Julia Vaughan Smith

Harmful supervision?

I am an advocate for supervision as a space to reflect, learn and be encouraged in our work; and as a process for protecting me and my clients (from me).  However, I received a paper recently from a colleague entitled ‘harmful supervision’, and while I like to think this is rare, I asked myself whether it might be more prevalent.  The paper ‘Harmful supervision: A commentary’ by Liz Beddoe[i], focuses on the weekly supervision of social work trainees.  This supervisory relationship is different to coaching in that other than in training, coaches select the supervisor they wish to work with, they pay them and can leave at any time. Supervision is also optional, whereas it tends to be mandatory within social work. While most accrediting bodies require a supervisor’s report as part of reaccreditation, it isn’t clear how much weight that has, or if supervisors would be in a position to give a negative report. More likely the supervisory relationship would have ended before that stage.

However, while the contexts are different, the power relationships between the supervisee and trainees can be replicated in coaching, as can situations in which supervisees are in awe of their supervisor or the supervisor assumes a position of power over their client.

Supervision is harmful if it undermines the supervisee’s self-confidence and esteem in any way, or contains micro-aggressive interventions, or is insulting.  This might include negative comments about practice or about the individual, including racism and relating to gender.  It is also harmful if the supervisor doesn’t maintain the appropriate boundaries for the work. For example, making sexual comments to the supervisee, or using the supervision for personal gain in some way.

It can also be harmful, in a slightly different way, if the supervisor gives inappropriate or wrong guidance to the supervisee which has a knock-on effect on them and their clients. This is about the competence of the supervisor and the basis for their practice.  It is also unhelpful, and potentially harmful, if the supervisor tries to double guess what the client of the supervisor might be feeling or experiencing and operates on those assumptions.

Supervisors who lack competence and confidence may try to cover their shame or anxiety by their micro-aggressions and other transgressions in the relationship.

When I thought about this topic, I recalled a few incidents that supervisees had reported to me.  One supervisee told me about a supervisor she had, who during one session said ‘I want to show you a new venue I have found’ and ushered her out of the room and outside for a few blocks to the new venue. The supervisee could have said ‘oh no you don’t’ but was in awe of his power and position.  Another supervisee talked of her supervisor accusing her to motives that she didn’t have, and implied that she was half-hearted in her commitment to her practice. This wasn’t said in a way to explore with her any pressures or difficulties, but to blame her for her failings.  I have also been told of a situation where physical boundaries were breached by the supervisor, in the spirt of being ‘friendly’.

The harm comes from the power differential that is used by the supervisor, and from the supervisee feeling dependent on that supervisor.  Harmful supervision is a perpetrator-victim dynamic, possibly passive-aggressive or just aggressive, and is a survival entanglement between the supervisor and supervisee as long as the supervisee keeps the relationship going.    Like all bullying, it is hard to speak up and in an institutional setting it might be even harder. Supervisees may not be able to recognise perpetrators because of their history and may feel they have to ‘go along with it’ as disconnecting from the supervisor feels emotionally difficult.

Supervisors in survival may also inappropriately take up a parental attitude to the supervisee, which is also about a power-dynamic, and seeks to entangle the supervisee and put them in the place of ‘the child’.

How many supervisees who have experienced racial, gender, or sexually orientated  aggressions have spoken up? How many have experienced other micro-aggressions or entanglements?  Maybe it is rare, but I suspect those who have, have kept silent.

Julia Vaughan Smith

June 2020

[i] Harmful Supervision: A commentary by Liz Beddoe  The Clinical Supervisor 2017, Vol 36, No 1, 88-101