Supervising the Supervisors – Building Organisational Productivity

The most commonly understood meaning of the word ‘supervision’ within organisations and management circles is that of being ‘in charge’ of employees, and acting in a ‘supervisory’ capacity to ensure staff are doing as required in their roles and being productive. This controlling and instructing role is of course vital to ensure alignment and good outputs from staff, and as the word would suggest, supervision can also mean ‘looking over’, i.e. taking the broader, longer term view and seeing the big picture, the process more commonly communicated as the practice of ‘management’.

I’d like to bring another interesting perspective on supervision into the frame, reflecting the process of professional supervision, i.e. the skill of ‘looking after’ or ‘taking an overview’ of professional practice. The process of Professional Supervision emerged in the eighties as a vital support function for the provision of professional practice within therapeutic areas (such as counselling, psychotherapy and mental health services) to improve/professionalise the service offering, and guard against the possibilities of maleficence in private 1-1 work with clients. It quickly became a requirement to practice with accreditations from professional bodies being dependent on the practitioner’s confirmation of his/her professionally supervised practice.

The process of professional supervision also quickly extended into other relational practice areas, such as occupational therapy, nursing, medicine and career guidance. I first connected with the concept through the context of career guidance, providing professional practice support to 300 front line employment service officers. There I witnessed first-hand how individual officers found this professional support so vital in their extremely difficult emotional work with the unemployed.

Of course, management is also a relational practice. There is a need to care for direct reports, to ensure their well-being and support/motivate them to operate productively for the good of the organisation. In turn, staff also rely on managers, and will have emotional expectations which require to be delivered on – am I cared for, am I valued, am I secure? Management really is a form of emotional labour, and as a result should strongly benefit from the provision of professional supervision – in effect supervising the supervisors! In coaching circles (which is a similar process to managers developing their staff) involvement in professional supervision is now a requirement of the licence to practice operated within many professional coaching associations. In essence, this reflects the common sense view that to look after others, you must first look after, and be looked after, yourself. So could professional management supervision bring real benefit in organsiational life, and if so how?

There are 3 components to the NFR professional supervision model (Inskipp & Proctor, 1993, 1995) – N (normative, best practice), F (Formative – learning) and R (Restorative – support). Organisations routinely use coaching and consultancy to provide the best practice and learning effects (N & F) in greater or lesser amounts, but the R component is commonly left off the agenda. The reality here is that R/support forms the most direct route to ensuring staff engagement, i.e. that they feel cared for, secure, encouraged, happy in their work so that they can be most productive for the organisation and themselves. If the manager feels cared for, he/she will be able to provide that same benefit to their staff. If coaching/consulting can provide Normative & Formative elements, the more therapeutic angle, such as counselling and psychological support, can provide the Restorative element. In essence this requires a professional supervisor who can coach and consult within a therapeutic frame.

If management supervision is to add value within organisations, there also needs to be direct connections with common management imperatives and systems. The Performance Management Syste provides a good example here. If PMS was selected as a supervision theme, groups of managers could focus on their organisation’s PMS within professional supervision sessions – they can learn how it works, the behavioural and goal setting theories involved (the F component); they can develop best practice on implementation, how to have the conversations, what to talk about, how to provide excellent feedback, and have difficult conversations (the N component); and most importantly, they can feel supported in dealing with the emotional impacts, anger from different ratings, fear of job insecurity, anxiety around perceived incompetence, etc (the R component). This provides a practical application of professional supervision which has a direct and immediate impact on the quality of PMS processes deployed within the organisation.

There is also a huge potential benefit of management supervision for the organisation as a whole through the noticing and harvesting of organisational development themes. Through application of professional supervision groups within counselling orgs, Sue Copeland (2005) noticed an organisational effect, in terms of parallel process, where supervisor-employee interactions turned out to mirror client-employee interactions, and these resulted in the illumination of very live and important cultural themes. For example, if employees felt the workplace culture to be generally, lacking trust, uncaring and slightly cold (often through management interaction processes), then employees would mirror this feeling at the customer interface by showing a lack of caring and coldness to customers – not intentionally, but sub-consciously.  In effect, she found that key organisational culture themes were repeated within supervision groups, usually turned up in patterns of organisational practice, and always impacted strongly at the customer interface.

Professional supervision processes can collect these live key themes and bring them directly into organisational visibility, so that leaders and organisational stakeholders can be collectively conscious of them. From group supervision, organisational leaders are effectively able to directly hear from the heart of the organisation. They can then assess and decide if or how they’d like to develop their culture to ensure that their interaction process, both internally and at the customer interface, to have a positive impact on the company’s progress and support the drive towards their strategic goals.

So, supervising the supervisors in groups will have three key effects

1) It will support the development of more professional and productive managers within the organisation

2) It will improve the professionalism and productivity of staff/workers

3) If attention is paid to the emergent key themes, it will generate powerful organisational development opportunities.

The management group supervision process can run every 4-6 weeks for groups of 6-8 managers, and carry key learning themes (e.g. PMS) which are important to the organisation. Significant benefits will be visible and felt in the organisation within 6-12 months.

Worth considering……? Talk to T-Space about management supervision options.



Copeland, S. (2005) Counselling Supervision in Organisations. Professional and Ethical Dilemmas Explored. Hove: Routledge

Inskipp, F. and Proctor, B. (1993) Making the Most of Supervision Part I. Twickenham: Cascade Publications.

Inskipp, F. and Proctor, B. (1995) The Art, Craft and Tasks of Counselling Supervision, Part II, Becoming a Supervisor. Twickenham: Cascade Publications.