Are You a Great Supervisor?

*In this post I will mainly reference BCBAs, although non - BCBAs can, and do, fill supervisory roles.

As many of you in the field (should) know, the BACB recently added an 8 hour CEU requirement that teaches supervisors how to be supervisors.
You would think a field full of behavioral experts and data geeks would just be brimming with the most amazing, efficient, and effective supervisors/managers ever. No, not really.

I have worked with multiple colleagues over the years who openly admit that BCBA’s make some of the worst bosses. What is that about? Also, how can we improve this perception?

I have mentioned before on my blog that with my certification and new title came multiple experiences where I would meet new staff, new clients, or interact with school systems who would assume before even meeting me that I would be an arrogant so-and-so just because I'm a BCBA. If you aren’t sure what I mean, see my Bedside Manner post.

Over the years I have worked for varying types of supervisors. Maybe you have met some of them:

There is the super busy, stressed out, and preoccupied supervisor who you barely ever see. They make you feel like your questions are stupid, and rarely respond to your emails. They clearly know a lot about the science of ABA, they are just always too busy to actually share it with you.

There is the super fun and “Let’s be buddies” type of supervisor who likes to spend supervision sessions chatting and talking about what they did last weekend, and never has any feedback for you. You’re always “doing great”, and never really grow or mature as a professional working with this person. They want to be liked, not respected.

There is the very formal and somewhat rigid supervisor who prefers to stay all in their own head. They silently watch your session, taking copious notes (that they don’t share with you), and when you ask them a question they refer you to a research article or textbook, instead of actually answering the question. They also tend to speak almost entirely in jargon.

The good thing about having such varying experiences is it makes the great ones really stand out. Like my first supervisor who planted the seed in my mind that maybe I should consider Behavior Therapy as a career, not just a part- time job. I remember her fondly.

Once I became a supervisor myself, I wanted to be the opposite of the terrible ones I have worked with, and be comparable to the great ones. Part of being a great supervisor is of course, ABA knowledge and practical experience in the field, but it also means having the ability to put yourself in others shoes, over and over again.
I can’t treat all my supervisees the same, and they wouldn’t want me to. Actually if I did, inevitably someone would be upset. What feels like a comfortable degree of support for one supervisee, feels like being micromanaged to another supervisee.

For all of you out there in the position of leading/supervising a team of ABA staff, here are some helpful tips on how to best accomplish this and keep everyone relatively happy. Yes, I say “relatively” happy because in case you haven’t heard: “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please ALL of the people ALL of the time”. So don’t aim to be a perfect supervisor, since thats impossible. Strive for continual improvement.

Tips for Being an Amazing Supervisor

  • Rearrange your alphabet, “U” comes before “I” – It is the needs of the supervisee that should come first, not your own needs. That could mean spending nonbillable time training your direct staff, explaining the same concept 55 times if thats what the supervisee needs to understand it,  being open to the supervisee interjecting their own ideas and opinions into how you write programs or create data sheets, or rearranging your entire schedule to give the most time to the supervisees who are struggling the most. Being a supervisor means you are viewed as “The One Who Solveth All Problems”. And yes, problems will pop up that require your superpowers on your lunch break (just kidding! BCBAs don’t get lunch breaks), on holidays, and on weekends.
  • Forget about constructive criticism - Constructive criticism is defined as the process of offering valid and well-reasoned opinions about the work of others, usually involving both positive and negative comments, in a friendly manner rather than an oppositional one. The key word in that definition was “opinion”. Stay far, far away from the trap of offering your opinion to supervisees. I have been there, and you dont want to go there. Giving your opinions will cause people to react with defensiveness, and quite understandably, because they will feel attacked.  Instead, give corrective feedback. Keep it objective, and free of bias or personal opinion. Your supervisee doesn’t need to know that you thought her last report was horrible, and looked like she slapped it together  in 20 minutes. Instead, give specific criteria that needs to be improved. I suggest a rubric, it keeps everything objective and free of bias.
  • Use your behavioral principles- I mean, really….what kind of BCBA supervisor would you be if you didn’t use your superpowers for good? When was the last time you reinforced your supervisee, based on their M.O. at that moment (remember, it changes)? When was the last time you used errorless instruction to prevent the supervisee from making a mistake? How regularly do you use Behavioral Momentum with your staff? Here’s a biggie: do you take the time to pair and build rapport with new staff? Or do you just walk in and start giving demands? Hmmmmm, something to think about.
  • Avoid the “Warm Body: Warm Body” formula- The warm body formula is how I refer to lazy business owners and supervisors who match staff to clients based on company need only. No consideration is given to the strengths, areas of deficit, and career interest of the staff. Have you ever seen a staff who lives to work in early intervention get placed on a severe behavior case with an adolescent?  It’s not a pretty sight. Staff need to feel competent at their job, and when they are constantly feeling uncertain, inept, and stressed, that’s when people tend to quit. Listen to your staff, and regularly talk with them to determine their client preference, their long term career goals, and what they feel their strengths are. Staff interest should be a deciding factor when creating caseloads. Also, when it is clear a staff person and a particular client are not a good fit, don’t make the supervisee feel like if they just try harder it will all work out. Sometimes a bad fit is just a bad fit.
  • Keep your actions & behavior consistent- Do you promptly respond to your supervisee’s emails? Do you take the time to answer their questions, even when you have a 12 page report to finish? If you tell them you will bring them a Verbal Behavior resource next session, do you actually do it? If your behavior is not consistent, don’t expect their behavior to be. Being a supervisor also means being a mentor. Your supervisees don’t just listen to what you say, they watch your actions. If I always showed up to supervision sessions late and left early, or spent supervision sessions being standoffish and nonhelpful, I am sending a message with my behavior that being a supervisor means you do whatever you want and get paid for it. That’s a horrible message to send. If you are constantly complaining about having to work with unprofessional staff, make sure your own behavior is professional.
  • View your aggravating/annoying/irritating supervisees as learning experiences- So here is the best tip ever for current or soon to be supervisors: the things you don’t like about yourself, you will positively DETEST in a supervisee. Do you have a bit of a temper? Wait until a supervisee yells at you or gives you attitude. Do you have difficulty meeting deadlines? Wait until you get a supervisee who never submits his work on time….ever. As a supervisor you will work with all kinds of personalities and dispositions, and you will have some supervisees who just real-l-l-ly irritate you. The question is, what are you going to do about it?? Complain and gripe, and try to push the person off on a different BCBA? Or, you could put on your ABA hat and shape up an increase in the persons more desirable behaviors, while replacing their less desirable behaviors. For example, if you have the Eager Beaver type of supervisee who steps on your toes and loves to talk over you at parent meetings, put them in charge of something. Assign them to a task, so you now have the opportunity to work on their tact, and also to give them something to have control over.

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