March 2012

Using Mistakes as Learning Opportunities


Have you ever felt bad about a mistake you made? Have you ever had someone disparage or even humiliate you for your mistake?  It's not a very pleasant experience, is it?

Making mistakes is a natural part of being human. We can spend a lot of time trying to avoid making mistakes, feeling shame over our mistakes, or stressing over them as we replay them in our minds. We expend a lot of physical and emotional energy in that process, to say the least of the toll it takes on our ego.

Consider this, though-- as supervisors, you have an opportunity to spare your staff of this unpleasantness simply by reframing their mistakes and using them as teachable moments, providing them with the opportunity to learn and grow. Reflect on the scenarios below.

Scenario #1

During individual supervision, Carol Caseworker is reviewing her cases with Suzy Supervisor. During the review, Suzy Supervisor asks Carol "How's everything going at the Frank home?" Carol Caseworker reports that everything is fine and that no problems have been reported.  Suzy Supervisor asks whether Carol has checked on the safety plan and Carol indicates that she has not. Suzy Supervisor tells Carol Caseworker that she should have checked on the plan. She orders Carol to go visit Grandma Frank and check on the plan immediately.  Carol Caseworker agrees that she will.


Scenario #2

During individual supervision, Carol Caseworker is reviewing her cases with Suzy Supervisor. During the review, Suzy Supervisor asks Carol Caseworker "How's everything going at the Frank home?" Carol Caseworker reports that everything is fine and that no problems have been reported.  Suzy Supervisor asks Carol what actions she has taken to ensure the safety plan is in effect. Carol Caseworker admits that she has not taken any action in this regard.  Suzy Supervisor then facilitates a discussion with Carol Caseworker, asking her questions such as:  Why is it important to determine if the safety plan is still in effect? What impact could this have on the children?  The family?  What actions can Carol take to find out if the safety plan is still in effect? How does she know if the Frank children are still safe? What questions has she asked the family?

Following this discussion, Carol Caseworker decides that she will go visit Grandma Frank and will also talk with the Frank children about what happens when their mom is at work.  Carol Caseworker also tells Suzy Supervisor that she will check on the status of the safety plan with Grandma and Mother Frank at every home visit. 

Does either of these scenarios sound familiar to you?  Which one of these scenarios better represents what your response might have been in this situation? In which scenario do you think the supervisor's response was better? 

The supervisor actions in each scenario will likely produce different outcomes.  While it is true that in both scenarios, Carol Caseworker will talk to the Grandmother about the status of the safety plan, there will be a difference in what she learned from the interaction with Suzy Supervisor.  From the supervision style in the first scenario, Carol Caseworker might take away these implicit messages: "I'm incompetent to do this job", or "my supervisor is angry with me", or "I don't have to think critically, my supervisor will tell me what to do, and I'll do it because she says so."  From the second, Carol Caseworker might take away one of these implicit messages: "Although I overlooked an important step, my supervisor didn't jump all over me", or "Suzy has confidence in my thinking" or "I need to reassess safety and check on the safety plan because it is important to the children and family. I need to know if the children are safe, and in the future I should check on the status of the safety plans in all of my cases because I understand how important this is."

In both situations, Carol Caseworker made a mistake-she didn't check on the status of the safety plan for a family she was serving.  In the second scenario, Carol's mistake was used as a learning opportunity.  The supervisor promoted critical thinking by asking a series of questions to help Carol identify what she needed to do and why she needed to do it.  While this might seem like a subtle difference, it is an incredibly important difference.

Using mistakes as learning opportunities or "teachable moments" might take a little more time than just "providing information", but the payoff in the long run is invaluable.  When we use mistakes as learning opportunities, we promote responsibility, critical thinking, learning, and improved practice.  Supervisors can use the following strategies to help their staff use mistakes as learning opportunities: 

  • Use open-ended questions to gather information about the reasons for your staff's decisions
  • Acknowledge any mistakes and help your staff identify contributors to the mistakes and solutions for overcoming them
  • Help your staff understand the underlying principles that guide the practice
  • Be strengths-based
  • Allow your staff, with some guidance, to identify alternative approaches to addressing the situation
  • Give feedback on your staff's suggestions and help identify the approach that will likely work best
  • Provide your staff with opportunities to practice new skills

If you have other strategies for helping staff grow from mistakes, please share them with us.  Email ssaunders-adams@ihs-trainet.com.

P.S. Supervisors, don't forget to forgive your own mistakes. Treat yourself kindly, learn from your mistakes, and do better next time. Remember, life is a process, a journey. So is your professional growth.



In This Issue
Using Mistakes as Learning Opportunities
Supervisor Referrals to the Coaching Frontier
Ask a Supervisor

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Other Ways the OCWTP is Working for You...

