Beware of warm body supervision

Feb 4, 2013 by

Receiving quality clinical supervision is so important for new therapists.

In fact, it is a requirement for independent practice for every mental health license I can think of in the US.

That tells you just how important it is: it is a best-practice standard.

So what happens if you end up with a warm body supervisor?

If your supervisor has this much personality, run away

If your supervisor has this much energy, run away.  Quickly.

A warm body supervisor—what’s that?

It’s just like it sounds: your supervisor is just a warm body who signs off on your hours.

It’s really sad, actually. Most supervisors don’t start off as warm bodies. They usually started off excited about their profession and prospects.

But somewhere along the way, things broke down. The causes of warm body supervision are various.

Your supervisor might be overworked and not have time for you.

They may be burned out.

Maybe they’ve just lost their motivation or interest in supervision—or clinical work.

Perhaps they had a warm body supervisor themselves and don’t know how to raise the bar.

Regardless of the cause, having a warm body supervisor can really damage your professional development.

Read on to learn about 5 red flags to watch out for…

red flagFive red flags

So how do you know if you have a warm body supervisor?

Here are a few clues:

1.) They don’t remember details.

Not everyone has an incredible memory. That’s ok.

But if your supervisor can’t remember even the basics about your caseload from week to week– and doesn’t bother to take notes to help themselves remember– you’ve got a problem.

2.) They make you do all the work.

Part of developing clinical skills means taking initiative. Your supervisor may take a back seat for certain tasks to help build your autonomy. This is normal.

But if your supervisor’s response to most every question you have is, “Hmm, I’m not sure. Why don’t you look into that and let me know what you find?” — you’ve got a problem.

SONY DSC3.) They’re gone.

Whether it’s for an emergency consultation or your scheduled supervision hour, warm body supervisors are often unavailable.

You have to fight to get your weekly hour of supervision. “Just catch up with me if you have questions,” they may say.

Or your supervisor may be absent in other ways: answering the phone frequently during your hour, falling asleep, or doing other work while also “listening” to you.

If your supervisor has to interrupt your supervision to attend to something else, it should be the exception, not the rule. You deserve someone’s undivided attention during your supervision hour.

mannequin4.) They don’t give you feedback.

You have to fight to get a performance evaluation.

All their comments about your work are vaguely positive platitudes.

“Nice job!” they say. “You’re doing great!”

But when pressed for details about specifics on your work, they can’t come up with any.

This is because they really don’t know anything about your work.


They’ve never looked at any of your documentation.

They’ve never reviewed any audio or video tape of your sessions.

They have no idea who is on your caseload (see #1).

5.) They are unethical.

An inherent part of any supervisor’s job to take interest in your work, to pay attention to what you are doing. Warm body supervisors are neglectful of their supervisees. This represents a lack of professional integrity.

You may stumble across other problems of ethics with these supervisors. They may tell you it is okay to fudge your hours or notes. Or they may be chummy with you because they want to be liked. Or they may ask you to keep secrets. Or they act like your requests for supervision are burdensome.

We must hold boundaries as therapists so clients have safe space to do their work. Supervisors have a similar obligation to their supervisees.

What you deserve

You deserve better.

You deserve better than this.

I should be really clear here.

These are merely my own opinions about a supervisor’s obligation to a supervisee.

Each licensing board does offer some guidance about supervision.  But it’s certainly not this specific.

Not everyone will share these standards.

The warm body problem is pervasive.

I find that this is more likely to happen if you are receiving supervision for free or via an agency, where a staff member is not receiving any additional compensation for overseeing your work.

But even if you pay privately, you may end up with a warm body supervisor.

The simple fact is that many beginning therapists do not know what to expect from supervision. They defer to their supervisor. So I wrote this article to inform you about your options.

I want you to feel empowered, to seek out supervision that meets your needs.

Be cautious

cautionBefore you write off your supervisor as one of the warm body kinds, make sure you’ve thought it all through.

Have you been clear about your expectations?

Have you offered feedback about what you need and if so, how did your supervisor respond?

If you are considering changing supervisors, it is important to try and discuss things with your current supervisor.

I would hope that your supervisor checks in periodically for feedback from you.  But you may need to take initiative on these conversations.

If your supervisor is acting towards you in a way that is unethical—being threatening or abusive, for example—you may choose not to take the issue up with them directly but seek other help via human resources, or private consultation with another therapist or trusted colleague.

Consider: is this a matter of having different styles or values?

Some people prefer supervisors who are more directive. Think to yourself: could I imagine other people feeling okay working with this supervisor? If the answer is yes, you may be encountering a stylistic difference.

Final thoughts

The best antidote against warm body supervision?

Interview more than one supervisor.

Have an honest, open discussion up front about your expectations—before you enter into contract with a supervisor.

If your agency furnishes a supervisor and you aren’t happy with the quality, seek additional mentorship elsewhere.

You deserve quality supervision! So don’t give up until you’re satisfied.

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  1. Great article, Ann! I had to laugh because as I began reading I cited myself for the first two red flags and thought, “oh, this isn’t good.” My interns will tell you they have to refer to their cases like titles of Friends episodes: The one with the panic attacks, or the one with the porn addicted husband. I’m not great with names. And in reference to the second flag, I think I “help build autonomy” often. Although I probably didn’t realize that’s what I was doing 🙂

    • Ann

      Those sound like false red flags to me! Some of us have a head for details like names, but as long as you have a general sense about who’s working with whom, that’s the main idea! And there’s something to be said for encouraging interns to build their skill and knowledge base by going to seek answers out on their own and take initiative. I don’t think you can be a warm body supervisor and also found and run an intern clinic like you do… takes way too much initiative to get something like that going! Warm bodies don’t want to bother with taking initiative like that. Thanks for taking the time to drop by and share your thoughts!


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