The 3 core functions of coaching supervision

The 3 core functions of coaching supervision

In many contexts, the word supervision denotes a close oversight and detailed management of someone’s work, with a particular focus on quality assurance.  

Within the helping professions, however, supervision takes on a very different meaning.  

In a previous post, I described it as a space for reflective inquiry into someone’s professional practice.

But what does this reflective space set out to achieve?

In this article, I’ll lay out the three fundamental aims, or functions, of coaching supervision and what these might mean in practice during a supervisory conversation.

In its early days, the aims of supervision were neither universally agreed nor always formally identified.  Established first within the therapeutic field, experienced practitioners often progressed naturally to “supervising” less experienced therapists based on their own assumptions, style and understanding of what supervision should be.

Unsurprisingly, different practitioners and theorists developed their own concepts about what it was for, how it happened, what skills were needed, who could do it and much more besides.

Slowly but surely, however, consensus emerged and to a large degree there is now a shared understanding of the aims and principles of supervision in the helping professions.  The specific practice may differ according to both the individual supervisor and their theoretical orientation, but the aims remain broadly consistent.

The functions of coaching supervision

One of the most enduring formulations of the function of supervision in the helping professions is that of Inskipp and Proctor.  They describe three main functions that supervision attends to:

  • Restorative 
  • Formative
  • Normative

Since then, there have been similar formulations including Hawkins and Smith’s: 

  • Resourcing
  • Developmental 
  • Qualitative 

And more recently, Lucas and Larcombe’s:

  • Personal
  • Technical
  • Ethical
  • Commercial

Apart from the addition of the commercial element in the last group, all three are essentially subtle variations on the same theme.  

Each emphasise supervision as focusing on:

  • The person of the coach and their emotional wellbeing.
  • The skills, knowledge and ability of the coach.
  • The professional standards and ethical behaviour of the coach.

These three areas of focus represent the core aims of coaching supervision which we’ll explore in more detail below.

Given the essential unanimity of these definitions, the choice of language is largely one of preference and nuance.  But, as much for its more poetic qualities as anything, we use the Inskipp and Proctor’s restorative, formative and normative model within the ICCS.  

The Restorative Function

The restorative function is concerned with supporting the coach to come back to themselves after long hours working with, absorbing, defending against, and sometimes being part of, the emotions of their clients.

I have always enjoyed Erik de Haan’s description of this in his book, Supervision in Action.  

He writes that:

Underestimation is a major risk in organisation consulting and coaching practice. Unlike gardeners, deep-sea divers, police officers and many other caring or exploring professions, consultants and coaches don’t need any special equipment to do their work – although it’s not unusual for consultants to catch themselves unconsciously picking out clothes in an effort to fit in with the organisation they are going to visit.  A uniform or protective clothing is a constant reminder of the role and the risks involved.  Consultants usually lack such a reminder, so the risks of role uncertainty are much greater.  As a result we forget too easily the extent to which we expose and hurt ourselves, or invite hurt, in the consulting professions. We can develop a ‘thick skin’ and disparage the constant stream of emotions that bombard us, such as enthusiastic promises, vain hope, defeated expectations, direct or indirect rejections, disguised criticism or jealousy, temptations to over-promise, etc – or act as though we don’t need any help and can bear and process all of it by ourselves.  However, that is certainly not always the case: to process it all, we need the involvement of outsiders who have gone through similar experiences and can help us put our own into new contexts.

Erik de Haan, Supervision in Action

Of course, whilst de Haan is not suggesting that coaching is as dangerous as some of these other occupations, he is certainly bringing our awareness to the reality that we are part of a profession that immerses us in other people’s challenges, turmoil, deep emotions and relational struggles and that, over a period of time, this can create its own impact on us as practitioners and to develop the ‘thick skin’ he mentions.  

In turn, this can cause us to care less for our clients as we push their impact away.  At its worst, it can lead to a depersonalisation in which we see all clients as merely one more person unloading “their stuff”.  The coach ceases to care as much, or even begins to dread the next coaching session.

Most coaches who have worked for long enough will have had those moments.  Ultimately, it can lead to a sense of burnout and a desire to simply get away from the work.

The restorative function, then, is a kind of release valve or an emotional cleanser to wash away the unwanted and leftover emotions from the work.  It allows the coach to let go of feelings that have built up through their work and which they are often carrying on behalf of the client, albeit unconsciously.

But it’s also about normalising and enabling the coach to remember that it’s OK to feel this way – that this work can evoke emotions and that, as a human being, they’re going to feel them.  Sometimes, the simple act of being reminded you’re not alone – not a bad person or a poor coach for feeling frustrated, annoyed, bored, angry with your clients – enables you to come back to yourself and your clients afresh, regenerated, and ready to do the work.

It is easy to think of supervision from a managerial perspective, but in the helping professions, at least one of its main aims then is the emotional wellbeing of the coach – the human being – as it relates to their work, and enabling them to go back to it newly resourced.

The formative function is about the coach as a person – the coach as someone who is impacted by the kind of work she does and the aim to resource and strengthen them through release.