There is a supervisor work team whose purpose is to focus on supervisor issues and how the OCWTP training system can help address those issues.


The work team is examining the role of supervisors: their needs, training topics that would be helpful to them, and the types of support they require. The team is also looking at what resources supervisors currently have available to them, considering the strengths of those resources, and looking at where there may be deficiencies.


Members of the work team include:


Darlene Baad, Summit

Jeffrey Schafer, Cuyahoga

Vincent Ciola, Logan

Jeff Rulon, Highland

Rhonda Hinkle, Muskingum

Natalie Trachsel, Lorain

Robin Freedman, Summit

Valerie Carpico, Fairfield

Dana Dravenstott, Lorain

Josie Olsvig, Montgomery

Rodney Traxler, Wyandot

Barbara Cline, Athens

Sheila Gavin, Montgomery

Tricia Kelley, Butler

Toni Kokaliares, Franklin

Kristen Lopez, Summit

Carla Carpenter, ODJFS

Brian Wear, East Central Ohio Regional Training Center

Ben Hannah, Southwest Ohio Regional Training Center

Tom Swindel, Northwest Ohio Regional Training Center

Chris Cross, North Central Ohio Regional Training Center

Dale Hotaling, Western Ohio Regional Training Center

Alison Rodgers, Central Ohio Regional Training Center

Mary Kay Hawkins, IHS

Lois Tyler, IHS

Stacey Saunders-Adams, IHS

Sandy Parker, IHS

Laura Hughes, IHS


If you're interested in participating on this work team, please contact Sandy Parker at the Institute for Human Services (614-251-6000). sparker@ihs-trainet.com 


Parallel Process

Parallel Process:  Supervisors can use the same strengths-based and family-centered strategies with staff, including challenging employees, that caseworkers use with client families.

  • A strengths-based approach in working with families means identifying and emphasizing the strengths of parents and family members, and then building on those strengths to provide a safe and permanent home for their children.
  • The parallel process for supervisors is to be strengths-based with staff in their unit.  This includes identifying and building on unit members' job-related strengths, and unit processes that enhance staff's ability to serve families.
  • Being strengths-based does not mean avoiding problems and challenging behavior.  Supervisors, just as caseworkers with families, still need to identify problems and needs.  However, once identified, the supervisor works with the employee to address the need or problem in a solution-focused, strengths-based manner.  


Supervisor Referrals to the Coaching Frontier: Coaching Insights 

By Vincent Ciola, Child Welfare Supervisor, Logan County

The ever present challenge of managing increased caseloads and responsibilities with fewer resources is the only routine part of a Child Welfare Supervisor's daily practice.  Fate seems to have placed strict disciples of Diogenes in charge of child welfare budgets; competing demands fuel each Supervisor's obligation to invent survival.   The blessing of the Ohio Child Welfare Training Program (OCWTP) is our common bastion of hope.   Innovative trainings and approaches are what we depend on to increase skills of our more, and less, seasoned caseworkers and staff.

Webinars, on-line trainings, internet resources, and coaching are the cutting edge resources available to cope with having more than the edges of our budgets cut. Of the many options available, coaching is a natural choice for building social worker skills.The philosophy appeals to the inner values of many social work supervisors. Coaching is what every supervisor day dreams about as they busy themselves checking CAPMIS documents, activity logs, and shoring up whatever emergencies the day has brought along. During the coaching event, each learner identifies the specific skills and abilities he/she needs to develop, receives hours of individual attention to develop the social work skills, and is the proud recipient of his/her own measurable development plan.If of no other value, a social worker cannot escape the coaching experience without developing increased empathy for a family undergoing case plan development. Fantasies of other impending accomplishments abound.

Realistic expectations for coaching can only be limited by one's imagination.  After all, if supervisors only had the time needed to work with each staff member and provide the supervision they were hired to provide, the only remaining feat would be adjusting to the silent hum of productivity within the office...right?  Initially, it seems only natural to start making coaching referrals for the underperformers who are clearly the most desperate for intervention-- the staff whose supervisors believe they could really turn into good caseworkers if only there was more time.  It's a likely common delusion that could quickly mutate the coaching service into an immaterial reasonable effort at rehabilitating staff members more likely destined for exit interviews. 

Perhaps surprisingly, top performers are the staff that will thrive under a coach's guidance.  Part of the surprise likely lies in remembering the forgotten.  All too commonly, top performers are pushed to the periphery; their competence facilitating their own abandonment.  The vast majority of a supervisor's time is spent on urgent problems all too frequently manifested by underperformers, while the important task of providing top performers the opportunity for skill enhancement is neglected.  The joy of coaching is that it is the solution to the ever important responsibility of the supervisor to inspire top performers to develop their skills.   Recognizing this truth is the new challenge coaching provides for supervisors.   A coaching referral is most effectively framed as a reward, and it provides the most valuable personnel with personalized attention that cultivates their development.   Supervisors should embrace this new tool as a way to empower their top performers. The danger is writing off coaching as entirely unhelpful because underperformers are not benefiting. Disappointment that coaching may not be the solution for more challenging staff cannot eclipse the opportunity it provides to our top performers. Coaching may in fact propel a top performer into a higher level of practice and motivation that is often necessary to make long lasting changes in the most challenging of our cases.


