The ABCs (Attributes, Behaviors and Characteristics) of Good Supervision

What characteristics make for an effective supervisor? After reading this article, which also describes a former federal employee’s personal experiences as an employee and as a supervisor, you will have a good idea of the varied skills and attributes necessary to succeed in this difficult task.

In Part One of this series, I discussed some of the concerns that readers, and others, had expressed about ineffective supervisors in the Federal sector.  In Part Two, I talked about what the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), in its 2003 report (“First-Line Supervisors in the Federal Service:  Their Selection, Development and Management”), called “The Price of Poor Supervision.”

Having beaten up on supervisors (including myself) in both previous articles, I’m going to spend much of this article trying to figure out what makes someone a good supervisor, and will include references to some relevant literature on this subject.  Not surprisingly, there are lots of different opinions out there about what it takes to be a good supervisor, although I did find a good deal of common ground.  I’ll start with a list provided in an article titled “Common Attributes of Good Managers” (Online Business Advisor, July 12, 1999):

  • Strong people skills
  • Strong communication skills, both verbal and written
  • A sense of fairness in dealing with people and issues
  • Consistency in behavior
  • A belief that employees are more important to his/her and the company’s success than he/she is
  • A high degree of honesty
  • A willingness to seek input from employees and build consensus
  • Open minded
  • Flexible
  • A well controlled ego
  • Self-confident
  • A good listener
  • Able to be direct when needed without being abusive or offensive
  • A sincere interest in people and their well being
  • Good perceptive/intuitive abilities
  • A good understanding of what makes people tick
  • Mature

The following paragraph was excerpted from “Joint Blueprint for Good Supervision,” a document published in 1996 by the Office of Administration & Finance, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 509.  The document is too long to capture in its entirety here but I recommend it highly as additional reading on this subject.

“…the qualities which make a good supervisor are the very same qualities to which most of us aspire.  Good supervisors have integrity and a conscience, are ethical, trustworthy, and honest with themselves and the people with whom they work.  Responsible supervisors are consistent in their actions and in administering policies, are dependable, flexible, and follow through on promises they make.  They display common sense, are empathetic and reasonable, and exercise good judgment.  Good supervisors convey enthusiasm, are even-tempered and stable, and work with a calm demeanor.  They take pride in their performance, are self-motivated, pursue and accept constructive feedback, and can own up to their own mistakes.” (emphasis in original)

Another perspective was provided by Mary Opperman* of the Cornell University faculty, who summarized the responses her office received to the question:  “What makes a good supervisor?”

  • First, treat others as you wish to be treated… – namely with respect.
  • Second, remember that staff are multi-faceted human beings, with needs, interests and lives that are important to them.
  • Third, be honest and ethical.
  • Fourth, recognize that problems are a normal part of life and approach them in an effort to find solutions rather than place blame.
  • Fifth, give praise and recognition when it is due.
  • Finally, show those who work for you that you too are human – laugh, share, apologize when it is called for and let them get to know you.  No one expects a supervisor to be perfect.

(*No relation:  If we were related, perhaps I could have gotten her to lower the Ivy League school’s admission standards for me.)

In an article titled “Characteristics of Effective Supervisors,” (printed in Cooperative Grocer, August-September 1986), Carolee Colter listed the following “traits and behaviors” (in order of priority):

  1. Gives clear work instructions: communicates well in general, keeps others informed.
  2. Praises others when they deserve it: understands importance of recognition; looks for opportunities to build the esteem of others.
  3. Willing to take time to listen: aware of value of listening both for building cooperative relationships avoiding tension and grievances.
  4. Cool and calm most of the time: maintains self-control, doesn’t lose her/his temper; can be counted on to behave maturely and appropriately.
  5. Confident and self-assured.
  6. Appropriate technical knowledge of the work being supervised; uses it to coach, teach and evaluate rather than getting involved in doing the work itself.
  7. Understands the group’s problems as demonstrated by attentive listening and honestly trying to project her/himself into their situation.
  8. Gains the group’s respect, through personal honesty: doesn’t try to appear more knowledgeable than is true, not afraid to say, “I don’t know” or “I made a mistake.”
  9. Fair to everyone; in work assignments, consistent enforcement of policies and procedures; avoids favoritism.
  10. Demands good work from everyone: maintains consistent standards of performance; doesn’t expect group to “take up the slack” from a low-performing worker; enforces work discipline.
  11. Gains the people’s trust: willing to represent the group to higher management, regardless of agreement or disagreement with them.
  12. Goes to bat for the group: will work for best and fair interests of the work group; loyalty to both higher management and the work group.
  13. Humble, “not stuck up”; remembers that s/he’s simply a person with a different job to do than the workers s/he supervises.
  14. Easy to talk to: demonstrates a desire to understand without shutting off feedback through scolding, judging, moralizing.

