CYC-Online 94 NOVEMBER 2006
ListenListen to this


Leadership in building supervisory relationships

Sheldon Reinsilber

Abstract: The majority of child and youth care workers will find themselves playing at least a limited supervisory role throughout their careers. In today’s era of austerity, funding is severely limited and many human service organizations need to cut back on programs. Supervisors are now being forced to develop clear plans for working towards their organizations” mission. A key fact in supervision is leadership, which can be defined as the process of influencing the performance of front-line staff in the interest of achieving their particular goals. Supervision requires an understanding of the complex needs facing everyone in the helping professions. Leadership, on the other hand, involves the understanding of these influencing processes. This article will discuss ten guidelines to build upon the supervisory/leadership role in order to enhance the performance of front-line staff in these demanding times, so that the youth we care for benefit.

The past few years have been a time of uncertainty and change for all of us in the helping professions. Our organizations exist to bring about changes in both individuals and society. Concerns with rising costs, cutbacks, accountability, and more demands for our services have given rise to a call for skilled leadership at all levels within our organizations. Leadership, a key factor in supervision, can be defined as the process of influencing human behaviour in the interest of achieving particular goals.

The actual tasks of leadership tend to vary depending on the position in the organization that a supervisor occupies. For example, high-level managers lead through diverse activities in order to implement the policies set by their board of directors. These activities include formulating standards and procedures, delivering professional services, representing the organization to the community, and working with funders, community leaders, and partners to ensure the long-range survival of the organization.

Mid-level managers, such as supervisors, are more likely to lead by assuring that staff does not become so immersed in their day-to-day work that they lose sight of the organizational goals of the program. They may also lead in allocating resources in ways that promote professional growth to support lower-level staff in their job performance. Mid-level managerial leadership may also entail resolving interpersonal conflicts, advocating for greater benefits for staff, or promoting pleasant working relations.

Supervisory leadership at any level is designed to exert a positive influence over the daily performance of others. Today, the child and youth care supervisor must perform many functions in order to ensure an efficient and effective service for those that we care for. At the same time challenges must be faced and the necessary leadership must be provided so that those in need of our services will benefit.

There are a number of different theories and definitions of leadership, but the study of leadership begins with the study of oneself. Whereas the business world teaches supervisory management with an emphasis on technology, in our profession we teach management with an emphasis on the needs of people. Effective leaders in our field know a great deal about themselves and have a high degree of self-knowledge. This combination of self and theoretical knowledge is important in becoming an effective supervisor and leader.

Today we have a call for action. We need to provide leadership through creative and innovative supervision to meet the challenges of today’s uncertainty. The best supervisors get their jobs done as efficiently and effectively as possible, which is no easy task. All of our organizations need good supervisors, but good supervision does not necessarily make for an effective organization. For an organization to be effective, it must also have good leadership. Leaders must have a vision to look beyond the “here and now” and see the vast potential of their organizations. With this insight they may serve the people in their care to the best of their abilities.

I have used the following 10 principles as a guide over the years I have worked in this field. They are guidelines that may assist the readers in preparing for the challenges they are likely to face.


A woman trying to get help for her husband goes to a psychiatrist.
WIFE: My husband thinks he’s a refrigerator.
PSYCHIATRIST: I wouldn’t worry as long as he is not violent.
WIFE: Oh, the delusion doesn’t bother me. But when he sleeps with his mouth open, the little light keeps me awake.

Child and youth care workers who assume supervisory responsibilities are still child and youth care workers. As professional helpers, they need to advocate on behalf of young people and their families. Children cannot vote and they need our voices to speak on their behalf. We need to encourage staff to become professional advocates for change. One of the goals of our work is to ensure that the people who need our services receive them. As supervisors, we must also think of our staff. We must give our staff what we give to those in need, because they are the organization's most important resource. We need to advocate with all our staff and funders within our organizations to ensure optimal working conditions for everyone.

