially unique.


Can always be described as the symptom of other problems.


The way a wicked problem is described determines its possible solutions.


Planners (those who present solutions to these problems) have no right to be wrong. Unlike mathematicians, “planners are liable for the consequences of the solutions they generate; the effects can matter a great deal to the people who are touched by those actions” (Rittel & Webber, 1973).

This complexity makes self-structure and problem structure essential for social workers and social work agencies. The problems will not structure themselves. Paraphrasing the poet Robert Frost, good fences not only make good neighbors they also make for successful and impactful work. Helping supervisors and supervisees understand this necessity, as well as developing skills in problem/issue shaping, is key.

Some General Perspectives on Supervisory Foci—Body, Emotions, Mind, Spirit, and Time

Supervisory activities usually fall into two large content areas—professional work and emotion work. (Hochschild’s The Managed Heart [2012] led to the development of the sociology of emotions.)

These can be expanded on by using the work of Schwartz and McCarthy (2007). Schwartz argues not to manage your time but your energy, and of course be alert to supervisees’ EnQ (Energy Quotient). Time management is also a crucial component, thus, woven together with Schwartz’s components, there are the following: The body (physical energy), the emotions (energy quality), the mind (energy focus), the spirit (energy meaning and purpose), and the clock (time allocation). Each of these areas needs to be “managed” or “curated” and attention paid to each. I developed the index of difference as a demographic tool (for assessing the diversity between two census tools), but find it is a useful technique here.

The Index of Difference, or a Technique for Achieving Balance

Table 1. Index of difference.

Energy and Time Centers

Optimal Allocation (OA) in percentage

Actual Allocation (AO) in percentage

Absolute Difference* (OA-AA) in percentage

Index of Difference (OA-AA)/2































Source: Tropman and Harvey (2009).

In this example of an index of difference (Table 1; adapted by Tropman, 2020), a supervisee lists the percent of time (optimal allocation) they want to spend in each realm (body, emotions, mind, spirit, time). After a suitable passage of time, the supervisee rates the amount of time actually spent (actual allocation). Calculate the absolute differences between the desired percent and the actual percent, sum them up, and divide that sum by 2. The resulting number should be under 15%. In the example shown, 50% is seriously out of whack. Two things, or both, may have occurred: The estimates may have been poor to begin with (and should be improved), and perhaps evolving events disrupted the plans. Most likely some of each are at work. Once the supervisor and the supervisee get to this point, they can revisit the estimates and look at the disruptors and try to get a better hold on the supervisee’s management.

The index can be used within each box as well. And instead of the five used here, one could place any number of body tasks, mind tasks, and so forth. Also, note that the index considers percentages of effort, not actual hours. In many cases, supervisors and supervisees confuse the number of hours an employee is “present” with the number of hours of productive work, which typically does not include drinking fountain and bathroom breaks, talking with colleagues, answering the phone, cleaning up or filing away, and so on. If you base your weekly work estimate on 8 hours a day but, practically speaking, only work 6, that alone can add 10% to your index of difference.

Levels of Competence: From Novice to Maestro to Flow

As one learns and grows, one goes through the seven stages of competence mentioned earlier (knowledge + skills), which were initially outlined by the Dreyfus brothers in Mind Over Machine (1986). The stages progress from novice to maestro in a “staircase of competence,” a well-known series of steps in knowledge and skill development.

These stages fit well into Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s (1990, p. 74) “flow chart” from his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In his formulation, optimal performance occurs at the intersection of challenge and skill. When challenges rise ahead of skill, the person or organization gets anxiety. When skills exceed challenges, the person or organization gets bored. The little f’s in the flow channel indicate different levels of the challenge/skill intersection. To stay “in the flow” may involve an awareness of this balance, and consequently require adjustments in the balance between challenge and skill in one’s day-to-day work life.

Figure 1. Going with the flow.

Source: Adapted from Czikszentmihalyi (1990).

General Discussion About the Self in Supervision

Overall some general observations apply to both the staircase and the flow diagram. First, they apply to the supervisor and the supervisee, so each has a dual analytic use. Second, each phase requires a different presentation of self, as discussed in Erving Goffman’s (1959) book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Goffman argues that people have “selves” that wrap onion-like around a “core self.” Some self-sets are more frequent than others, for example an “office self” and a “home self.” Others are being used simultaneously, so one can be an expert in one area and a beginner in another. Hence, we all have several professional selves “Selves awareness” is vital for professional and personal growth.

Apart from the knowledge of the several selves, a person needs to know how to use them in different situations, as in working with a beginner versus working with a master. In social work, this process is often called “the differential use of self, in a relationship.” While more often vocalized as a part of clinical training, it is equally applicable to macro work, both in supervision and across job requests, as one meets with superiors, colleagues, subordinates, and community members, among others.

While sometimes supervisors will be overseeing the range of steps or points on the flow chart, some may choose to specialize. For example, some music teachers work with novices and beginners, while others work with more advanced students. Similarly, social workers meet with clients at various stages of trouble, ranging from mild to severe. Supervisors similarly need to be sensitive to the range of mental and emotional health or sensitivity in their supervisees. Alternately, as a supervisee, one may want to receive special supervision about special issues. Supervisors don’t know everything!

Explicit in the flow chart, as well as implicit in the Dreyfus’s staircase, is that the tasks at each point/level become more complex. Hence one competency in each that needs constant attention, honing, and sharpening is cue selection. One cannot attend to everything, so what are the most important cues? Some cues are personal (some interpersonal, some intrapersonal) and some are external. As one becomes more competent, one is less diverted by the external cues. Negotiators call this “the role of ripeness.” It means finding the exact right moment to close the deal, to raise a point, or to take the roast out of the oven.

There are different supervisory issues and detail at each of the seven stages (although stages and elements of stages may overlap; see Table 2).)

Table 2. Supervisory issues at each stage.

Focal Issues:

Key Problems:

Key Supervisory/Task Isuess:

Novice: Just starting out

Performance slow and jerky

Constant attention to rules/facts

Works with the book in hand

Heavy learner

Little reinforcement from the task; flawed products

Provide reinforcement and support to help the novice get to the beginner stage and not give up or act out.

Beginner: Over the first difficult phase

Performance faster and smoother

Rule fade begins (acting automatically)

Patterns not mentioned in rules emerge

Embarrassments to self and others; frequent errors

Helping the supervisee accept negative feedback; turn the “report card” into a “support card.”

Competent: Conventionally acceptable

Performance average in terms of speed and smoothness

Rule fade mostly complete

Selecting most of the important cues

Calculated, educated risk-taking

Uses book only for exceptions


May think that learning has been completed.

Preparing and encouraging attention to the next level

Proficient: Deep understanding of area of practice or work

Regularly outstanding in a variety of conditions

More teacher than student, but has a continuous improvement plan to retain edge

Reasonably swift and intuitive decision making

Ease at multitaskjng; excellent at cue assembly and organization

Good at using skills of others


May become overworked/ committed.

May overspecialize

Develop signature area(s) of skill (areas where one may be considered an expert).

The Expert/ Advanced Skill Level Highly Proficient: Some signature areas

Outstanding In selected areas

Exceptional in some particular areas, often involving great complexity and high pressure

May begin to see everything through the lens of the special skill

Might be intolerant of the “simply proficient”

May get trapped into overuse of skill while deteriorating in other skills

The sense of superiority in one area may bleed into an attitude of superiority in other areas

Helping the expert achieve a balance over time while honing the signature skill and sharpening selective others.

Master: Regularly superior performance that appears effortless

A virtuoso: performance is seamless, confident, and sure

Exactly the right speed; appears effortless

Understands the deep structure of the effort

Broad (holistic) recognition of cues

Deeply understands the process; trust self and the process

Beyond the book

Finding, arranging, and managing access to and transfer of the Master’s knowledge and self

Provide supportive supervision and observational feedback as well as appreciative reinforcement. “Supervising” the super-competent does not mean that they do not need the appreciation every human being seeks. Being a master does not mean being problem/issue free.

Maestro: A Master who can motivate others and blend the individual skills into a larger collective product.

It’s not her or his performance – it is the team, the group the orchestra’s performance.

May still desire virtuoso acclaim (ego retention)

May still use “virtuoso” competencies

Masters and Maestros may blend

Remembering that Masters and Maestros need support and encouragement. They also need help with reflection and, perhaps, moving into even more enhanced directions.

Source: Tropman (2020).

Roger Nierenberg is an example of someone moving into an even more enhanced direction. An accomplished conductor, he transformed his conducting skills into a leadership seminar, called “The Music Paradigm,” using orchestras assembled on the site. When the Covid-19 pandemic came along in 2020, he engaged in a second transformational change and restructured his seminars into a virtual offering. Benjamin Zander, the conductor of the Boston Symphony, also teaches leadership through music.

Kinds of Supervision

In addition to where one stands on the learning staircase, there are different modalities of supervision foci that may need to be at hand, both for regular review (if an issue that requires it arises) and used regularly so that all supervisory elements are touched on and explored. The classic work in supervision in social work is by Kadushin (1992), later, by Kadushin and Harkness (2014). The Kadushin model has three basic elements: educational supervision, supportive supervision, and administrative supervision to which the author adds developmental and reflective supervision.

In educational/clinical supervision, the primary problem, per Kadushin, is worker ignorance and/or application impairment regarding the knowledge, attitude, and skills required to do the job (Kadushin, 1992, p. 20). The primary goal is to dispel ignorance, add knowledge, and upgrade/enhance skills. The classic process involved with this task is to encourage reflection on the work and exploration of the work. The supervisor is a teacher and the custodian/librarian/curator of materials (books and cases, webinars, TED talks, YouTube videos, etc.) through which the supervisee can learn.

Supervisees may be helped to better understand the client/client system (the client and the client’s support network), become more aware of their reactions and responses to the client, understand the dynamics of how they and their client are interacting, look at how they intervened and the consequences of their interventions, and so on.

In administrative/managerial supervision, the primary problem is concerned with the correct, effective, and appropriate implementation of agency policies and procedures. The primary goal is to ensure adherence to policy and procedure (Kadushin, 1992, p. 20). The supervisor has been given authority by the agency to oversee the work of the supervisee. This carries the responsibility both to ensure that agency policy is implemented (implying a controlling function) and a parallel responsibility to enable supervisees to work to the best of their ability (Brown & Bourne, 1996, p. 10).

Additionally, there are ethical and other issues. Some policies almost always turn out to be unclear. “Professional dress” is one of these. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues may arise from worker/agency structure and culture. For example, the MeToo movement is rife with complaints that were ignored by higher-ups. There has massive publicity about worldwide Catholic Church abuses, and the Boy Scouts list of sexual abuse claims rose to 82,000 by 2020 (Baker, 2020). These are examples of an appalling failure of supervision and a culture of defer, delay, deny.

Other organization actions may be less front page but equally unacceptable. Gender and racial pay discrimination is one example. Relatedly, getting employees to work for free or cheap—financial exploitation—is another. (The boss says, “We have this fundraising event this weekend; would you mind helping out on Friday and Saturday?” For no extra compensation, of course; Tropman & Nicklett, 2012.)

In supportive supervision, the primary problem is worker morale and job satisfaction, with the goal to improve both (Kadushin, 1992, p. 20). Kadushin also argues that the other two forms of supervision focus on instrumental needs, whereas supportive supervision is concerned with expressive needs. Workers are seen as facing a variety of job-related stresses that could seriously affect their work and lead to a less than satisfactory service to clients. For the worker, there is ultimately the problem of burnout.

The supervisor seeks to prevent the development of potentially stressful situations, removes the worker from stress, reduces stress impinging on the worker, and helps them adjust to stress. The supervisor is available and approachable, communicates confidence in the worker, provides perspective, excuses failure when appropriate, sanctions and shares responsibility for different decisions, provides opportunities for independent functioning, all of which lead to probable success in task achievement (Kadushin, 1992, p. 292).

In developmental supervision, the primary problem is avoiding supervisee stagnation and promoting supervisee growth. The supervisor seeks to provide occasions when the longer career development interests of the supervisee are explored. Such exploration may lead to changes in the client/project mix. It may also lead to a career development plan or updating such a plan if one exists. That could include not only experiential adjustments but also the pursuit of additional education through degree and certificate programs, and so on. In any event, all supervisees (as well as supervisors) should have a career-based strategic plan. (Consider a SWOT—strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats— analysis.)

