Nicki Weld is Social Work Professional Leader (general health) for the Wellington district health board in New Zealand. She is also Director of CNZN Ltd, New Zealand, which provides training, facilitation, supervision, consultancy and solutions for child protection and social service management and workers. She has worked for a number of years in a variety of social service and child protection roles, including senior social worker, supervisor, senior trainer, and as a national social work advisor, and is co-creator of the Three Houses information gathering tool.

Here, Nicki shares her take on the valuable role of a supervisor for the “helpers” in our society, and discusses her new book, A Practical Guide to Transformative Supervision for the Helping Professions.


Nicki, please tell us about your background and what attracted you to working in the “helping professions”.

I live in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand, and I grew up in Christchurch in the South Island. I come from a long line of New Zealanders who came to New Zealand in the 1860s, and my immediate family all live here. The land and sea are very important to me; they bring me balance and inspiration.

My journey into the helping professions came from a very early age, I’ve always been acutely aware of unfairness, injustice, and had empathy for all sorts of things! As with most people drawn to working in the social services, my life also threw a range of challenges in front of me, and these coupled with global challenges in the 1980s, such as the threat of nuclear war and human rights issues in my own country and abroad, made me decide to study political science. After a variety of work experiences I then went back and studied social work and knew I’d found a profession that would allow me to grow my skills and challenge myself in a variety of ways.

I’m currently a Professional Leader for general health social work at Wellington Regional Hospital here in New Zealand, and I also am a director of a training, consultancy and supervision company called CNZN Ltd and work both nationally and internationally through this. So my work has moved to having more of a leadership focus and supporting workers in a variety of organisations. It’s exciting and challenging work that I love doing.

What led you to write this new book?

I’ve been supervising for sixteen years. I started supervising quite young when I became a senior social worker, and really enjoyed hearing other worker’s successes and challenges and playing a role in enabling reflection on these. When I took up my current leadership role, I decided that to best support my clinical knowledge development as a professional leader, I would undertake supervising social workers across various health specialities. So I supervise six social workers at the hospital who work in women’s health, neonatal care, child oncology, adult oncology, cardiac care, intensive care, emergency department, and a cultural specific service for Maori. I also supervise four other people externally from a range of professions.

Being so immersed in supervising, made me think here is this organisationally approved space for people to pause and reflect on their work, so what better place for transformative moments to occur through turning up the volume on the insight a session can provide, hence the subtitle ‘amplifying insight’! I wanted to take reflective practice to another level. I got bolder in what I was doing as a supervisor and I wove in counselling techniques and other ideas. The New Zealand supervision conference back in 2010 was really inspiring to hear what different things people were trying in supervision. I discovered working in a more transformative way makes for such a richer supervisory experience that I just had to write about it. I was exploring and connecting with what was happening in the world on many different levels and exploring leadership and personal development concepts which I draw on in my book. I also had some great conversations with some of the supervisors at the hospital. Everything started to come together so I started writing and the book almost wrote itself! There’s something really amazing about taking supervision to this level.

What do supervisors struggle with the most in facilitating change for themselves or their supervisees?

I think instead of facilitating change and professional development, supervisors can get stuck on trying to be experts on practice and having lots of answers. Its tempting to provide a ‘goodie bag’ of information rather than working with a workers existing resources and stretching these to find a pathway forward. That’s what I like about supervising people in so many different roles; I freely acknowledge my clinical background is child health and child protection and yet I supervise people working with people who are 90! They can get good advice and information about resources from a range of places, and I’ve decided my job as a supervisor is to locate back to them in their work and what they are discovering and developing personally and professionally.

As I talk about in the book, my best transformative moments in supervision both as a supervisor and supervisee have come from boldness and braveness. They’ve also come from courage and creativity, where the supervisor has brought their knowledge and understanding of a person into the room and made a connection, or asked a question that takes the supervisee on a new direction. It’s also when a supervisee has said, “I want to go further, I want to look deeper, not just ‘debrief'”. Transformative work is awesome work, and I think my book provides lived out examples and techniques to help support this.

You have experience supervising workers involved with child protection – what are the particular challenges of working with this group and how have you managed them?

