Supervising Child Protective Services Caseworkers
Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, Children's Bureau., Caliber Associates. Salus, Marsha K.|
|Year Published: 2004|
Managing from the Middle
Most child protective services (CPS) supervisors have been promoted from a caseworker position and frequently have established relationships with caseworkers in the unit. Moving into a supervisory position means becoming part of the management team and part of the administration. It is not surprising that supervisors often describe feeling caught in the middle. They must learn to feel comfortable making decisions and taking actions that will be critiqued from the differing perspectives of their staff and their managers. In addition, they may not be involved in management decisions or in the creation of new policies, procedures, or mandates, yet supervisors must ensure that staff implement and follow them.
As mid-level managers, supervisors should:
- Advocate for the needs of caseworkers regarding career development opportunities, meritorious performance, and environmental needs, such as adequate space to work and work climate;
- Serve as a buffer and conduit of communication between upper management and caseworker staff;
- Influence agency policy by proposing changes in the way the organization functions (e.g., travel policies, intake policies, and personnel policies);
- Shape agency program development by proposing new program directions and identifying implementation strategies that are mindful of both management and staff concerns;
- Influence agency leadership and provide constructive information and feedback regarding:
- The organizational climate to improve interunit communications and team building; - The impact of the senior management style and the actions of staff; - The need for recognition of outstanding staff work.75
Communicating Policies, Procedures, and Directives Effectively
The primary, frontline work of the agency is accomplished by caseworkers. The role of the supervisor is to empower, enable, and guide staff to provide effective and efficient services to children and families. This requires the supervisor to make sure the policies, procedures, and directives of the agency are fulfilled. Consequently, a supervisor should not reveal any lack of comfort with the management role when introducing new policy directives.76 For example, "You are not going to believe what our administration has come up with this time, but we just have to do it."
Empowering staff to fulfill directives, policies, and procedures effectively requires comfort with the management role. How the supervisor introduces new policies and procedures directly impacts their implementation. It is important to plan any presentation of a new directive. Some suggestions include:
- Determine the rationale or the purpose for the policy, procedure, or directive.
- Identify the positive aspects of the policy, procedure, or directive. Specify the benefits to caseworkers, clients, and the agency, as well as the potential problems that may result.
- Anticipate the concerns staff may present regarding implementation.
- Determine the best method and time to present the policy, procedure, or directive (e.g., during a unit meeting or in a memo).
- Remember that what is said (the actual words), the nonverbal messages, and the paraverbal messages (tone, pitch, and pacing of words) affect how the message is received, which influences caseworkers' implementation.
- Allow time for questions and address those concerns constructively. Develop a system for monitoring those concerns and presenting them to the administration.
- Be clear about expectations regarding the implementation of the policy, procedure, or directive.
- Provide a means and time for follow-up.
Keeping Staff Informed
Effective supervisors emphasize information sharing. Supervisors who share information with staff based on a need-to-know basis or who withhold information as a means of control are less effective. It is important to remember that when staff are kept informed and when they understand the rationale for actions and decisions, they will feel more connected to the unit and agency, as well as feel more empowered.
Involving Staff in Decision-making
When staff are involved in making decisions that affect them, they will be committed and motivated to implement the decision. Rather than having all decisions made by management without input from frontline staff, there are various ways in which staff can be involved in decision-making, including:
- Having issues solved or decided by the staff most directly impacted by the matter;
- Having issues decided upon by staff within parameters set by management;
- Seeking input from staff, but making the decision at a management level.
Managing Up to Be Effective on the Job
Effective supervisors see handling their relationship with their manager as an essential part of their job. As a result, they take the time and the energy to ensure it builds on strengths, is consistent with both persons' styles, and meets the most critical needs of each.77
Understanding the Supervisor's Manager
In order to be able to develop an effective relationship and to be able to have an effect on his or her behavior, a supervisor must gain an understanding of the manager's goals, work style, strengths, needs, and pressures. Strategies for determining goals and pressures include:
- Being alert for opportunities to speak with the manager and to ask questions;
- Paying attention to cues in the manager's behavior;
- Paying attention to changes in the organization and how those changes affect program areas, particularly the manager's responsibilities.78
Supervisors also must pay attention to their manager's work style. This information will enable supervisors to adapt their behavior to compliment or match the manager's style. For example:
- Is the manager formal or informal? For example, does he or she prefer meetings with set agendas or to discuss things on the fly?
- Is the manager organized or does he or she have a more casual style? For example, does he or she prefer to have all of the information to prepare before the meeting, or does he or she prefer to discuss issues, problems, or concerns with a minimum of background detail?
- Does the manager respond to stimuli through predominantly visual or auditory means? Does he or she prefer to get information in report form to read and study? Does the manager work better with information and reports presented in person so that he or she can ask questions?
- Does the manager keep his or her hands on the pulse of the organization? Does he or she prefer to be involved in decisions and problems as they arise? Does the manager give staff a great deal of autonomy?
- Is the manager directive or does he or she use a participatory style? A directive person tells individuals what to do. A person with a participatory style involves others in discussions and decision-making.
In addition, supervisors need to evaluate their manager's strengths, areas of need, and blind spots.
- How does the manager handle conflict? Does he or she avoid conflict or tend to compete when conflicts occur?
- How clear and specific is the manager? Perhaps he or she does not think clearly through ideas and assignments, so staff may not be clear about what needs to be done.
- How does the manager like to hear about news? Managing the flow of information upward is difficult if the manager does not want to hear about problems.
- How does the manager keep staff apprised of their performances? Does he or she emphasize giving feedback?
The manager is only half of the relationship; the supervisor is the other half. Developing an effective working relationship requires supervisors to know their own needs, strengths, problems, and personal style. Supervisors must become aware of what it is about them that facilitates or impedes working with their manager and to take the necessary actions that will make the relationship more effective.
Supervisors' Influencing Potential
There are several types of power available to a supervisor to influence the people above them.
- Expert power—The manager respects the supervisor's knowledge base and skills, is aware of the supervisor's strengths, and understands how those strengths can help him or her in the management role.
- Information power—The manager believes that the supervisor stays current and well-informed. The supervisor has information about practice, policy issues, and staff morale that can help the manager make effective decisions. The manager also believes that the supervisor is open and shares the information the manager needs to do the job.
- Referent power—The manager likes the supervisor as a person, trusts him or her, and sees the supervisor as dependable and honest, as a positive force in the organization, and compatible with organizational goals. It also typically means the manager recognizes the supervisor as a team player.
The supervisor is usually the manager's closest connection with the client. The supervisor has first-hand knowledge of the strengths, problems, and issues regarding the actual delivery of services and the implementation of policies and procedures. How the supervisor uses this information to influence programs and policy and to advocate for caseworker staff is based on how administrators view the supervisor and the quality of the supervisor's relationship with his or her manager. If administrators view the supervisor positively, the supervisor will have greater influence.
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