Task or Developmental Supervision: What Works Best and Has Lasting Results?

Voluntary organizations are both feeling the “financial pinch” and dealing with fewer staff members handling increased responsibilities. Exactly how do a limited number of workers deal with fulfilling the expanding expectations established by their employers? This question is faced by most non-profit agencies as they stretch to provide needed services while dealing with limited resources. I would like to look at the human resources component in the “equation of financial resources plus human resources equals provision of human services.”

Most organizations work with a hierarchical structure that places a department head or unit supervisor in the position of supervising a number of staff members. As time has become more valuable and organizations are expected “to do more with less” the supervisory relationship has focused on the supervisor holding the supervisee accountable for carrying out the responsibilities appropriate to the specific position. Over time many supervisors are performing “task supervision”. Generally this means the staff member accounts for the successful completion of the tasks they had to perform over the past week or two weeks.

In task supervision, the supervisor’s role is to evaluate, critique, and suggest approaches that will aid the staff member in being more effective and efficient in completing the job. Time is spent on the specifics of the job that has to be completed and the discussion might focus on what needed to be accomplished; how it was accomplished; and how it could have been accomplished more effectively and efficiently. The purpose of the supervision is to enhance the functioning of the staff member who then delivers services more effectively.

There is another model of supervision that not only focuses on the delivery of the services but simultaneously aims at enhancing the professional development of the staff member. In developmental supervision there is a dual focus. One aspect is insuring the employee successfully completes the specific tasks that are part and parcel of the job. However, this is not the sole issue at stake in the relationship between the supervisor and the supervisee.

The supervisory relationship also provides the opportunity for the staff member to learn not only from the experience of what is accomplished but also provides an opportunity for exploring “how” the tasks are completed through the “lens” of what is needed for the continued professional growth and development of the employee. Developmental supervision prioritizes the growth of the professional, as much, if not more than the completion of the specific responsibilities. There is an evaluation of the professional’s performance and the purpose to understand how the tasks are accomplished as part of a comprehensive approach to the worker’s professional growth.

The supervisory meetings are often structured differently depending on whether it is task supervision or developmental supervision. In task supervision the time is spent on the specifics of the worker’s role and what was accomplished and what needs to be done to complete the assignment. In developmental supervision the discussion is broader than the tasks to be accomplished and there is a focus on the staff member’s knowledge and skills beyond the specific tasks. Time is spent discussing the worker’s perceptions of her performance and how she can develop greater self-awareness.

It is not unusual to set aside at least one hour a week for a supervisory conference and for the staff member to develop the agenda. Of course the supervisor may add items to the agenda and may suggest an order for the discussion if there are a number of items. This approach to supervision works best when it parallels the way the staff member “should” be engaging with clients. In this way the supervisor can also be a role model for the staff member as well as an evaluator.

In developing the agenda together, the staff member is taking responsibility for her professional growth and playing an active part in developing her knowledge and skills. This process will challenge the staff member as well as the supervisor, and they will create a meaningful relationship that will have greater depth and content to it because of the nature of the discussions that are broader than just what was being accomplished in completing a “task”.

Of course developmental supervision demands more of an investment by the supervisor in terms of preparation for the supervisory sessions and additional time in the actual time with the supervisee. Task supervision requires a focus on the specifics of the job and on what has to be accomplished. It is possible to assign up to an hour a week to discuss specific cases and other responsibilities. Developmental supervision aims to strengthen the professional by providing for the supervisor’s engagement with the staff member through discussion of cases, or reflecting on the process that has unfolded between the worker and her clients. This is a labor intensive process that is a requirement of this kind of supervision.

Having provided staff members with both task supervision and developmental supervision I would encourage voluntary organizations to choose developmental supervision as it will make a lasting contribution to the professional’s development and the quality of the agency’s services to the community.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.