Monday, January 3, 2011

Power and Influence in Supervision

(Note: Doctoral students in CED 781a Counseling Supervision during Fall 2010 completed abbreviated literature reviews on a topic of individual interest. They wrote both a research summary and a summary for practitioners. Here, we present the summaries for practitioners. Please let us know if you have questions or suggestions for future summaries. L. DiAnne Borders)

By Cheryl L. Fulton


Social power is defined as an individual’s degree of personal influence. It is well recognized that power and influence exist in supervision and, therefore, it is an important topic for both researchers and practitioners. Social Influence Theory applied to supervision suggests that supervisees seek help because they believe the supervisor has resources needed to help them with client cases, often for difficulties supervisees perceive as beyond their control. Research supports that supervisees will accept the supervisors’ help (influence) if they perceive him/her as having three broad characteristics: expertness (credibility, training, knowledge, reputation), trustworthiness (openness, sincerity, supervisee’s best interest at heart), and attractiveness (similar and compatible). The supervisor uses this influence to affect supervisees’ attitudes and behaviors that cause them to be “stuck” with clients. The supervisor/supervisee relationship is similar to the counselor/client relationship, with the exception that the supervisory relationship is evaluative, which adds greater complexity related to power.

Researchers purport that there are five power bases used in influence. These are expert (good reputation, use of reflective statements, responsive non-verbal behavior, and well thought out and presented viewpoints that are discrepant with the supervisee's), referent (having similar attitudes and values and responsiveness), informational (familiarity with numerous helpful information sources), legitimate (a sanctioned authority position), and ecological (awareness of needed changes in supervisee’s environment, situation, or professional behavior).

There are several influence theories; however, three often seen in the counseling literature include: Dissonance Theory, Social Influence, and The Elaboration Likelihood Model. The respective methods of attitude/behavior change employed within these theories is dissonance (i.e., challenging attitudes); persuasion tactics (e.g., metaphors, noting negative consequences, pointing out benefits/rewards, and modeling); or messaging (i.e., communicate in an empathic, understanding manner). Although most studies support that supervisees value the supervisory experience and relationship, it has been a challenge to determine whether supervision positively affects client outcomes.

Practitioner Information and Tips:

Recognize that power and influence exist in supervisory relationships and therefore need the same care and attention you would give any relationship issue in any therapeutic relationship.

Supervisors will be able to influence the supervisee to accept attempts to change attitudes/behaviors best if the supervisee views the supervisor as expert, trustworthy, attractive.

When the supervisor challenges a supervisee’s perception and causes dissonance, recognize that the supervisee will attempt to resolve this in a number of ways (e.g., discredit, reject, minimize, revise, or accept). Responses other than “accept” are natural responses and need the same combination of empathy, support, and challenge that you would use in counseling.

Demonstrating professional attitudes and behaviors, continuing your own development as a counselor, building rapport, maintaining the supervisee’s welfare as paramount, attending to supervisee needs, and exhibiting warmth, empathy, respect, openness, sincerity, congruence, and expertise will enable influence and a positive supervisory experience.

Supervisory success also depends on sensitivity to other potential influence issues such as age, gender, and cultural factors. Some groups as well as some individuals may be more vulnerable to unproductive power dynamics. Being aware, genuine, and willing to seek consultation will help ensure success in dealing with these issues.

Although the supervisory relationship parallels the counseling relationship, supervision requires unique training, education, and experience to be successful.

For Further Reading

(*most recommended for supervision practitioners)

Benson, K. P., & Holloway, E. L. (2005). Achieving influence: A grounded theory of how clinical supervisors evaluate trainees. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 2, 117-140.

*Claiborn, C. D., Etringer, B. D., & Hillerbrand, E. T. (1995). Influence processes in supervision. Counselor Education and Supervision, 34, 43-53.

*Dodenhoff, J. T. (1981). Interpersonal attraction and direct-indirect supervisor influence as predictors of counselor trainee effectiveness. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 28, 47-52.

Dorn, F. J. (1985). The social influence model in clinical supervision. The Clinical Supervisor, 3, 77-84.

Granello, D. H., (2003). Influence strategies in the supervisory dyad: An investigation into the effects of gender and age. Counselor Education and Supervision, 42, 189-202.

*Heppner, P. P., & Handley, P. G. (1981). A study of the interpersonal influence process in supervision. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 28, 437-444.

Hernandez, P., & McDowell, T. (2010). Intersectionality, power, and relational safety in context: Key concepts in clinical supervision. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 4, 29–35.

Holloway, E. L., Freund, R. D., Gardner, S. L., Nelson, M. L., & Walker, B. R. (1989). Relation of power and involvement to theoretical orientation in supervision: An analysis of discourse. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 36, 88-102.

*Houser, R., Feldman, M., Williams, K., & Fierstien, J. (1998). Persuasion and social influence tactics used by mental health counselors. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 20, 238-249.

Stoltenberg, C. D. (1988). A test of the elaboration likelihood model for therapy. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 12, 69-80.

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