Breaking new territory

A pilot peer supervision programme involving 50 Therapy Managers has taken place over the last year. Programme Creator and HMI Associate Lily Murphy, describes how one year on, managers are reporting exciting results in their working lives.

Peer supervision is a recognised professional development intervention traditionally associated with therapeutic professionals such as counsellors and psychologists. However, as working environments become more pressurised, a group of health care managers recognised the need for peer supervision specifically to deal with challenges within their management role.

Lily Murphy
Lily Murphy

The Association of Occupational Therapists of Ireland (AOTI) teamed up with the Irish Association of Speech and Language Therapists (IASLT), and together with the Health Management Institute (HMI) instigated a pilot programme to respond to this need.

HMI broke new territory with this approach – it’s the first programme of its kind in the country. Our three-day training courses attracted 50 health managers between May and July 2012 in Galway, Kilkenny, Cork and Dublin. We focussed on skills development for the first two days and spent the third day setting up networks of peer supervisors nationwide. A preliminary review carried out in February has revealed that participants now feel more competent and confident in carrying out their duties in a tough climate.

We focussed on skills development for the first two days and spent the third day setting up networks of peer supervisors nationwide.

So what is peer supervision?  It’s an arrangement where ‘three or more professionals share the responsibility for providing each other’s supervision within the group context. Normally they will consider themselves to be broadly of equal status, training or expertise. Peer supervision usually involves experienced or qualified professionals who want to share experiences and do not have the same need for the expert guide as supervisor. Participants fulfill roles of supervisor and supervisee.’

Supervision is characterised by structured, collaborative conversations where peer supervisors ask questions to promote critical self-reflection in the supervisee. The challenge is to resist the urge to provide information, answers and immediate action and instead ‘to cultivate the skill of purposeful reflective questioning’

Most health managers today are working in small teams – they know each other quite well, they might socialise with each other, they’ve a lot of mutual respect. And then something upsets the apple cart – it could be an unreasonable request, a mental health issue, bullying, sick leave etc. The manager has to deal with the issue and still maintain the relationships within the team.

When managers engage in peer supervision, they present the dilemma they’re struggling with and have an opportunity to look at it objectively with their peers. Groups meet on a regular basis usually every 4-6 weeks and follow a clear process. There is no group ‘leader’, but one member manages each session to ensure time keeping and focus.

Supervision’s three primary functions are education, support and managerial.

  • Education – developing appropriate skills, competencies and attitudes;
  • Support – to reduce stress and the risk of burnout by enabling the supervisee to process their experience rather than be overwhelmed by it;
  • Managerial – to provide quality control and accountability.

Because Supervision focuses on these three areas, it is a critical organisational intervention to support ongoing Management and Organisational Development.

Clearly managing in a time of recession is tough.  Managers are faced with trying to deliver services with ever decreasing resources and have to implement organisational decisions that sometimes conflict with their personal and/or service values. Peer supervision helps them to recognise these conflicting values and to make empowered decisions.

Supervision is characterised by structured, collaborative conversations where peer supervisors ask questions to promote critical self-reflection in the supervisee.

Throughout my career in management development, I met managers who needed a safe place to talk about difficult choices and decisions they make daily or to safely unload information they carry about a staff member that cannot be shared with other team members. Often managers are caught between the expectations of their role and their own humanity. I completed a Masters in Supervisory Practice so that Supervision could be more available for such Managers. It should not, I believe, be the preserve of people in therapeutic roles.

Some may ask why don’t these managers just go talk to their bosses? In reality, line management is a different relationship. Line management supervision is usually more concerned with getting the job done, reaching targets, managing budgets, doing things right etc.  Line Management Supervision is often not the appropriate opportunity for a manager to display their vulnerabilities.

Peer supervision on the other hand facilitates focus on the job to be done and on the person doing the job. It provides the space to reflect not just on doing things right but on doing the right thing(s)

At a recent review, managers who participated in the Peer Supervision programme since summer 2012 have reported positive change. Participants said they were becoming more confident managers, better listeners, more supportive of their staff and better able to address issues.

Participants commented that multi-disciplinary peer groups are a critical success factor.  They learnt that each professional group had been socialised into a particular approach to problem solving. Being encouraged to explore their thinking by someone with a different perspective gave rise to new possibilities and new solutions. Peer supervision is really powerful when it provokes new ways of seeing.

Lily Murphy is founder of Blue Heron Life and Leadership Coaching. www.blueheronleadershipcoaching.ie Blue Heron provides executive coaching, supervision, facilitation and training for people in leadership and management positions.