Ask a Supervisor


In this, and in future editions of the newsletter, you will find a segment devoted to helping supervisors meet the challenges of the job.  The questions will come from you, child welfare supervisors. The supervisor work team - some of your peers and members of the OCWTP staff will suggest solutions to your questions or concerns.  If you have a challenge you'd like us to address, email us at ssaunders-adams@ihs-trainet.com or sparker@ihs-trainet.com.

"I'd like to be able to recognize strengths in some of my challenging employees. Can you give me some ideas for creative ways to do this?"

Strengths-based supervision focuses on individual and collective strengths and assets first, not deficits. It seeks to promote growth and positive change with individual staff members and within the unit. 


Strengths-based supervisory strategies:


1.     Identify the challenging employee's strengths and needs

Supervisors need to know each unit members' work-related strengths, weaknesses and needs.   Other assessments, such as the "24 Strengths" individual assessment can help the worker identify his/her own personal strengths.  This particular assessment (available at no cost at www.authentichappiness.org) includes curiosity, love of learning, judgment, integrity, perseverance, fairness, leadership, self-control, etc.  Supervisors can then assist each worker apply his/her personal strengths at work (e.g., the worker may be passionate about the value of families) by givingthe challenging worker tasks related to identified strengths. This assessment tool can also help supervisors recognize some of those strengths that sometimes can be hard to see.

2.     Use strengths-based questions with challenging staff

Using strengths-based questions empowers staff to express their opinions and feelings, not to react defensively to a negative message from their supervisor. 


Ideally, administration has a strengths-based focus that becomes part of the agency culture.   However, even if the agency is not primarily strengths-based in its approach, individual supervisors can initiate strengths-based practices at the unit level.   Using these strengths-based questions can make staff feel empowered to address problem behavior: 

    • What are you already doing well?  What makes it work?
    • How can we build on this in other less successful areas of your work?
    • How is the work environment different for you now?
    • What support or resources would you need to feel more satisfied and invested in your work?


Of course, supervisors must LISTEN, and value responses from staff.   Mastering the art of effective questioning is primarily a function of thinking from a strengths-based and not deficit-based perspective.  See the contrast:


 Deficit                                                                              Strengths

 The problem is...                                                             What has gone well?

 You have not completed...                                             What have you completed?

 You missed...                                                                    You included...

 Why is it you don't...?                                                      What is your thinking behind your approach?

 How many times do we need to discuss this...?        Are there barriers to this?

 If you keep missing...                                                      How do you think you can do this?


3.     Promote the unit as a learning environment. It will help a challenging employee feel more a part of the unit.

In a unit learning environment, staff can see themselves as part of a system, understand that everyone's actions impact the unit, and take responsibility for their own contribution to the system.  This can help a challenging person understand how his behavior impacts the ability of rest of unit to serve children and meet unit objectives.


    • Explore values with unit staff.  Staff will more likely perform if their values align with the agency values.
    • Help unit members recognize the value of diversity in their unit -- that each person has strengths and weaknesses/needs. 
    • Prompt participants to relate their experiences in "what works" more than "what's wrong." Doing this during a group discussion is particularly effective.
    • Recognize accomplishments and give strengths-based feedback to all members, including the challenging employee, during unit meetings.  Also, encourage workers to acknowledge each other's strengths.  Supervisors need to regularly reinforce workers within and outside their work units. 
    •  Keep challenging employees engaged by discovering and developing their talents and abilities
    • Celebrate staff success, especially those of a challenging worker.  Celebrations, humor, and strengths-based attitudes help create and maintain a positive, caring work environment.  Child welfare work is just hard, and staff need ongoing encouragement to keep optimism in their work.  To make celebrations meaningful, increase unit cohesion by using team-building strategies, making the challenging employee feel more a part of the unit

 Want to read more?  Click here for several other strategies.

A new web page just for you!


The Supervisor Station is a new web page on the OCWTP website designed for Supervisors.  This webpage provides visitors with a variety of OCWTP supervisor resources all in one place.  You can access supervisor training schedules, back issues of the newsletter, and a variety of other resources with just one click (or two).  Visit www.ocwtp.com and click on Supervisor Station under the section for trainees or go there directly by entering http://www.ocwtp.net/Supervisors.html in your web browser.  We can't wait to hear what you think!