Supervision: a summary

What? supervision is a workplace-related and task-oriented counselling of the professional activity for employees and executives from various occupations.

Supervision refers to the reflection of technical and institutional contexts and the further development of the skills of the person(s) to be counselled.

Supervision is a long-term discussion process which accompanies the professional activity for approx. one year or more with sessions of approx. 90 minutes in individually agreed upon intervals (between 2 and 4 weeks).

Who? Clients for group supervision are a subsystem of an institution (teams, project groups or similar) or even a group whose members belong to different institutions.

In an individual supervision, the clients are individual persons. These may be executives or basis employees for whom the setting of an individual supervision – mainly external to their place of work in the supervision practice of the supervisor, is of importance.

Supervision has in the meantime become the choice of a broad range of specialists from various professions. This includes a.o. the numerous institutions of social work, education, adult education, medicine, psychology, spiritual welfare, legal authorities, administration as well as industry, research and technology.

By whom? Supervision is carried out be specialist especially trained in the complex tasks of supervision.

They possess the relevant field competence (specialist knowledge of the various fields of work of the social and educational system, of various service sectors and profit organisations).

They possess organisation competence (knowledge of various organisations, their concerns, structures and working tasks).

This also includes the relevant counselling competence which means to be able to accompany professionally employees, executives and other member of the organisation during their reflection of their work.

They also possess subject competence which means that they experienced high- level own training based on which they are able to make available their own persons to the counselling process in the best possible way.

How? Subject matter of supervision are the interaction fields of the clients. This includes the interaction with the addressee of the work (patients, students, clients, customers) as well as the interactions with colleagues and superiors and the continuous dealing with the demands of the organisation and their social context.

During the supervision sessions, present experiences from these interaction fields are taken and reflected from various points of view.

Why? The participants supervised are guided and support in order to:

Where does "Supervision" come from and what does it mean?

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The roots of supervision both in the USA and Great Britain as well as Germany lie in the practise of voluntary welfare organisations of the 20th century.

Pioneers of social work have made an effort since the middle of the 19th century to accompany the social work of voluntaries as regards organisation, leadership and teaching. At that time, social work was mainly rendered as community work. Later, this first practical “counselling” model was also applied to employed and trainee social workers.

The first supervisors were thus experienced social workers employed in an organisation who guaranteed both training in and support of social work and exercised administrative control for their employees in the interest of their organisation.

The training of psychotherapists, too, was and is still partly done through mandatory teaching and control supervisions which are carried out by experienced and especially trained therapists.

Until today, these early supervising traditions are of importance in the USA and Great Britain, although with different weighting of the individual components.

The designation "supervision" and the Latin origin of this term Super = over and videre = see shows the control aspect of this activity as originally understood and as the definition of the term "supervision" still shows in the German dictionary “Duden”.

With growing distinction and increasingly broad application, "supervision" became an analysis object. Between 1920 and 1945, the first articles on "supervision" were published, based on the practice of social work and mainly focused on the methodology of case work.[1] These first publications concerned the practised Anglo-Saxon model described in the beginning. [2]

Thanks to the discussion of "supervision" in a broader scientific and practising public, the options and difficulties of this original model become obvious and lead to far-reaching modification of intentions, working contents and methods of supervision in the course of the following decades.

The development of alternative concepts was accentuated on the one hand through the socio-psychological research intensively carried out in the USA since 1946. This research was above all focused on the social learning of groups and on learning through development laws of groups. [3] The understanding of supervision changed through an increasing socio-scientific research interest in social contexts on the one hand and through the development of system theories and systemic counselling approaches on the other hand.

Numerous different supervision concepts emerged which had one thing in common despite all methodical differences: Their intention was to accompany the client with counselling and their occupation in a reflecting way and they did not want to exert any control on the occupation of their clients. The examination of the Anglo-Saxon literature on supervision between 1960 and 1977 also showed marked changes to the traditional model which mainly referred to the following aspects:

The administrative-leading function of the supervisor was to be separated from the technical-teaching function.
Supervisors were not to control but rather to counsel their clients and were to contribute to facilitate their work.