Caring for the caregiver

"After months of complaining about my job, I quit and got a job working for a drug store. I’m supposed to increase business.”
“What do you do? Stand out front and make people sick?”

The most valuable resource in any helping profession is our staff. We need to encourage our staff to have fun, to spread the fun around, to enjoy our jobs, and to recognize the many fine people we work with. We need to encourage our staff to give themselves what we expect them to give to our clients. We work in a difficult field and we have to be able to acknowledge the fact that we hear many difficult problems. We have to be able to acknowledge that our reactions to some of these problems are normal thoughts related to abnormal events. We need to help our staff externalize what is internal and find the joy to balance the pain. We need to help our staff develop healthy coping styles and remember the important things in life. No one on their deathbed ever wished that they had spent more time at work. It is important to remember that saving the world is tough. We must be able to see that the work we do has a larger sense of purpose and that our contributions are but a part of a larger picture to ensure the well-being of our children.


A chicken and a pig were discussing their desire to help the farmer. The farmer asked them if they would provide a breakfast of bacon and eggs. The pig responded that for the chicken that was a contribution, but for him, it was total commitment.

As supervisors, we need to develop our staff. This development doesn’t just happen overnight. It takes effort, time, and commitment from both the supervisor and the employee. As well, it requires an awareness that you cannot force someone to be committed. Rather, you can only help them to develop themselves. Commitment means more than an annual job performance review. It involves ongoing encouragement and support. The helping professions are a particularly demanding place for people. Some of the challenges include a lack of funding and respect, as well as the large number of people in need. Despite these obstacles, we need to commit ourselves to work on behalf of those in need who cannot help themselves.


A guy drives into a gas station with five penguins in the back seat.
The service station attendant sees them and suggests that the driver take them to the zoo.
The next week, the same guy drives into the gas station with the five penguins in the back seat all wearing sunglasses.
“Wait a minute,” says the service station attendant. “I thought I told you to take those penguins to the zoo.” The driver says, “I did, and today we are going to the beach.”

How important is getting your message across? Very!
Years ago, we would speak to someone face-to-face, write them, or phone them. Today, we have many different ways to communicate: telephone, face-to-face dialogue, writing, fax, electronic memos, internet, voice mail, pagers, cellular phones, beepers, and so on. No matter the method of communication, however, good leaders understand that good communications are the foundation of any organization. As leaders, we need to promote good communications. We must communicate regularly, accurately, and honestly. This kind of communication will promote trust within the organization and will go a long way in benefiting all the staff in carrying out their jobs.

Decision Making

Things are getting so bad in my neighbourhood that one gangster made a decision to do all his holdups during daylight. He’s afraid to be out on the street at night with all that money.

One of the most important reasons individuals are promoted to supervisory positions is to make decisions. Management is a process of making decisions, and good supervisors provide leadership by making the decisions. Many times supervisors are afraid to make a decision because they risk making a wrong one. Good supervisors, though, are able to identify and weigh the available information, reflect the information against the need for the decision, and act accordingly.

In the helping professions, new choices need to be made in order to adapt to the changing needs and times. In order to affect the future, supervisors need to recognize the importance of making decisions and must utilize their skills so that they can make a difference.


Flatter me, and I may not believe you.
Criticize me, and I may not like you.
Ignore me, and I may not forgive you.
Encourage me, and I will not forget you.

Many times our work can be frustrating, draining, and difficult. As leaders in supervisory positions, we need to give our staff the encouragement to be confident in the work they do. We need to give our staff what we would give those that we care for. We need to show our staff that they are respected by their supervisors. This support encourages people to perform their best, which in turn will benefit those in our care.


A child and youth care worker approaches a young person and asks, “What are you doing?”
The youth says that he is committing suicide.
The child and youth care worker asks, “Why then do you have the rope around your stomach instead of your neck?”
The youth responds, “I tried it around my neck and I couldn’t breathe.”