What I Learned From My Supervisors

During my Federal career I was blessed with a number of good supervisors who were also great people.  In several cases, I remember my supervisors most for their kindness.  For example, just after I had been selected as a career intern in personnel management, our car broke down before we could head back to St. Louis, site of my first Federal job, to pack up our belongings; this was late on a Friday and we were stuck in Manhattan, Kansas for the weekend.  My new boss, the late Frank Keller, and his wife arranged for us to stay at a nice motel and for our car to be repaired; they also took us to get groceries.  I was motivated to knock myself out for Frank before I ever started work at Fort Riley.

I found my way home to Colorado Springs when I was offered a job at the Air Force Academy.  My boss was the late J.F. “Jeff” Nugent, an impeccably dressed and mannered gentleman who treated his staff with respect and kindness and routinely expressed appreciation for our efforts.  Jeff’s management style inspired me to do the best possible job in that I never wanted to do anything that would reflect poorly on him.

When I was selected for a Congressional Fellowship in the fall of 1993, we completed   orientation and then negotiated our own assignments on Capitol Hill.  My final decision was between a House assignment and one in the Senate.  I admired this particular Congressman greatly for his environmental legislation, but his staff advised me that it was not in his nature to express appreciation.  The other assignment was with U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka of Hawaii.  His staff told me that he would treat me like family, as he did everyone, and would call me into his office to thank me for a job well done.

I accepted that assignment and enjoyed it so much that I declined to follow the usual pattern of spending the second half of the year working in the House.  Senator Akaka, who recently sponsored the Federal Supervisor Training Act (S. 967), a bill that would require supervisory training every three years for Federal supervisors, not only lived up to his reputation as the nicest person in the Senate, but managed to get my name into the Congressional Record several times in conjunction with legislation.

I also worked with a couple of people who were not particularly noted for their kindness or their people skills, but were visionaries.  I recently rediscovered via e-mail an old friend and colleague, John, from an agency that I worked for early in my career.  He and I compared notes about our second-line supervisor, a top-level regional manager who was demanding and often brusque.  Whenever people talk about a “no-nonsense style” I think of this boss.  What both of us remembered were his towering intellect and his drive – no one worked harder.  We found out that he played devil’s advocate with both of us (and others), not because he necessarily disagreed with what we were saying but because he wanted us to be able to think on our feet and defend our positions.  I’m sure I cursed him as I pored over Government Employee Relations Reports on many weekends, but I learned so much from this man that I would have followed him anywhere.  I tried to fake it once when I hadn’t done my homework; he didn’t say anything but the look of disappointment on his face was clear and devastating.  I never let it happen again.

I worked for another visionary later in my career, a Regional Administrator who was thought by many to have an insufferable ego.  I understood that perception, but was  fortunate enough to be in a position to appreciate his many virtues, which included strong leadership skills and an extraordinary grasp of the “big picture” that allowed him to see far down the road.  By comparison I had been Mr. Magoo, but by working so closely with him I was able to expand my vision to the point that I could actually understand where he was trying to lead and why, and could use my HR knowledge to help him get there.  While he certainly was not shy about taking credit for his accomplishments, I found him generous with praise and extremely open to new ideas.  I would gladly have worked for him again in any setting.

I also learned some very positive lessons from a few negative supervisory situations.

With one of my supervisors, I could never figure out where I stood.  I would go into his office and ask him how I and my group (I was the supervisor) were doing.  He was a very gregarious guy and a great storyteller, so he would regale me with some hilarious anecdotes and send me on my way.  I enjoyed our conversations very much, but I never had a clue as to whether he was pleased or displeased with my work, and the guidance he provided was absolutely minimal.  I vowed not to manage that way and I think I succeeded; at least there are a number of people around whose eyesight still isn’t what it used to be before they had to read my in-depth narrative evaluations of their performance, sometimes on a quarterly basis.

In another situation, my supervisor and I started out very much on the same “wavelength” but we wound up badly out of synch.  When an internal matter drove a wedge between two branches, I felt that I needed to convey and support the concerns of my staff.  However, my supervisor felt that I had backed him into a corner and had violated an understanding (my counter was that my staff and I had agreed to a course of action without having been given all of the relevant facts).  Our dispute hurt our professional and personal relationship and ultimately cost both of us credibility with top management.  I don’t regret the stand that I took, but if I had it to do over I would try to find a solution which supported my staff and helped heal the wounds the situation had created while maintaining the positive relationship I had enjoyed with my boss.  It wouldn’t have been easy, but I’m sure it would have been possible, and, as the subordinate I feel that I should have met my supervisor more than half-way.

In the next thrilling episode, I will provide my own list of the key attributes, behaviors and characteristics of a good supervisor, based on my experiences as an employee, a supervisor, a manager, and a human resources advisor.  I will also cite relevant portions of the aforementioned NAPA report, including “The Challenge to Build Leaders,” “Identifying and Selecting First-Line Supervisors,” and “Preparing and Developing First-Line Supervisors.”

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.