While the bulk of this version would include occupational foci, personal elements such as the “double body problem” (career interests and partner needs), relevant family concerns, and so forth need to be considered. Goals are set forth for the coming months and reviewed in the subsequent reflective supervision meeting. (The word “meeting” is used here to distinguish it from the word “session,” which has a clinical subtext.)

Reflective supervision is an antidote to the “here and now” culture of most supervisory encounters. It is good to have a quarterly meeting that looks over the whole quarter (or perhaps two quarters) to see if progress has been made or new issues were overlooked. It is similar to the U.S. Army’s “After Action Report,” although that usually looks at many actions in one engagement. Out of that comes a lessons-learned notebook that serves as a historical reminder.

Overall, reflective supervision is an opportunity to “rewire your mind” (Oppong, 2018). Thomas Oppong’s suggestions include using neuroplasticity, improving your intelligence, being curious, trying new things, considering different worldviews, journaling, and committing to lifelong learning and constant improvement. Steven Covey’s (1989) 7 Habits of Highly Successful People provides some advice and priorities for consideration, including the following: be proactive; begin with the end in mind; put first things first; seek first to understand, then to be understood; synergize; and sharpen the saw. Later, Covey (2004) added an eighth habit: The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. This suggestion is similar to the common business phrase: plan the work, work the plan.

Although different from supervision, coaching can be formal or informal. Central to coaching is deep subject matter knowledge, an appreciation of the many ways success can be achieved, and the ability to relate to the client in way that forms a coaching connection. Coaching work is not typically called “supervision,” but it falls within the supervisory scope because the situation is one in which knowledgeable teachers assist those less knowledgeable with ways to improve performance. The famous physician and writer Atul Gawande (2011) writes about this process and his use of it in “The Coach in the Operating Room.”

In sports, the coach is a professional position carrying executive functions with it as well as teaching. Coaching also assists clients within an organizational framework. Personal couches are independent practitioners helping “clients” move toward their personal best. GROW is a popular model—goal, current reality, options (or obstacles), and will (or way forward). GROW is similar to the SWOT model (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats), which is used in strategic planning yet has a personal coaching application as well.

Ten Common Supervisory Questions and Suggestions

Out of my conversations over the years with members of family service agencies, 10 very common supervisory questions, as well as suggestions, have emerged by people in supervisor roles.


How to make the leap from “peer” to “boss”: Slowly, and try being comfortable but authoritative, in authority but not authoritarian.


How to effectively navigate the middle ground between line staff and the next level manager: Be straightforward. Don’t misrepresent one side to the other. Present each other’s side to the other.


How to be the face of management each day: Respectfully, but with caution.


How to effectively manage people (even if skilled in clinical work): Understand that managerial supervision is different and shapes the discussion that way in those sessions.


What is the most useful developmental model of supervision: There isn’t one; start where the supervisee is.


Building a comfort level with ambiguity and uncertainty. “Tolerance for ambiguity” can be defined as the degree to which an individual is comfortable with uncertainty, unpredictability, conflicting directions, and multiple demands. In essence, tolerance for ambiguity is manifest in a person’s ability to operate effectively in an uncertain environment (see Budner, 1962).


Strategies to deal with conflict and potentially adverse feedback: Try not to engage; ask, “What else?” After awhile, the situation quiets, and you can ask, “What do you think we can do?” Anger is the most expensive emotion, so try not to get sucked in. If you think this is going to be a difficult conversation, there are lots of models to help (see Cohen, 2020).


Which messages from those above you to absorb and reframe? Some messages from the boss need to be filtered or interpreted for staff.


How do we foster the ability to play these several roles well? Start by recognizing their distinctiveness. For example, potatoes might be on the family menu all week but probably cooked differently each time. Then review them with your supervisee and gauge their interest. Match that with your own.


How do organizations place appropriate value on each skill area? Most organizations are not aware of the distinctions between types of supervision, and if they have some sense of them, they claim there is no time for such frivolities. So it is up to you (isn’t it always up to you?). You can structure your job more than you think.

