Peer group supervision, as we define the approach, is characterised by (1) taking place in a group of professionals, (2) focusing on real practical cases of group members, (3) applying a suitable structured process for consultation, and (4) all group members taking turn in presenting their cases.
There is no consensus among both practitioners and scholars on how to appropriately name the concept presented here, neither in English nor in other languages. In many languages, we have found various terms for the approach.
Since this website is in English and we needed to choose a common and understandable term, we have decided on »peer group supervision«.
Depending on the context of use and the associated meanings of the term and its components, the label »peer group supervision« may be considered inaccurate or misleading. Some authors reject the component »supervision« and provide comprehensible reasons for this. In English-speaking countries, by some authors »supervision« is clearly associated with hierarchical supervision in the sense of »administrative supervision« which indicates a higher legal responsibility for actions and decisions of employees.
In that context, the compound term »peer supervision« can be seen as an oxymoron, as peers have no binding responsibility for each other (Milne, 2018). Hence, some authors prefer and strongly recommend the term »consultation« to emphasise that those being consulted remain fully responsible for their actions (Martin, Milne, & Reiser, 2018).
The legal responsibility of clinical supervisors varies in different countries. In Germany, for example, a clinical supervisor is usually not hierarchically and legally superior to a psychotherapist and can only be held liable for incorrect interventions of a psychotherapist during the latter’s education, and in particular circumstances thereafter (Stellpflug & Moeck, 2017).
In many countries and languages, however, »supervision« is no longer (or not to the same extent) associated with hierarchy, authority, and responsibility. Here, »supervision« refers primarily to an interaction focusing on jointly reviewing and reflecting occupational situations and incidents. This corresponds with the meaning of »clinical supervision« (Bernard & Goodyear, 2019) as distinct from »administrative supervision«. In clinical supervision, legal questions of responsibility may also play a role, but they do not necessarily have to.
Many English-speaking authors do not seem to share the concerns about the use of the term »supervision« in this context. Some of them use »peer group supervision« as a matter of course without addressing possible irritations regarding hierarchical responsibility or directive powers. Some use »peer consultation« without further substantiating their choice. And other authors from English-speaking countries use both terms interchangeably and synonymously (e.g., Borders, 2012). An additional problem is that the terms are used inconsistently in the literature. For example, the label »peer group supervision« is also used for concepts when an external (clinical) supervisor is involved and »peer group« just refers to the composition of the group beyond the supervisor.
What happens in peer groups?
When observing and classifying what practically happens in peer groups, regardless of the label, we can aptly characterise these activities as consultation – providing space for reflection, asking exploratory questions, actively listening, sharing ideas, and making recommendations. But certainly, there is always a supervisory dimension as well: the peer group members form their opinions about the consulted member’s situation, thoughts, and actions. They will probably and inevitably relate their impressions to standards and ideals of professional action. Members are unlikely to endorse obviously unprofessional or unethical behaviour. A peer group, however, is not immune to blind spots arising from ignorance or unfavourable group dynamics.
Embracing diversity and yet being aware of commonalities
Solely in English texts, we come across other English terms for the approach, e.g., »peer group mentoring« (mainly in Scandinavia), »intervision« (often by Dutch authors) or »professional development groups« (especially in the French-Canadian region). This grown diversity can be seen as an expression of preferences, considerations, and compatibilities. For a deeper understanding of the concept and its characteristics, it would certainly be beneficial to have a common term. However, this is not necessary for practice in peer groups. A good alternative is to have an idea of the core features and the knowledge of what labels the approach is associated with.
Bernard, J. M., & Goodyear, R. K. (2019). Fundamentals of clinical supervision (6th ed.). Boston: Pearson.
Borders, L. D. (2012). Dyadic, triadic, and group models of peer supervision/consultation: What are their components, and is there evidence of their effectiveness? The Clinical Psychologist, 16(2), 59–71. doi:10.1111/j.1742-9552.2012.00046.x
Martin, P., Milne, D. L., & Reiser, R. P. (2018). Peer supervision: International problems and prospects. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 74(5), 998–999. doi:10.1111/jan.13413
Milne, D. L. (2018). Evidence-based CBT supervision – principles and practice. Chichester: Wiley. doi:10.1002/9781119107644
Stellpflug, M., & Moeck, J. (2017). Rechtliche Grundlagen der Supervision in der Psychotherapie. In H. Möller & M. Lohmer (Eds.), Supervision in der Psychotherapie: Grundlagen – Forschung – Praxis (pp. 66–85). Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer.