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2010 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 15, No. 3
June 2010

Enhancing Your Unit's Performance
Using Partnership in Supervision

by Deb Vassar

Over the last several years North Carolina’s child welfare professionals have widely embraced the “Six Principles of Partnership” as indispensible tools for engaging families and achieving the outcomes we seek. But these principles have the potential to affect more than just our interactions with families. If we can effectively apply them to the supervisory context, the principles of partnership can also transform and improve staff performance.

Our Work Has Changed
In today’s workplace, the challenges we face are fast-paced and relentless. Steven Covey calls this “permanent whitewater,” implying that we no longer encounter occasional stretches where the river of our work life gets wider and slows down. Instead, it’s just swift, surging rapids, day in and day out.

In this context, the old ways of leading and supervising don’t work as well. As management expert Ken Blanchard has observed, "In the past a leader was a boss. Today’s leaders must be partners with their people...they no longer can lead solely based on positional power."

Blanchard is saying that mere “supervision” isn’t enough anymore. To adapt to today’s workplace, supervisors and managers must partner with their employees. By doing so, they stand a better chance of safely (and sanely) navigating the whitewater and ensuring the safety, permanence, and well-being of children.

The Principles of Partnership

The NC Division of Social Services’ vision is that all programs it administers will embrace family-centered practice principles and provide services to promote security and safety for all. Among the values it sees underlying a family-centered approach include these six “principles of partnership”:

  1. Everyone desires respect
  2. Everyone needs to be heard
  3. Everyone has strengths
  4. Judgments can wait
  5. Partners share power
  6. Partnership is a process

(NCDSS, 2010; Appalachian Family Innovations, 2003)

Partnership In Action
Having trouble picturing what a partnership approach to supervision would look like in the real world? Let’s take a look at each of the six principles of partnership from a supervisory perspective.

Principle: Everyone desires respect. This principle, which is the foundation of the other five, means that partnership is impossible without mutual respect. Accepting this principle as a supervisor means you must honor your employees’ opinions and world views. Asking their opinion, listening to what they have to say, and valuing their abilities demonstrates your respect.

In their book I Don’t Have to Make Everything All Better (1995), Joy and Gary Lundberg write that every person has the universal need to believe “I am of worth, my feelings matter, and someone really cares about me.”

When supervisors ask the simple question “What do you think?” they are recognizing their employees’ worth. Truly listening to their answers to this simple question is a universally recognized sign of respect. Employees will recognize this and feel empowered.

Principle: Everyone needs to be heard and understood. The key to understanding is listening, not only with your ears but with your eyes and your feelings. Empathic listening begins with the listener’s desire to understand another’s point of view—to enter their frame of reference.

Because of time pressures, supervisors often feel it’s easier to simply tell an employee who’s asked a question what to do. Although this is understandable, “partnering” with your staff requires exploring options with them instead of giving answers.

If you respond to a question by saying, “Tell me more,” with a clear intention of understanding their point of view, you validate both the person and their opinion. In short, you tell them that you have heard and understood what they have to say.

Principle: Everyone has strengths. We hire employees for their strengths. When problems arise around an employee’s performance, however, strengths are sometimes forgotten.

For example, an especially creative employee may sometimes appear unfocused, even childlike. Yet as a supervisor, you need to keep your employees focused and on task. Because of this, your employee’s lack of focus may look like a problem to you.

How do you keep an employee focused on the task at hand without stifling creativity? One strategy is to ask yourself, “What behavior do I want MORE of in this person?” Then emphasize that behavior.

Most of us do not get better in our work by focusing on what we do wrong, but by focusing on our strengths and what we do right.

Principle: Judgments can wait. Accepting this principle requires that judgments be carefully considered and well founded. Once we make a judgment, we tend to stop gathering new information or to interpret new information in light of the judgment already made.

We all make mistakes, and inexperienced employees generally make more mistakes than the veterans. But as the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki (1970) noted, “In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few.”

How often are we surprised when “fresh eyes” provide critical insights into a particularly knotty problem? Just because a new employee’s suggestions seem to be completely “off the wall” doesn’t mean they are wrong. Suspend judgment and try to see the problem from their perspective. You may be very glad you did.

And remember, your decisions and judgments as a supervisor can have far-reaching consequences affecting not only the families we serve but your employees’ performance and their careers as well.

Principle: Partners share power. Power differentials create obstacles to partnership. In our society, the person in power has the responsibility to initiate a relationship that supports partnership. It’s a tricky matter, complicated by the fact that along with power comes responsibility, not only for the partnership but for the consequences of your partner’s actions.

As a manager/supervisor, it’s your job to develop your workers. You want them to grow stronger, develop their abilities and competencies, and learn to handle ever more complex situations independently.

As they grow, you will naturally share more of your authority. Your partnership with them deepens as your trust and confidence in their abilities grows. Ultimately, of course, you still have your power, as well as responsibility for the outcomes they help families achieve.

Principle: Partnership is a process. While each of the principles has merit on its own, all six are necessary for partnership. Each principle supports and strengthens the others.

In addition, this principle acknowledges that putting the principles into practice is difficult. Accepting the principles is not enough; applying them consistently requires both intention and attention. Developing an effective partnership with employees requires new learning, attitudes, and behaviors on everyone’s part.

It’s important to remember that a certain level of organizational distress is inevitable as you develop and strengthen this partnership.

You must find the right balance. The secret is to foster partnership without letting the distress reach the point where your employees can’t function.

The Partnership Approach Helps Supervisors by . . .
Improving staff retention. Study after study has linked supervisory support to staff retention. Supporting your workers makes a real difference to your agency's bottom line, both financially and in terms of the outcomes that can be achieved by a stable, cohesive, well-trained workforce.

Giving you peace of mind. The partnership approach helps you develop your staff. As your partnership deepens, so will your trust and confidence in their abilities.

Helping you find solutions. No one has all the answers. Partnering with your staff by regularly seeking their input boosts creativity and expands your problem-solving options.

Sending a clear, consistent message. Consistently approaching staff in partnership models the approach we want them to take with families.

Steps to Take
  • Show respect by regularly asking your employees: “What do you think?”
  • Whenever appropriate, say, “Tell me more” in a way that clearly conveys your desire to understand their point of view.
  • Suspend judgment, even if an employee’s suggestions seem completely “off the wall.”
  • Ask yourself, “What behavior do I want MORE of in this person?” Then emphasize that behavior.
  • When you can, share your authority. This gives people a chance to show they can handle situations independently and helps them learn.

Gone are the days when we thought of good management and effective supervision as a set of rules to follow. The task today is to redefine the problems represented by the never-ending set of challenges that child welfare presents us with and to find new ways of solving those problems.

In today’s world, partnering with our employees is both a “best practice” and a sure path to success.

References for this and other articles in this issue

Coaching in the Kitchen
Attend “Coaching in the Kitchen: Guiding Parents through Teachable Moments.” Although the focus of this course is on teaching workers coaching skills for use with parents, supervisors can apply what they learn to their work with their employees. For class times and registration information go to <>