For social work practitioners, effective supervision and consultation are crucial to continued professional skill development. Supervisors and consultants provide opportunities for social workers to discuss ethical dilemmas and challenging cases, and assist social workers in learning new intervention techniques and treatment approaches to best meet client needs. Seeking supervision and consultation when needed is therefore not only beneficial to the social worker, but also to the client, ensuring that clients are receiving the best possible services that the social worker can provide.
There are several different models of supervision and consultation for social workers, each with its advantages and disadvantages. As a practicing social worker, you may be employed in an agency that already has a supervision or consultation model in place for all social work employees. Or, your place of employment may not have an existing model, leaving you to seek one out yourself, and giving you the flexibility to decide which model is best for you. The following are the most common models of supervision and consultation, and the pros and cons of each:
The individual model is the most common and traditional mode of supervision, often in place in employment settings that include a number of social workers. This type of supervision occurs one-on-one, with each social worker having an assigned supervisor, and regular meetings between them. Supervisors often have multiple supervisees, and have an ethical mandate to “have the necessary knowledge and skill to supervise or consult appropriately and should do so only within their areas of knowledge and competence” (Code of Ethics, 3.01 – Supervision and Consultation). Supervisees are responsible for engaging in supervision to ensure competence, especially when considering implementing new knowledge or techniques (Code of Ethics, 1.04 – Competence).
The main benefit of the individual supervision model is having the full attention of one’s supervisor for a dedicated period of time, providing a safe environment in which to explore the supervisee’s questions, challenges, and strengths. Individual supervision models also protect supervisees from exposure to potentially poor practices or inappropriate modeling done by peers. However, comparing oneself to and gaining support from peers can also be helpful. Social workers should also be aware that due to the intense, one-on-one format of individual supervision, there is potential for the supervisee to feel intimidated by or incompatible with the supervisor. Additionally, the supervisee is only able to gain feedback, knowledge, and training from one person, the supervisor, and this model is the most time-consuming and costly.
In a peer group model, a group of social workers, with no hierarchical relationship established between them, meet regularly to consult one another on practice issues. This model allows all group members to both listen to others (as a student) and offer their own experience as guidace (as a teacher), which can be a valuable experience. Peer-group models eliminate some of the potential issues of incompatibility between supervisees and supervisors, instead allowing everyone to participate as equals in shaping the group, and providing help and support to one another. The peer-group model also offers the opportunity for members to learn and grow from group dynamics. However, as with any group, a peer-group runs the risk of power hierarchies evolving, wherein more experienced or skilled group members might tend toward the role of supervisor over others. Additionally, conflicts among the group due to criticism and defensiveness can arise and must be managed. The ultimate success of the peer-group model depends upon group members fulfilling their responsibilities to the group, including maintaining trust, respect, and openness, and dedicating sufficient time for in-depth discussion.
Facilitated Group Model:
The facilitated group model of supervision is one in which a designated supervisor works with a group of supervisees at the same time. This can be difficult for the supervisor, as she must act in her supervisory role and as a group facilitator at the same time. Additionally, the supervisor must have a sufficient level of competence and self-assurance, as she is exposing to a whole group her level of ability and experience, which may cause anxiety or doubt. There are many benefits to this model, however, as group members can learn and grow from group dynamics, from one another, and from the supervisor’s practice examples and ways of working all at once. The group format provides opportunities for role play and facilitated discussion not available in an individual model. It is also less time-consuming and less expensive. However, this model also means less time overall for each supervisee. Finally, facilitated groups should have a high level of mutual trust so that supervisees feel safe sharing and learning together in the group context.