Navigating Difficult Situations as a Supervisor


Oftentimes there are challenging situations that arise in supervisory relationships.  This activity has students work in small groups to develop strategies to handle such situations.


  • Develop supervisor strategies for a variety of challenging supervisory scenarios.
  • Develop awareness of how to deliver difficult or negative feedback to trainees.
  • Develop awareness of how to consider diversity factors within supervisory relationships. 

Class: VA Boston Healthcare System Clinical Psychology Postdoctoral Fellowship Didactic Series

Background: This activity was used in a 2-hour class on the development of a supervisory style for advanced postdoctoral fellows in Clinical Psychology within an academic medical center. The class was embedded within a larger didactic lecture series developed for higher learning within Clinical Psychology, centered around meeting practice competencies in Clinical Psychology.  Trainees who attended the class varied in their experience of provision of supervision but all had multiple years of being supervised by licensed Clinical Psychologists, and were able to use these experiences to participate in this learning activity.   While initially developed for Clinical Psychology trainees, this learning activity would be appropriate for trainees in all health professions. 

Before Class: The trainees were not assigned any activities prior to this class, as it was a stand-alone class. The activity was used within the first 30 minutes of the class after introductions by each of the teachers.

During Class:

The instructor explained the value of thinking through one’s strategies as a supervisor ahead of time in order to develop the skills to handle these situations, and identify the resources one can use. 

Students were broken up into groups of three to four and asked to work together to consider two scenarios they might face as supervisors.  They were told to consider all aspects of the situations, including any impact on clinical care, diversity issues, ethics, and personal/professional boundaries.

After discussing the scenarios in groups for five to ten minutes, groups were asked to share and discuss their answers.

After Class: The class is a stand-alone class on supervision development and the activity was assessed by a feedback survey administered to trainees following the class.  However, the development of supervision skills is an on-going learning topic for trainees in the health professions and this activity is meant to be a component of a larger structured training initiative to help trainees learn to provide effective supervision

Materials: Handout #1

Comments from the Instructor: The benefits of this activity are that trainees will appreciate that all supervisory relationships have challenging aspects and that supervisors who are early in their careers benefit from considering these situations ahead of time.  This allows them to prepare for how to negotiate these interactions in the future.  Trainees are able to identify a number of strategies to approach these situations, as a result of the group discussion.    

Submitted by David Topor, Ph.D., MS-HPEd and Christopher AhnAllen, Ph.D., VA Boston Healthcare System, Harvard Medical School

Handout #1:

Scenario #1.

You are a junior faculty member taking on supervision of a new postdoctoral fellow.  The fellow is eager to please and quickly makes friendships with other members of your lab.  However, you begin to have concerns about the fellow’s ability to complete tasks on time and the quality of fellow’s work products becomes inconsistent.  You choose to speak with the fellow about this and learn that the fellow has several personal issues that are beginning to adversely impact work.  While sympathetic, you are also concerned about your own research program, the functioning of your lab, and the ability of the fellow to complete the fellowship. 

Consider the following questions:

  1. How would you approach this situation?
  2. What resources could you consult with? 
  3. Have you experienced a similar situation in the past?  If so, what was the outcome?  Could a different approach by the parties involved have resulted in a different outcome?
  4. How might knowing the specifics of the personal issues impact your response? (For example, the fellow has depression or anxiety, a new baby, or broke up with a long-term partner.)

Scenario #2

You are a clinical supervisor in a busy urban health clinic, where the patients are largely minority, non-English speaking, and have few financial resources.  A trainee joins your team and appears overwhelmed by the clinical environment.  The trainee was raised in a rural area with little exposure to people from diverse backgrounds and reports to you a level of discomfort treating non-English speaking patients from different backgrounds and who do not speak “America’s language”.  You observe this trainee displaying disrespect when interacting with patients and begin to experience anger towards the trainee.  While you try to understand the trainee’s upbringing and background, you also begin to wonder if the trainee should be providing clinical care in this clinic.  

Consider the following questions:

  1. How do you respond? What factors might influence your decision?
  2. What resources could you consult with? 
  3. Have you experienced a similar situation in the past?  If so, what was the outcome?  Could a different approach by the parties involved have resulted in a different outcome?
  4. How might your response depend upon your personal race, background or identities?