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Thursday, 19 February 2015

79. Solution focused supervision for the public sector

This post describes an approach to supervision that is different from the performance management approach often seen in local government.  Solution focused supervision means a conversation that improves practice by focusing on the strengths and assets of the supervisee.  Many social work and education practitioners will already be familiar with the solution focused approach.  I'm certainly no expert but I find the approach very appealing.  I wonder if it might be used for supervision more widely in the public sector - for any role that involves professional practice.  Anyhow, here is my personal (and unqualified) take on the general approach and how it might work in practice.  

Traditional Approach

The traditional conversation between supervisor and supervisee is centred on targets linked to corporate objectives.  Supervision is a process of performance monitoring and management.  Tasks to meet objectives are agreed and targets set.  When targets are met praise is given.  When targets are missed encouragement, guidance and sometimes coaching is given.  There may even be criticism if things are going badly.  It is common within this framework to spend a lot of time analysing problems in order to try and overcome them.

Solution Focused Approach for the Public Sector

A solution focused approach advocates a therapeutic relationship where the supervisee is taken to be an independent and capable practitioner working towards broad outcomes in a complex environment.  The work of the supervisee involves an ever changing set of relationships with the public, partners and sometimes politicians.  The aim of supervision is to help the employee to develop effective strategies to navigate through this complexity by reflecting on their own good practice and building on their personal strengths.  This is what is known as an asset based approach.

In contrast to the performance management approach problems are not subjected to analysis.  Indeed, this is taken to be a bad thing as this gives the problem more prominence and permeates the conversation with negative ideas that can be self reinforcing.  From a solution focused perspective it is not necessarily helpful to know the cause of a problem - only what works to solve it.

In advocating this approach I’m drawing from Solution Focused Brief Therapy.  This is a highly specialised area of practice that requires proper training and support.  Here I am just an enthusiastic amateur taking some of the general principles and seeking to apply them to supervision in my own world.

Here is a quote about this style of supervision from a book I was given on the subject.  Solution focussed supervision is described as: 
“…an outcome focussed process of enablement rather than direction, building on success rather than correcting failure, and privileging the supervisee’s knowledge rather than that of the supervisor.  It is a process intended to empower each supervisee to develop his or her skills rather than imparting those of the supervisor.  This does not mean to say that supervisors abrogate their managerial or standard-maintaining role; this is an important part of any supervisor’s responsibility even though it is most often not required.”  Ratner, George and Iveson (2012) Solution Focused Brief Therapy p.213

What Does It Look Like In Practice?

So what does this approach look like?

A solution focused supervision session requires the manager to ask three questions (actually the first is optional).

Question 1.  How are you today?

It’s not in the solution focus manual but I just like to ask this.  To welcome the supervisee to the meetings and to give them a chance to get rid of any ‘baggage’ before we start.

Question 2.  Can you tell me about something you have done since we last met that you are proud of or pleased about?

The point of this question is twofold.  

First it ensures that the conversation starts with the positives, with the person’s strengths.  It gets that person thinking about something they have done well.  

Second it gives the manager a chance to explore an aspect of good practice with the supervisee.  
The manager’s role is to LISTEN and to ask follow up questions to help them understand why something worked, what the individual’s part in the success was and what might be shareable with the rest of the team (with permission of course).  This seems to me to be a useful way of understanding how practice is developing within a team.

Question 3. What are your best hopes for this session?

Yep, that’s it.  

No list of targets to review, no action plan to work through.

The idea is for the supervisee to bring an issue that’s concerning them at that moment and think about what they would ideally like to get from the session. 

‘I hop we can finish quickly so I can get back to something I'm doing’ is a perfectly acceptable answer - if there is not much to talk about then that's fine.

Where an issue is raised then the manager’s role is to LISTEN and help the individual draw on their own experience and resources to develop strategies that might help overcome the challenge in question.

There are a number of questions and techniques that can be used to start the conversation.

  • The supervisor might ask the supervisee to think about what a person involved in the challenge might say that the supervisee had done that had been useful to them.
  • The supervisor might ask about similar situations that had gone well and what the supervisee had done to contribute to that.
  • The supervisor might use scaling.  This is where the supervisee is asked to give a situation or behaviour a score between one and ten, to explain what led them to give that score and to think about what would increase that score by one:  “What would change the score from a five to a six?”  
  • The miracle question is another common technique.  It usually starts with something like: ‘Imagine that when you come to work tomorrow a miracle has happened and the problem has been resolved.  What would you notice that would tell you things were better?”  It is then possible to explore what might have led that change to happen which in turn might point to some practical steps that might be taken.

The points above are just tasters – if this is an approach that interests you should take time to some research and explore the techniques further -  there is plenty of stuff out there.

The Role of the Supervisor

As you will probably have gathered, one of the most challenging aspects of this approach is the role of the supervisor.  Traditionally the supervisor is the expert providing advice or the coach giving direction.  They may even be the ‘parent’ monitoring performance and providing ‘correction’.  

A solution focused supervisor is none of these things.  They are there to LISTEN and ask the right questions, to help the supervisee see the strengths and assets they already have and to facilitate a conversation about solutions rather than problems.  

This is much, much harder.

But, if done well, I believe this approach will be much, much more productive.

Photo credit: https://flic.kr/p/9MLDSd 

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