How is power experienced in traditional and peer supervision, and how can we best work with power dynamics? Carola Hieker reports
By Carola Hieker
While the large number of publications about supervision over the past three to five years confirms a growing interest in supervision, most focus on what we call ‘traditional supervision’ within a setting where the certified supervisor gets paid by the coach to supervise his/her practice. Little is written around peer supervision, and little is written about the presence of power in both peer and traditional supervision.
Kassan (2010), who defines peer supervision as two or more practitioners who meet regularly to supervise each other, strongly recommends peer supervision and gives some examples of different peer supervision settings. And Lucas et al (2014) have written in this magazine about their experiences of running a peer supervision chain.
However, there is little else written about the potential upsides and downsides of peer supervision. There is also little written about the topic of ‘power and supervision’: the potential and challenges of the power dynamic in a supervision setting and how power is handled in peer supervision settings with the implicit change of roles.
Taking into consideration that it is potentially an easily available and more affordable alternative to ‘traditional supervision’ (Bachkirova, 2011), this is rather surprising.
Power and supervision
Based on 11 interviews with experienced and regularly practising supervisors, this article examines the influence of power on supervision, both peer and traditional.
From these interviews we reflect on:
- How power is experienced in traditional supervision settings
- How power is experienced in peer supervision settings
- When comparing these two supervisions settings, what the similarities and the differences are when it comes to the presence of power.
During this research it became clear that the term ‘peer supervision’ is not always clearly defined. It might be used in a setting where two or more peers are coming together for the sole purpose of supervising each other with changing roles, or in settings where one supervisor is the project leader and therefore has a dual role. Following up on the differentiation in team supervision (Hawkins, 2006), I suggest calling a setting with this kind of dual relationship ‘peer team supervision’ versus ‘peer supervision’.
We decided, therefore, to compare three different supervision settings.
- Traditional supervision
The supervisor is chosen either by the individual or the organisation to supervise the individual coach or a group of coaches. The supervisor is seen as neutral and not involved in the supervisee’s work.
- Peer supervision
Practitioners who are peers in their field come together for the sole purpose of supervising each other.
- Team peer supervision
While all team members might work with the same client, one peer is project leader and holds the relationship with the client. In this setting the supervisor, as a peer, has a dual role.
The results of the interviews showed that, as Foucault expressed it, “power is always present” (Foucault et al, 2000). Even more, following Winter’s (1988) definition that power is “the ability or capacity of one person to produce consciously or unconsciously intended effects on the behaviour or feelings of another”, power was seen as essential to the success of supervision.
There was unanimous agreement that power used well in all three supervision settings (traditional supervision, peer supervision, team peer supervision) is very important:
- to hold the energy
- trigger change, and
- literally to hold the space that the supervisee can focus on his/her topic.
The expression “containment” was used in the sense of a “strong, powerful and accepting container” where the supervisee can feel free to sit with the experience, reflect on it and take the space.
Dangers of abuse
All interviewees agreed that you will find a power differential in a supervision setting. However, handling the potential dangers of abusing this power differential was only expressed in a traditional supervision setting and in a team peer supervision setting. While on the positive side some interviewees liked the idea of paying for a service and not feeling any obligation to pay anything back in a traditional supervision setting, some expressed the existence of an implicit power differential. One interviewee expressed it as the danger of “the illusion creeping in that the supervisee is the person with the problems, the person with the needs, and the supervisor is the person without problems and without needs”.
For team peer supervision the potential abuse of power was even more clearly expressed. As the peer supervisor is also a colleague and member of the team, this dual relationship (Campbell, 2000) endangers the trust in the relationship and the interviewees expressed that it did not always feel safe to express vulnerability in this supervision setting. Therefore, it seems that the dual relationship in team peer supervision has ethical implications and needs constant evaluation.
Reflecting on the peer supervision setting, none of these ambivalent feelings towards the power differential was expressed. All supervisors agreed that due to the change of role, peer supervision almost “controls and monitors the balance in power”.
However, while all supervisors in one-to-one peer supervision agreed that the change of roles and being in the position to provide and to receive supervision reduces or even eliminates the abuse of power, some supervisors reported experiences of a power struggle in the context of bigger peer supervision groups. Some shared their experience of stopping the peer supervision or having to change members as a very painful process.
In summary, these findings show that when it works well, peer supervision might be more easily available and more affordable than traditional supervision, but it also offers better balance in handling the power differential. However, to make peer supervision successful, certain pre-conditions have to be considered (see box: Making peer supervision work).
Where these pre-conditions are fulfilled, the interviewees were pleased with their peer supervision experience and some of them found it sufficient for all their supervision needs.
- Dr Carola Hieker is a senior executive coach, supervisor and adjunct associate professor at the American University of London. She is a founding partner of hilcoaching (www.hilcoaching.com) as well as diversity-in-leadership (www.diversity-in-leadership.com)
Making peer supervision work
- Contract carefully and diligently
- Revisit the supervision contract regularly
- Ensure emotional maturity of peer supervisors is similar
- Ensure supervisors can self-reflect around their own handling of power or potential competition
- Ensure there is a similar level of experience of peer supervision
References and further information
- T Bachkirova, P Jackson and D Clutterbuck, Coaching and Mentoring Supervision: Theory and Practice (Supervision in Context), Maidenhead, UK: OUP, 2011
- J M Campbell, Becoming an Effective Supervisor. A Workbook for Counselors and Psychotherapists, Hove, UK: Taylor & Francis Group, 2000
- M Foucault and R Hurley, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth: Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984: Vol 1, New York: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 2000
- P S Hawkins and N Smith, Coaching, Mentoring and Organizational Consultancy: Supervision and Development, Maidenhead, UK: OUP, 2007
- L D Kassan, Peer Supervision Groups: How They Work and Why You Need One, Lanham, MD, US: Jason Aronson Inc. Publishers, 2010
- S Gilbert, M Lucas and E Turner, (2014) ‘Chain reaction’, Coaching at Work, http://bit.ly/1Kcpzlt
- D G Winter, “The power motive in women – and men”, in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(3), pp510–519, 1988 doi:10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2060