Supervision Under Uncertain Conditions Caused by Geographic and Power Distance

An example of “supervision under uncertain conditions” might be a frightened homeowner talking by phone to a fire department dispatcher. The homeowner will likely be gesturing, as if the dispatcher could see, and may be describing the fire in ambiguous terms (like “big”). Such geographic separation supervisory problems are also experienced by the military, law enforcement, and the forest service, among others. It can also occur when there is a great psychological or power differential between the supervisee and the supervisor. This often occurs with PhD students, out in the field, talking by phone with a faculty supervisor. In all these instances, it would be best for the supervisee (homeowner, PhD student) to consider the situation, task, intent, concern, preliminary decision, calibration, and then final decision:

SITUATION—Here is what I think we are facing (WORKER)

TASK—Here is what I think we should do (WORKER)

INTENT—Here’s why (WORKER)

CONCERN—Here is what you should watch for (SUP)


CALIBRATE—Now talk to me. Tell me if you do not understand, cannot do it, or see something I do not (WORKER)


Karl Weick, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business provided this example, and said it was developed by psychologist Gary Klein; it is further expanded here. It is generally a good technique to have supervisees come up with a proposal or an alternative. It keeps their critical thinking skills sharp.

Resources and Helpful Tools for Assessment

The Big Five Personal Assessment is a good tool (see Chart 1). It was first mentioned in a chapter by Oliver John in Handbook of Personality (Pervin, 1990). The word “test” is used within it, but some prefer “assessment” or “inventory.”) These tools give both a window into the self and a window into someone else.

Chart 1. Big five personal assessments.

Source: Adapted from Goldberg (1993).

The Myers/Briggs Inventory and the Enneagram are helpful in several ways, especially, of course, with yourself. Some elements of your supervisory array may be useful in your work. And you can always have a friend or colleague fill one out about you; that always develops a new perspective. Just be careful not to take their comments too seriously!

A related line of work that has room for individual and organizational perspectives is going on at the Center for Positive Organizational Studies at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. There are several useful tools there, including the Reflected Best Self Exercise.

The Network for Social Work Management has a competency tool with four domains (executive leadership, strategic management, resource management, and community collaboration).

Also consider the skill of producing an excellent, productive supervisory meeting. Like supervision itself, producing such a meeting is more complicated than it appears, and one tolerates monumental meeting failures every day. But meetings are not ends in themselves. Their purpose is to produce high-quality decisions, and the orchestration of that process is quite complex. It is in that meeting that the rubber hits the road, so to speak. (The article “Meetings and Decision Building” in this Encyclopedia of Macro Social Work contains details about this process and necessary skills.)


Supervision is an important life skill with many applications, all of which involve the provision of helpful guidance to someone else. Guidance may come in the form of encouraging self-realization or the explanation of specific procedures. Generally, as noted, supervisory encounters involve one or two issues or their combination: counseling problems and coaching problems, broadly conceived. Counseling problems involve issues of attitude, more or less. Coaching problems involve issues of information. Supervisors would be well advised to keep in mind that counseling issues must be addressed before coaching ones because the information will rarely penetrate attitudinal barricades.

Overall there are several points to remember. The first point is the importance of self-supervision. While this activity may seem obvious, the word “supervision” is most often associated with the oversight of subordinates. Second, there is the “all ways” supervision element, which refers to the fact that supervision, both formal and informal, does not only occur in the workplace but also in all aspects of life, including family and civic interactions. Third, there is both formal and informal supervision. Formal supervision is positionally located as with parents and children. But as children grow into adult children, the nature of supervision changes from direction to suggestion. Fourth, it is important to keep in mind which kind of supervision one is doing with whomever one is doing it with so there is no confusion of purposes. Keep in mind as well the different supervisory modalities involved with different rungs on the supervisory staircase. Fifth, and lastly, keep developing your own skills.

Further Reading

  • Boatman, T., & Boatman, S. (2017). Successful supervision: Essays from experienced authors. Liliane Boctor.
  • De Haan, E. (2012). Supervision in action: A relational approach to coaching and consulting. Open University Press.
  • Girdler, A. (2018, May 9) 7 Tips to run an effective meeting [Video]. You Tube.
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