We in the helping professions are faced with many challenges such as difficult work, funding issues, and lack of respect. What makes the work easier are the caring staff and the knowledge of the good we do in our profession.

The challenge of leadership in supervision is to motivate our staff under difficult circumstances. Deciding how to motivate staff is the supervisor’s challenge. There are striking differences in the values placed on motivators. Some staff strive for excellent written reports, while others place a higher value on one-to-one work with their clients. As supervisors, we need to motivate all our staff all the time and not just on special occasions. The vast majority of our staff is doing what we want them to do every day: good work.

We need to catch our staff doing the right things, recognize their efforts, and reward them. There are a number of ways in which we can motivate our staff, by listening to them, providing frequent feedback about their performance, involving them in decision making, allowing them the opportunity to grow and learn, providing them with a sense of ownership in their work, and creating a work environment that is open, trusting, and fun. We should also encourage new ideas, encourage learning from mistakes rather than criticizing them, and take the time for team building.


A wife tells her psychiatrist that she wants to be more supportive of her husband.
"You see, my husband frightens me the way he blows smoke rings through his nose.”
The psychiatrist says, “That isn’t too unusual.”
The wife then states, “I know, but my husband doesn’t smoke.”

We work in a very difficult profession. Human service professionals should be convinced of the importance of good support staff. Supervisors should provide leadership by exhibiting a highly supportive environment. When front-line staff have learned the skills necessary for the job, but lack the confidence, good supervisors use supportive leadership. The supervisor, instead of providing a high level of direction, can now concentrate on supporting his or her staff. Most staff are not looking for direction in meeting the challenges of their job. What they do need is additional support by having someone listen to them and help them build their confidence. Supervisors who are supportive provide help whenever it is necessary until the staff have confidence in their own skills and abilities. There are many support structures for the individual that can help sustain one through those difficult times. Some examples include families, friends, hobbies, pets, television, radio and movies, magazines, long baths, the smell of flowers, and so on.


If you see a turtle up on top of a flagpole, you can be assured that he did not get there himself.

Teamwork is usually defined as two or more people working together to achieve a common goal. Teams are an excellent source of knowledge and resources for all staff, not just supervisors. Effective work teams focus on solving actual problems, while at the same time building efficient teams. As management staff, we must realize that the front-line staff knows most about dealing with the everyday needs of the people in our care. Good leaders have come to the conclusion that the staff closest to the individual in need know his or her needs best. We can empower our staff by placing the responsibility for decision making with them. When we do this, not only are the people in our care better served, but supervisors have more time to pursue other tasks that only they can do.


Trust me, these are really bad situations ...
just think about it.
A screen door on a submarine.
A stowaway on a kamikaze plane.
A soup sandwich.
Someone who ejects from a helicopter.
A snake charmer with a deaf cobra.

People must feel that they can trust the organization and that there are no surprises or end runs. When you trust your staff, they respond in turn by being trustworthy. When staff are given the freedom to make their own decisions, they do make their own decisions. We need to hire good people, orient them, and then let them do their work. You then know that you can trust your staff to make the right decisions because you know you have hired the right people for the job. Trust and respect must be built and maintained. Staff who are trusted and respected by their supervisors are motivated to perform their best.

This feature: Reinsilber, S. (2002). Leadership in Building Supervisory Relationships. Journal of Child and Youth Care, Vol. 15 No. 2 pp. 33-39

The International Child and Youth Care Network

Registered Public Benefit Organisation in the Republic of South Africa (PBO 930015296)
Incorporated as a Not-for-Profit in Canada: Corporation Number 1284643-8

P.O. Box 23199, Claremont 7735, Cape Town, South Africa | P.O. Box 21464, MacDonald Drive, St. John's, NL A1A 5G6, Canada

Board of Governors | Constitution | Funding | Site Content and Usage | Advertising | Privacy Policy | Contact us

iOS App Android App