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Preparation for new supervisors

Kathy Mitchell

Michael Austin: Supervisory Management for the Human Services. Prentice-Hall Inc, Engelwood Cliffs, New Jersey.

While scrounging along the shelves of the library in search of information I chanced upon this most useful book. Glancing through it I was sharply reminded of some of the frustrations, anxieties and challenges with which I was faced in my own career when I was promoted, first to the position of senior child care worker, and then to a supervisory role in "middle-management''. The author lists some of the challenges which face those new to supervisory practice the following are those with which I most closely identify:

Personal Supervision Challenges

Administrative Supervisory Challenges

Educational Supervisory Challenges

Supportive Supervisory Challenges

If these challenges evoke a "You too!" feeling in other senior child care staff, then this is a text well worth their getting hold of. It is a book that can be used also by those in management, those who have been in middle-management positions for some time, and those who are responsible for supervising and/or training on-line workers into middle-management positions.

This is a skills-orientated text, which right from the preface gives one a sense that the author is someone who has walked this road. It is not an arbitrary theoretical discourse. To quote the author, it begins with "a recognition of the importance of the transition which workers make as they acculturate themselves to a supervisory management position for the first time. The transition is not always easy when there are few role models of competent supervisors to emulate, and few resources to provide the emotional sup port and practice wisdom needed to make the transition."

While I indeed had the benefit of very skilled supervision soon after my promotion to the position of senior child care worker, I think that preparation of new middle-management staff needs greater clarity, both in terms of role-definition and "anticipatory socialisation". On-line child care skills do not adequately prepare one to deal with the transition to a new set of expectations indeed, a whole new 'mind-set' in terms of relationship issues, and the responsibility which comes with the supervisory role.

This transition is not made any easier if one does not have enough of what the author terms "role information" about supervisory management, to start with. Role information, according to Austin, does not only encompass data such as job descriptions, experiential and education qualifications, tasks etc., but more importantly, supervisory behaviour, attitudes and abilities. Assuming a new role in an organisation requires special capabilities which often become apparent only after one has been on the job for a few weeks or months. If supervisors lack the necessary perspectives acquired from anticipatory socialisation, their role in the organisation will most likely be defined by others. In this context, role conflict and role ambiguity create new tensions and frustrations.

To give you an idea of what you may expect from this book, here is a quick look at some of the issues dealt with in Chapter 2. This chapter deals with approaches to defining supervisory practice, which may be seen as a "two-way street in which a positive relationship is built upon the supervisor's creative blend of the administrative, educational and supportive functions (of supervision) and the supervisee's creative use of supervision, in order to deliver the best possible services to clients" a thought-provoking definition, I thought.

The chapter also deals with an issue which is very relevant to my own experience, namely that of authority and responsibility, which according to Austin, tend to be confused by those new to the supervisory role: 'Too often supervisors assume responsibility (i.e. accountability for one's own conduct and obligations) without negotiating the relevant level of authority (which is, by definition, the power to influence, or command thought, opinion, or behaviour) ... If the supervisor fails to recognise the importance of authority, it is likely that the same confusion will be experienced by subordinates ... who, like supervisors, need the same sense of security and confidence that comes with clearly specified responsibility and clearly delegated authority". Other skills which he identifies as central to all supervisory practice, include:

The book includes some illustrative case studies, which highlight "the importance of communication as the glue that keeps the organisation functioning." It also examines the communication process, and some commonly experienced barriers to effective communication. Subsequent chapters deal with:

Child care value
Whilst this book is not written specifically for child and youth care practice it is entirely relevant and easily adaptable to our field. For those whose supervisory task includes any or all of the above functions, this is a book well worth working through. For me, it is noteworthy that the thrust of this book is to assist those who face the challenge of moving from on-line work into supervisory roles, because I believe that more on-line workers could be moving into these positions. Senior child care workers, given adequate preparation and training, are uniquely suited to the job of supervising on-line child care staff. Too often this has remained the function of social workers within the organisation.