The Formative Function

The second of the three supervisory functions is perhaps the more obvious one when we think of the word supervision – supporting the coach to be more effective and skilled at their work.

The formative function concerns the skill, knowledge and practice of the coach.

But even here, the supervisory style in the helping professions is markedly different from managerial supervision or even mentoring. 

Far from being a relationship of teacher and student, the supervisory relationship is one of exploration and discovery, a sharing of ideas and consideration of possibilities, rather than didactic lessons in how to coach better.

The formative function in supervision may indeed involve some educative elements from the supervisor if appropriate, but it might equally involve a dialogue that leads the coach to consider what they already know but have neglected, or to create fresh ideas simply by playing with what other options might be available.

The key aim of the formative function, however it is achieved, is the growth of the coach’s ability to make an impact through their skills, knowledge, attitudes, confidence and so much more.

But this is not merely about the tools of coaching – the knowledge and application of models or theories. 

It is also how the coach shows up.  

Formative supervision might explore how the coach allows themselves to be overawed by a particular type of client and how they regain their composure and confidence to work more confidently to support that client.  It might surface the deeper psychological patterns that create this initial feeling for the coach, bringing awareness of what countertransference is impacting their work with this kind of client.

Notice, though, that although this is about the coach as a person, it remains formative as it centres around developing new skills and self-awareness to improve the quality of the work the coaches does.

Said another way, where the restorative function looks at the coach as a human and the impact of their work on them, the formative function is looking at the person as a coach and the impact of their work on the client and the system they work within.

The formative function ranges widely across the coach’s work exploring areas such as the interventions and approaches the coach uses, the relationship between the coach and their clients, the feelings and responses the coach experiences and even how all of this shows up in the supervisory space.

The aim of coaching supervision in this respect then is to ensure the continual development and growth of the coach throughout their lifetime.

The Normative Function

The final function, identified as the “normative function” by Inskipp and Proctor, as the “qualitative function” by Hawkins and Smith and as the “ethical function” by Lucas and Larcombe, is about professional standards.

My own belief, based on personal experience of being part of the supervision profession, is that this is the function with which most coaching supervisors are least comfortable.  

Supervision in the helping professions is generally seen as a collegial relationship, two equals engaged in creating a reflective space around one person’s practice.

The normative function subverts this somewhat. It can feel as though it challenges some of the core beliefs upon which relationship is built – the equal relationship, the subjective nature of the work and the humility of not having the answer.

But yet the normative function is a core part and responsibility of the supervisor and it is possible – indeed, as we’ll see, necessary – to explore this issue with a non-authoritative stance.

To be clear, then, the normative function introduces the issue of professional standards into the supervision conversation – in other words, what is OK and not OK within the boundaries of the profession.

Some professions have rigorously defined and upheld norms and with regulated professions such as medicine misconduct can lead to professionals being “struck off” and unable to practise.

Coaching, however, like therapy and counselling, is unregulated and a coach can quite legally work in ways that contravene the general understanding of coaching.  In such circumstances, the coaching supervisor has little to no real power to impose “professional standards” other than through engaging in a collaborative dialogue.

As an example, a coach who knowingly and persistently strays into therapeutic territory may be acting outside the bounds of what the profession considers appropriate, but they are not acting illegally.  And whilst the professional bodies for coaching may have codes of conduct, it is not a legal requirement for a coach to subscribe to any of them.  

This can present a real dilemma for a coaching supervisor.  

On one hand, they have no real authority to impose a professional body’s code of conduct – there is no obvious punitive stick, so to speak!  And yet, part of their role as a coaching supervisor is to raise potentially problematic working methods of the coach and to create the conditions in which the coach might look at these behaviours with fresh eyes.

The normative function, then, is not one of authority and imposition but of having the courage to confront ethical issues and to bring about a willingness on the part of a coach to explore these areas.

Where the restorative function sees the coach as a person and the formative function sees the person as a coach, the normative function sees the coach as an ethical practitioner.

Summary

These three elements make up the core work of supervision and together ensure that the supervisor keeps in mind the wellbeing of all parts of the coaching system: the coach, the clients and the profession.

The functions are not necessarily exclusive and a supervisor may be working across any one, two or three of them at the same time depending on multiple factors.  These are not so much discrete areas of work as lenses that influence the coaching supervisor in the interventions they make, the direction they shine their light and the outcomes of the journey that coach and coaching supervisor go on during a session.

Of course, we have only scratched the surface here in revealing the core functions of supervision.  How it is done, the methods, approaches, models and philosophies are for further articles.  

But always, at the heart of supervision work, guiding the conversation that unfolds moment by moment, are these three vital pillars – the restorative, the formative, and the normative functions of coaching supervision.  

Author Details
Nick is the founder and CEO of the Centre for Coaching Supervision and Animas Centre for Coaching. Along with his love of coaching and supervision, he is a traveller and trekker and journeys around the UK on his narrowboat, Vagabond, with his wife, Danni.
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Nick is the founder and CEO of the Centre for Coaching Supervision and Animas Centre for Coaching. Along with his love of coaching and supervision, he is a traveller and trekker and journeys around the UK on his narrowboat, Vagabond, with his wife, Danni.
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