Structuring Supervision

An unfortunate reality of the “high volume, high intensity” settings that many social workers work in is that supervision is either sacrificed, or done exclusively on the fly.  And while supervision on the fly—as supervisor and supervisee pass each other in the hall, run into each other at the coffee machine, or otherwise track each other down somewhere in the building—is necessary, it cannot, and should not ever, replace having a weekly sit down.  Get something to drink, close the door, and let the appropriate parties know that you are not to be interrupted unless it is an emergency.

Supervisors and their direct reports should compile their own prioritized list of topics to discuss.  Prioritization is important, because very often neither of you will make it all the way through your lists before one of you gets pulled out—you need to be clear about which are the “must have” conversations.


When meeting with your direct reports I’d highly recommend going to a neutral setting where you’ll have privacy (if such a place is available), or coming out from behind your desk and making it more conversational.  The feeling should be collegial rather than hierarchical.  “We are here to talk and solve some problems together.”  This sets a tone that is more relaxing and is certainly very much appreciated by your supervisee.  After all—we’re very aware of who we are in our respective roles.  It’s not conducive to an open and productive conversation if I’m sitting behind my desk like Michael Corleone in “Godfather II.”  This meeting is a (hopefully) uninterrupted time to exhale, focus, and dig in.

Let your direct reports speak first.  It will convey that this is their time and that what they have to say is important to you.  And, it gives you an opportunity to see what’s most on their minds, or not, and how they prioritize various issues.  This can give you a real window in to which areas they are uncomfortable or shaky with (higher up on their list, as their trust in you builds), and which issues they may feel more confident about (lower priority, they won’t feel the need to discuss it right away, if at all).

For Program Managers who have two or more layers of staff they are responsible for, I would highly recommend an occasional, informal meeting with your indirect reports.  This provides an additional opportunity to stay connected with them, let’s them know you are interested in their work and well being, and also gives them a chance to address any concerns they may have about their own supervisor or other programmatic issues they may not feel comfortable discussing in staff meetings.

Case Managers

It is in your best interest to confirm that your regularly scheduled supervision is going to take place as planned.  If your supervisor has not said otherwise, it is safe to assume it will still happen, but—I, personally, never left it at that.  On the morning of your meeting, put “Supervision” in the subject line of an email and confirm that you will, in fact, be meeting.

There are a couple of ways to do this.

1)    “Hi, are we still on for 10:00 a.m.?”

I got emails like this a number of times.  Fairly common.  But since in most cases I hadn’t canceled or rescheduled supervision, this question left me wondering whether my supervisee was, in effect, looking to postpone.  If at times you need or want to postpone, it is best done in person or on the phone.  But, if circumstances dictate that email is the best or only timely option, be direct.  “Hi, I’m wondering if there are any other times we might meet today.  Mr. Jones left me a voicemail stating he’s stopping by at ten to pick up some donated goods and asked if I could help him choose some things.  I’d really like to do that, if possible.  Please let me know what works best for you.”  By stating this from the get-go you are anticipating your supervisor by answering why, instead of just saying that you want to reschedule.  It’s efficient, and respectful.

2)    “Hi, I’m looking forward to meeting this morning for supervision.  See you at ten.”

This can be a helpful email.  It lets your supervisor know that you haven’t forgotten, which is reassuring—especially if you ever have forgotten about supervision before.  If your supervisor is someone who cancels, outright forgets every once in a while, or gets swept downstream by various things, it serves as a reminder and lets them know that you value this time with them.  If they were planning on canceling because of something else they’d rather do, your proactive email makes it harder for them to do that.  Keep ‘em honest!

What should go on your list for supervision?  Here’s how I learned.

As an MSW intern at Coalition for the Homeless in New York City I was very eager to impress.  Naturally.  My first ever supervisor was Richard Lombino, Esq., LCSW, CCDP-D.  I was so eager to show him how smart and thorough and intuitive I was (or so I thought!) that I would go to Rich with everything.  I was popping in on him all the time.  Finally Rich, embodying his gentlest and most patient self, said, “You can see me anytime with issues that are emergencies or are timely in some way.  Everything else put on a list and bring to supervision.”  That’s it.

As professionals we tend, in most cases, to talk with our colleagues and people up the chain in terms of “facts, not feelings.”  While supervision isn’t therapy, it’s a good opportunity to go beyond the strategic (task supervision) and speak to the emotional component (clinical supervision) as it pertains to the work you do.  You need to know that you have, in your supervisor, someone you can talk to about the range of feelings that invariably will come up in the course of your work week—especially if you’re experiencing countertransferential feelings that may interfere with effective service delivery.  For example, if your client is reminding you of an angry parent and you’re frozen in your seat with fear, you need to talk about it with your supervisor.  And supervisors, you need to be willing to explore this with your staffer and provide the supports necessary to keep them calm, focused, and on the right track.

Lastly, Case Managers—don’t be afraid to say that you don’t understand something, don’t know how to do something, or wouldn’t know what to do in a given situation.  Keeping quiet because you’re afraid of how you’ll be perceived does no one any good, and what you don’t know will eventually show up in your work anyway.  But if you feel too vulnerable to ask in a staff meeting, follow-up immediately in supervision, be it scheduled or on the fly.  Either way, get yourself out in front of the learning curve; make proactive learning a career-long habit.  I have more confidence in and respect for a staffer who asks for the help they need, than for someone who plays it cool and drops the ball later (hopefully not to the detriment of their client).  When you ask, it shows you’re interested, engaged, and want to get it right.  That’s the kind of Case Manager it’s a pleasure to have as a colleague!

NEXT WEEK:  Two choices I’m considering.  One is a response to ‘Suggest A Topic’ (click on the menu heading to see the brief conversation about this), the other an Editorial piece I’ve been developing.  Both will post in the near future.

Questions for Further Consideration

1)   What has worked well for you in supervision?  What has not worked so well?
2)   Share your stories of supervision heaven or hell.  I’d love to hear from you.
3)   What questions do you have about supervision?

About Craig Moncho

Craig is a Social Worker licensed in the state of New York, with specializations in homeless services, mental health, and housing. He also had a successful psychotherapy practice in New York City, where he worked with individuals and couples.
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4 Responses to Structuring Supervision

  1. Raiza says:

    I like this piece Craig, it’s an excellent way to look at supervision, so many times I was supervised on the fly, not helpful!


    • Craig Moncho says:

      Thank you, Raiza.

      For me, rather than not helpful, I have found that supervision on the fly was… incomplete. It deprives us of the opportunity to dig a little deeper and open things up. Having said that, it’s an ongoing challenge to create and hold that space open, as you well know. But it’s always worth it!

      Thanks again.



  2. Melanie Morton says:

    This is great food for thought. Thanks, Craig.


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