When supervising people who work in the field of child protection I am always conscious of what Tony Morrison called the ‘anxious nature’ of this work. People need a chance to clear their emotional reactions and have questions and constructs that can help them feel confident about how they are building safety around the situation. It requires in depth exploration of what the worker has done and what they are thinking and experiencing, it requires me as supervisor to notice any areas that may have been missed due to the emotional intensity of the work. It’s kind of like being a satellite; the supervisor takes a really big picture view to scan the safety planning or actions taken and then respectfully checks any detail that may need further clarity along with how the worker is doing.

My experience is that the most helpful way as supervisor approaching child protection work is to support the principles of not working alone – so be along side the worker in the session as a partner in helping build safety, to reinforce clear steps and processes that support safety as a way of bringing some objectivity back into emotionally charged situations. It also requires being aware of any professional dangerous dynamics that may inadvertently be occurring. What I’ve found is that the principles of safety and wellbeing apply across the spectrum of the work we do and apply to the worker just as much as the individual or family. My job as a supervisor is to explore both of these levels in supportive constructive way that ultimately supports professional and personal development that positively benefits those we are in service to.

In the book you talk about “honest honesty” – what do you mean by this, and in which situations is it appropriate or even necessary to help another supervisor or supervisee?

Ah yes! Here in New Zealand we are so far away from the world we get to make up new language concepts like that one! This came about because I’d noticed as supervisor that sometimes I’d come out a session thinking ‘Damn, I so missed an opportunity to really name something there, instead I kind of went around the outside of it and hoped they’d get it. I call that ‘soft honesty’ – it’s honest but could have gone deeper and been more direct. By ‘honest honesty’ I mean when you take a deep breath and say what you are really thinking in a way that invites discussion and reflection. You put it out in the room and it takes courage to do it because it’s usually the more personal self of the supervisee you might be connecting to. It requires careful thought and is linked to something that you believe is really important from a professional or personal development or practice perspective to name and be direct about.

I give a couple of really good examples in the book where supervisors were honestly honest and it created a transformative change. Another example is recently a colleague of mine was noticing their supervision with a worker had no depth, it was pleasant but didn’t get to the heart of anything, and outside of this the worker wasn’t doing too well in her interpersonal relationships with others. I suggested to my colleague (and gave her the section in the book to read) that she use honest honesty about the issues, to put her observations on the table in a direct and transparent way. So she did, and the worker burst into tears and said how glad she was that the issues had finally got named and their whole supervision changed. That’s honest honesty.

Why was it important to you to include the chapter on “Global Influences”?

Believing we are all separate is what is causing much of the damage to our world. It is impossible to just pretend we have our little individual piece of the universe and what we do doesn’t impact on others. Everything and everyone is linked through interdependence and as workers we exist as a part of a greater whole of humanity. Watching the impact of the worldwide recession and also the impact of natural disasters reinforced this for me, we can’t pretend there is no wide felt impact from such events. When my home city of Christchurch – with nearly all my family living there – was hit by two devastating earthquakes, all of New Zealand experienced an enormous traumatic impact. We also had immediate help internationally which was so heartening and supportive. In a time of a national crisis the world came to help us, this little country at the bottom of the world. That alone shows me the connections that exist globally amongst us.

So this chapter and the one on the environment of workers are drawing on ecological and systems type thinking so supervisors also stay mindful of impacts occurring on many levels for workers and ourselves. By talking about global influences I also wanted to say that through engaging in our own transformative proves and self actualisation we ultimately contribute back to the world. I sincerely believe my life is not just about me, it is about having learning experiences that I can give back to the world that I inhabit. This comes through me taking every learning opportunity that is put in front of me and through this help support positive change on many levels. Self-awareness and reflection is the first part of this which is way supervision is such an amazing resource and opportunity.

What do you see as the fundamental role or first responsibility of a supervisor to her colleagues and supervisees?

To support professional and personal development that enhances service to others and contributes to positive change in our world. Supervisors are leaders, sometimes we haven’t quite realised that. Our world needs many good leaders. My book is ultimately about transforming yourself, because that’s always where you have to start, be brave in your work and enjoy it!

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011.

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