Liz Beddoe reflects on when supervision can be less than helpful.

Last month I wrote about what elements contribute to a good supervision experience. This time I want to address inadequate and harmful supervision.

When I teach supervision skills in a post-qualifying programme we explore participants' own experiences of supervision as these are likely to influence their approach to learning to become a supervisor. Sadly, many report having participated in supervision that was below par. There are several common types of poor supervision reported (along with the 'good'): as practitioners they met with judgmental, controlling, or disengaged supervisors and described this supervision as detrimental to their professional development. The alternative scenario for 'bad' supervision was the experience of a weak supervisory style—the apparently benign supervisor who was too friendly and carried out chatty sessions in which nothing was learned. Research conducted by Ladany, Mori, and Mehr (2013) explored experiences of best and worst supervisors. They reported that good supervisors work towards establishing a strong supervisory alliance and mutually agreed goals. Basic counselling skills such as listening, reflection, and empathy were crucial in building the relationship. The absence of these skills or these being withheld created poor experiences for students, and indeed for practitioners within their subsequent career.

Of course, feedback that is challenging and critical often must be given in supervision. And feelings and tensions run high when this feedback may have consequences, such as in practice education assessments. Finch and Poletti (2014) report the presence of very strong emotions expressed by practice educators (called field supervisors in some countries) who were working with struggling students. Critical or challenging feedback is best delivered in a positive supervisory climate, where the A to Z elements I described last month are present. Where strong negative emotions about 'problem' students spills over into anger and frustration the climate for learning is damaged. The best interests of supervisees / students are served by supervision practice in which professional boundaries are maintained, the relationship is warm and respectful, and the focus is primarily on the supervisee's professional development.

I recently contributed to a writing project where I was invited to write a commentary on narratives written by 11 professionals who had been harmed by supervision (Beddoe, 2017). My article was published in a themed issue of The Clinical Supervisor journal (2017, 36 (1)). This special issue was edited by Michael Ellis, (who has undertaken important research on harmful supervision), and colleagues. Ellis et al (2014, p.439) propose that for the provision of "minimally adequate supervision" it is necessary that the supervisor:

  • Has the proper credentials for their profession;
  • Has the appropriate knowledge of and skills for clinical supervision and an awareness of their limitations;
  • Obtains consent for supervision with a supervision contract;
  • Provides a minimum of one hour of face-to-face individual supervision per week;
  • Observes, reviews, or monitors supervisee's practice;
  • Provides evaluative feedback to the supervisee that is fair, respectful, honest, ongoing, and formal;
  • Promotes and is invested in the supervisee's welfare, professional growth and development;
  • Is attentive to multicultural and diversity issues in supervision and in practice;
  • Maintains supervisee confidentiality (as appropriate); and
  • Is aware of and attentive to the power differential (and boundaries) between the supervisee and supervisor and its effects.

Harmful supervision includes also, by definition, inadequate supervision (Ellis, et al., 2015), the absence of those minimal conditions summarised above. Harmful supervision may often also, sadly, include sexual, physical, and emotional abuse and racial or gender based microaggressions, poorly managed feedback process along with supervisory incompetence and neglect. In the 11 narratives I analysed (Beddoe, 2017), I found that the negative experiences coalesced around several themes: race and gender discrimination and microaggressions, abuse of power, and unpleasant and often unrelenting personal critique.

Unequal power and the dynamics that flow from it were woven throughout the narratives I analysed and confirmed the literature. The legitimate role-derived power that accompanies supervisory role can be misused with highly negative impact on vulnerable students. Addressing the cultural / race dimension, Wong, Wong, and Ishiyama (2013) explored helpful and unhelpful factors in cross-cultural supervision and found five problem areas:

  1. personal difficulties as a visible minority,
  2. negative personal attributes of the supervisor,
  3. lack of a safe and trusting relationship,
  4. lack of multicultural supervision competencies, and
  5. lack of supervision competencies.

Gender discrimination may include displays of favouritism or, in one narrative I read, failure to humanely support a student who gave birth early during her internship. Microaggressive behaviours, such as public undermining, belittling comments, especially when made in public, favouritism and exclusion aggravated fragile supervisory relationships where power relations were already challenging, and made supervision toxic for supervisees (Beddoe, 2017).

As social workers we must demonstrate justice, tolerance, and respect in all our relationships, including supervision and practice education. The situations reported both in the narratives and research, illustrate too often the demolition of student / supervisee confidence. These harmful supervisory experiences are often gendered and/or racialised, are present in an unequal power relationship, and can never be acceptable or dressed up as providing 'challenging' learning.

"We all know when we are being challenged from a place of respect; it feels different, uncomfortable maybe but not painful, humiliating, and contemptuous."
(Beddoe, 2017, p.99)


Beddoe, L. (2017). Harmful supervision: A commentary. The Clinical Supervisor, 36(1), 88-101. doi:10.1080/07325223.2017.1295894

Ellis, M. V., Berger, L., Hanus, A. E., Ayala, E. E., Swords, B. A., & Siembor, M. (2014). Inadequate and harmful clinical supervision: Testing a revised framework and assessing occurrence. The Counseling Psychologist, 42(4), 434-472. doi:10.1177/0011000013508656

Ellis, M. V., Creaner, M., Hutman, H., & Timulak, L. (2015). A comparative study of clinical supervision in the Republic of Ireland and the United States. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 62(4), 621-631. doi:10.1037/cou0000110

Finch, J., & Poletti, A. (2014). 'It's been hell.' Italian and British practice educators' narratives of working with struggling or failing social work students in practice learning settings. European Journal of Social Work, 17(1), 135-150. doi:10.1080/13691457.2013.800026

Ladany, N., Mori, Y., & Mehr, K. E. (2013). Effective and ineffective supervision. The Counseling Psychologist, 41(1), 28-47.

Wong, L. C. J., Wong, P. T. P., & Ishiyama, F. I. (2013). What helps and what hinders in cross-cultural clinical supervision: A critical incident study. The Counseling Psychologist, 41, 66-85. doi:10.1177/0011000012442652


About the author:

Liz Beddoe is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. She practiced social work for 14 years in women's and family services in health settings.

Liz has co-authored two books on supervision with Allyson Davys: 'Best Practice in Professional Supervision: A Guide for the Helping Professions' (2010, Jessica Kingsley Publishers) and 'Challenges in professional supervision: Current themes and models for practice' (2016, Jessica Kingsley Publishers). Liz has also co-edited 'Supervision in Social Work: Contemporary Issues' (2015, Routledge) with Jane Maidment.

Liz blogs at
You can follow her on Twitter at @BeddoeE

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One Comment

  1. Gillian Muir says:

    Thank you Liz for this thought provoking piece. It is helpful to me as a PE, a Practice Assessor on the PDAPL and in my role as a L&D Officer supporting staff supervision. I appreciate the links to current research and recognise many of the messages from this in the work that I do with supervisees and those developing skills in supervision. The key points that strike me are those of acknowledging the role-derived power as a supervisors and the need to manage that respectfully and constructively; the inclusion of ineffectual supervision in the definition of harmful supervision i.e. considering ideas of omission as well as commission; the need for culturally sensitive supervision, especially within our care services where the diversity of the work force may be more pronounced and staff work with a multicultural service user group.

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