By highlighting the counselling and teaching function of supervisors, the hierarchical relationship was replaced by a relationship as partners with the aim to provide a joint problem definition and solution. [4]

In Germany, too, processes of change in the society - a.o. triggered by the students' movement at the end of the 60s - resulted in the search for options to change individuals and institutions. There was a search for alternative options for traditional institutions resulting in a huge demand for reflection on the work in existing and still to be established institutions. [5] These questions increased concentration on supervision for groups and teams. The reflection of institutional, organisation-specific and social contexts developed into an indispensable component of supervision. Thus, the interest of other professions to use supervision as instrument to promote their professional development in personal and institutional aspects increased, too.

Supervision today

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I would like to give a short definition of supervision today mainly based on the definition by G. Fatzer: Supervision is a procedure where individuals, teams/groups or organisations reflect work-related problems in connection with team or organisation dynamics with the help of a supervisor. Based on its objective, supervision is to be support in increasingly complex situations in organisations, and support in the fields of learning and leadership, however, not legitimation and control. [6]

What is supervision against the background of situation dynamics?

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When individuals meet in (SD)supervision in order to work on their professional situation, they expose themselves to social cooperation and conflict which is experienced here and now in the supervision group. The participants (re)construct, experience, reflect, understand, and design their professional reality in the supervision situation.

(SD)supervision may be understood as work at the work [7] in all its personal, social and institutional aspects. I would like to describe their objective as enlightened, clearly intentional professional acting of the clients.

The (SD)supervision concept resulted from the historical and arts aspects as well as the theories developed during the students’ movement at the end of the 60s. Without neglecting the roots in history and humanities in its further development, the (SD)supervision practice and research work is focused on the presently experienced situation of the clients and is oriented in learning to their development and design processes. A reflecting and practising concept of situation is the decisive factor for the fundamental attitude of (SD)supervisors which I would like to describe as follows:

Situation can be understood as a description of itself in relation to the world as construct defined in time and space.

Such attempts to describe are daily events in the life of all people which are not always made consciously.

Such, even unnoticed, descriptions serve the coping with unavoidable tensions occurring in the individual itself and between the individual and others when interacting in institutions and organisations. While the individual is describing his/her situation, he/she explains it to him/herself and others, thus providing a social meaning and thus sorting things out in his/her world. [8]

Against the background of situation dynamics, supervision is thus always a discussion process in the given situation. The discussion process cannot only be structured by the four aspects of the situation but can be understood and designed in its dynamics.

These four aspects are the I, we, factual, and intentional dynamics of the situation whose mutual relationship makes it possible to perceive the complexity of the given situation and to assert a designing influence. [9]

The idea and concept of the situation dynamics serve as socio-scientific basis of the professional use of various reflection and counselling approaches which on the basis of system-theoretical principles may provide or link psychoanalytical as well as group-dynamical and organisation-psychological and system-counselling models, depending on the client's need.

Unlike organisation development, (SD) supervision does not interfere with institutional processes using re-structuring measures but guarantees the professional guiding of the reflection of the clients' professional actions within their institution or organisation. Clients may be a subsystem of an institution or group whose members belong to different institutions or an individual person in individual supervision. [10]


Gunnar Bernler / Lisbeth Johnsson , "Supervision in der psychosozialen Arbeit", p. 56 et seq., Weinheim, Basel 1993 


Gunnar Bernler / Lisbeth Johnsson , "Supervision in der psychosozialen Arbeit", p. 56 et seq., Weinheim, Basel 1993 


Wolfgang Rechtien, "Angewandte Gruppendynamik", p. 20ff., Munich 1992 


Gunnar Bernler / Lisbeth Johnsson , "Supervision in der psychosozialen Arbeit", p. 61, Weinheim, Basel 1993 


Cornelia Rappe­Giesecke, "Theorie und Praxis der Gruppen ­ und Teamsupervision", p.1f., Heidelberg 1990


G. Fatzer, Klaus Eck, "Supervision und Beratung", p. 54, Cologne 1990 


G. Fatzer, Klaus Eck, "Supervision und Beratung", p. 141, Cologne 1990 


"Definition der Situation", in Lexikon zur Soziologie, p.142, Opladen 1988 


Deutsche Gesellschaft für Situationsdynamik e.V. "Arbeitspapiere in der Ausbildung zum Supervisor", Ludwigshafen 1991 


Cornelia Rappe­Giesecke, " Theorie und Praxis der Gruppen­ und Teamsupervision", p.10 f. Heidelberg 1990