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94 DECEMBER 2006
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Selecting the correct frame for supervision

Ernie Hilton

Choosing how to interpret the unique circumstances of any supervision can significantly impact the experience whether you are the supervisor or the supervisee. From a supervisory perspective, choosing the accurate context during an interaction of (or in?) supervision can be reckless or precise, depending upon how a supervisor chooses to frame the experience. In the book, Reframing Organizations, the authors, Bolman and Deal (2003) suggest leaders conceptualize organizations within four frames of reference; structural, human resource, political and symbolic. Although broad in scope these frames undeniably exist within organizations and teams. Accepting the existence of these four contexts allows the supervisor a greater opportunity for precision in understanding the circumstances surrounding the supervision process. I find these frames effective tools for thinking about supervision and will share my observations here.

Structural frame in Supervision
Often described as the “factory” or “machine” this element of any organization needs to exist for effective operations (Bolman & Deal, p.400). It is within this frame we, as employees, are given and learn policies, rules, roles, guidelines for practice and performance, and how decisions are made; ultimately the architecture of the organization. Within this frame there tends to be an endless supply of content available for supervision. One only has to google on the CYC-NET alone to find endless information on the structure of (or for?) supervision.

It is essential for supervisors to do their homework in the structural frame. A supervisor who tries to feign their way through best practice models, frameworks and other needed competent areas because they rely on their “positional power” versus their “expert power” usually will not generate the team cohesion and aptitude needed for a strong organization or team (Austin p.21 -22). However boring and mundane it may be, there can be no corners cut in supervision when it comes to providing the structure necessary when (in?) developing core competencies. Embracing a structural frame in supervision requires leadership to have written clarity in areas of job performance defined by structures like; organizational themes, codes of conduct, policies and procedures, operational and communication plans, detailed models of treatment practice, case management models and organizational charts, to name a few. Increasing autonomy in employees through supervision requires that safety be present by having comprehensive clarity regarding the structure of operations in addition to the supervisor being deliberately availability for the process of supervision and evaluation (Rivas, 1998, p.269).

Human Resource Frame in Supervision
The human resource frame usually generates the most controversy for supervisors in supervision. This frame provokes the concept of an organization being “like an extended family complete with needs, feelings, prejudices, skills, and limitations” (Bolman & Deal, p.14). It is within this frame where the structurally dependent supervisor and the human resource biased supervisor often collide. A structural frame focuses on enforcement of rules, policies and guidelines necessary for predictable operations; whereas the human resource frame predominately attends to needs of people over policy and contracts thus the collision of styles when these two frames are in competing positions or not balanced in operations. The human resource frame insists compassion, support and empowerment are tenants when interpreting the supervision process and its content. The supervisor operating from this frame is usually either interpreted as a “catalyst or a wimp” (p.354). Effective supervision rooted in this frame tends to focus more on productivity through people embracing the old adage of “putting people first”. Supervision tends to reflect an advocacy for coaching, mutuality, participation, facilitation and empowerment.

Effective human resource leaders will create a context in supervision that employees are respected, worthwhile and essentially the greatest reason why an organization is successful. A supervisor who embraces supporting employee needs and encourages these needs to have a place in supervision constitutes the existence of the human resource frame and its relevance as an integral part of the success of an organization.

Political Frame in Supervision
Welcome to the “jungle” or what Bolman and Deal call the political frame of an organization (p.433). Politics and politicians are inherently viewed as untrustworthy, deceitful and generally people and processes that hustle hidden agendas. The process of supervision has limitations and political supervisors are able to be realists within this process. A predominately human resource leader would feel compelled to put the needs of an individual over the organization's limitations that could possibly put in jeopardy resources for others. A political leader, however, will recognize the reality of the situation and its limitations and will negotiate an agreement within supervision without offending, or creating illusions or false promises. Political supervisors are aware of the limitations of their power and the often-present scarce resources available. In supervision the political goal is to balance these scarce resources against “divergent interests” of individuals in relation to the needs of the masses (p.197).

Utilizing the political frame in supervision can act as a vehicle for unification of individuals and teams with the greater vision and goals of an organization. Politically speaking in supervision there is less of a focus on resolving conflict and more of focus on designing strategy and tactics for accomplishing goals. A supervisor who is not politically astute and misreads the context of the supervision can do damage and not only impact a specific relationship but indirectly do damage to the idea and vision surrounding the role of supervision for that organization. The political supervisor embraces conflict and challenge as something that can stimulate interest and curiosity rather than something seen as debilitating and harsh. The idea of bargaining and negotiating occurs regularly in front line practice with youth and families. Bargaining or negotiating with a youth in a residential care facility tends to be framed in a more palatable context such as a strategy in an intervention plan to create a therapeutic change verses a political intervention tactically designed to impact the youth. So why should it be different in the context of supervision?

Symbolic Frame in Supervision
The metaphor associated with this frame is characterized by the idea that organizations are like “theatres” (Bolman & Deal, p.15). Often an overlooked frame, the need for symbolism in supervision is an essential theme to nurture. Creating the culture of supervision if not intentionally (or carefully?) organized can take on negative associations. It is through the rituals of storytelling that legends are passed on to others. To underestimate the power of the culture of supervision established by the supervisor is to underestimate the widespread resonating impacts of being inspirational or deflating to the organization. A supervisor who embraces the process of supervision as a regular ritual where experiences and stories are shared and heroic interventions are cast as mythical examples of treatment is an organization that embraces a symbolic frame. Supervision can play an inspirational role with employees if we attach meaning and purpose to what we do as caregivers in the field of Child and Youth Care beyond ourselves as individuals and teams. Sometimes feeling connected to the purpose that is greater than self that can be extremely motivational. The symbolic context within supervision can be the glue that unites individuals within a culture of shared beliefs and values promoting cohesion and opportunities for effective communication because of these shared beliefs and values. Symbolic language found in posted organizational tenants or team charters that have been agreed upon during retreats can guide employees on their journey and create camaraderie and cohesiveness among teammates. This cohesive culture offers a greater chance for consistent practice and service delivery.

The idea of multi-framing supervision allows a supervisor another method in which to understand how best to be helpful in building capacity in their organization. The diversity in thinking which comes from being aware of different themes allows a supervisor to consider many ways of interpreting problems and possible solutions. It is important enough to ask front line workers to exhibit these qualities when considering all of the different possible meanings and contexts associated to a youth’s troublesome behavior. Therefore it seems only reasonable and parallel to practice that we, as supervisors, consider many frames of context inside the process of supervision.


Austin, M. J., (1981) Supervisory Management for the Human Services, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall Inc.

Bolman, L.G and Deal, T.E., (2003) Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, 3rd. ed., San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass.

Rivas R.F. (1998) “Dismissing Problem Employees” in R.L Edwards, J.A. Yankey and M.A. Altpeter, Skills for Effective Management of Nonprofit Organizations, Washington, DC: NASW Press.

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