Coaching Method Builds Staff Skills, Fights Supervisor Burnout


By Rebecca Koppel, MSW, MPH

person receiving coaching

Helping individuals with complex health and social needs is rarely a clear-cut path, and the frontline staff—social workers and others —who directly support them are no strangers to dealing with setbacks, scant resources and frustration. They work tirelessly, often needing to make dozens of decisions about their patients. But when the situation is especially challenging and ambiguous, knowing the right thing to do next can be tough.

For some, the simplest reaction is to turn to a supervisor for help. Going to them for that answer might seem like the most straightforward solution, but it doesn’t help the staff member become better able to address the next challenge, or the one after that. From the supervisor’s point of view, adopting a “fix-it” mindset may also seem like the quickest way of solving the problem, but that will ultimately create more work for them in the long run.

Equipping frontline staff members with the tools they need to think through and address complex, sometimes ambiguous situations on their own creates an environment where direct care teams work more smoothly, where burnout is reduced—among staff and supervisors alike—and where professional growth and job satisfaction are enhanced.

Rather than staff being told what to do in every situation, they should receive reflective supervision—guidance in how to process a situation and solve the challenges themselves. When done well, it creates teaching moments; builds long-term, sustainable skillsets; and encourages self-reliance and trust among staff.

The Coaching Quartet: A Framework for Reflective Supervision

At the Camden Coalition, we use the coaching quartet —a tool that grounds our supervisors in the principles and practices of reflective supervision and helps them implement it in their own day-to-day interactions. It’s designed to validate the strengths of frontline staff members, draw attention to tangible or observable phenomena, reduce defensiveness, and push for deeper learning.

A recent example we faced: A social worker came to their supervisor frustrated over their client’s drinking and drug use. Ms. Smith wasn’t going to see her drug and alcohol counselor as she said she would as a condition of her probation and as part of her care plan. The supervisor wanted the caseworker to explore other issues in the client’s life, but instead of taking a directive approach—telling the staff member what to do—the supervisor approached it this way:

I know you’re doing a really good job of connecting with Ms. Smith (validation), and I can see you’re getting kind of frustrated—and rightfully so (observation). She’s just not moving through the care plan as we’d hoped. I’m curious: From your perspective, do you know anything about her that’s not related to her probation or drug and alcohol use (inquiry)? We know that when we have strong relationships with our participants, those relationships help us get to the root of what’s going on (rationale). So, I’m wondering, what can you do to learn more about her as a person (inquiry)?

The coaching quartet has four parts that can happen in any order: validation, observation, inquiry, and rationale. These four steps take the supervisor out of the “fix-it frame,” which is to give recommendations, directions, and advice, and instead put them into the reflective frame, allowing the staff member to pause, reflect, and come back with a response.

Let’s break it down even further.


In this step, the supervisor takes a strengths-based approach, identifying actions the staff has taken and/or emotions the staff member is experiencing, and recognizing and affirming their strengths, actions and feelings. This helps frontline staff tolerate the distress that can accompany new and complex situations.

Example: You’ve worked so hard at building a trusting relationship with this person. Your care and concern for her is evident and has been impactful.


This step also allows the supervisor to show empathy. It’s the supervisor saying, “I see you. I know this is hard. Let’s take a pause.”It also grounds the feedback in something tangible for the staff member.

Example: I can see that you are upset—and understandably so. I know you want to ensure that the patient stays safe and continues the path she started with her substance use disorder treatment.


The question you ask should provoke reflection, insight, and critical thought that can last beyond the interaction. Pairing inquiry with rationale is less likely to provoke defensiveness from the frontline staff member. Pairing them is important, but either one can come first.

Example: I’m curious. The next time you see the patient, what is your strategy for talking to them about their readiness to return to treatment?

Provide Rationale

Supervisors provide a rationale or the “why” behind the feedback, citing research and/or experience. If this part were excluded and the coaching progressed from validation to observation to inquiry, the frontline staff member could feel confused, defensive or unclear about why the supervisor is asking the specific questions. The rationale explains to the frontline staff member why the observation and inquiry make sense and reduces defensiveness. It provides the opportunity for supervisors to provide foundational knowledge or reinforce knowledge.

Example: Reuse is common for people who use drugs. The path to recovery is different for everyone, and reuse and disengagement often happen. That is part of the recovery process.

Mirroring the practitioner/patient relationship

The relationship between supervisor and frontline staff member is not unlike the one between practitioner and the patients they work with. In fact, both relationships should mirror one another. Afterall, the intent is the same: to help build a person’s skillset and autonomy so that they can better achieve their goals. 

Those who supervise social workers and other frontline workers should consider thinking beyond what can be done for a patient or staff member to what they can do to empower that person to make sustainable change. Everyone will reap the benefits.

About the Author

Rebecca Koppel

Rebecca Koppel, MSW, MPH, is a senior program manager for Field Building & Resources at Camden Coalition. She has prior experience in research, capacity building, and clinical settings, and holds a Masters of Social Work and a Masters of Public Health from the University of Pennsylvania.

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