What I Have Learned About Supervision – Mostly The Hard Way

What are the most valuable supervisory qualities for a federal supervisor? Here is one list of qualities–most of them learned through the school of hard knocks.

This is the fourth in my series of articles on supervision and supervisors. The third article is The ABCs (Attributes, Behaviors and Characteristics) of Good Supervision, published on FedSmith.com on August 23, 2007.

That is, admittedly, a long time between articles in a series, and I might not have completed it at all but for a gentle reminder from Kathleen Mifsud, the editor of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) “Managing the Skies” magazine, that in the last paragraph of my third article I promised (threatened?) there would be another one. But I quickly realized that it would take two articles just to convey my own list of positive supervisory attributes and one more to address some key points from the National Academy of Public Administration’s (NAPA) February 2003 report, “First-Line Supervisors in the Federal Service: Their Selection, Development and Management.”

Picking up where I left off, here are the first 10 items (out of 20) from my own list of some of the supervisory qualities I learned to value most during my Federal career. Some I came to appreciate by virtue of working for so many admirable people, and others as a result of my many mistakes as a supervisor.

Treats everyone with respect

I have found that when you behave respectfully toward others, they usually show you respect in return. Thus, if you set a respectful tone in the workplace, employees are very likely to follow your lead. I don’t believe supervisors can afford to allow disrespectful conduct in the workplace, let alone participate in it. For example, I would argue that a supervisor has not just the right but the responsibility to direct an employee to take down a risqué calendar or screensaver, or to tell an employee that a joke was disrespectful, even if no one has complained. I also encourage supervisors not to raise their voice beyond a normal conversational tone (unless the building is on fire) in speaking with an employee. If you engage in a shouting match with an employee, you lose – i.e., credibility with your staff and possibly the ability to sustain a disciplinary action against that employee.

Develops and maintains a relationship of trust with subordinates

This takes time and effort and has two components – trusting your employees and demonstrating your own trustworthiness – but I feel it is critically important. My theory is that once a relationship of trust has been established on both sides, individual disagreements – as long as there is a perception of good faith on both sides – will not destroy the relationship. Regaining lost trust is much harder than earning it in the first place, so supervisors should try very hard to maintain it.

Is an effective listener

Looking back, I’d give myself a “B-” in this area, A- for effort and C- for execution. I was sincerely interested in what my employees had to say, and I would paraphrase, ask open-ended questions and reflect back what I thought I heard, in an effort to clarify. However, I had a bad habit of mentally framing my own response while employees were still speaking, which caused me to miss some of what they were attempting to convey, and I would sometimes inadvertently derail their train of thought by interrupting them before they were finished. I think it would be virtually impossible for a supervisor without good communication skills to be successful, and a good argument can be made that effective listening is the most important aspect of communication.

Follows through on commitments

I regret that I sometimes failed to do this, in that I would listen to the concerns of my employees in good faith, but would not always get back to them in a timely manner. My procrastination had to raise questions in their minds as to my sincerity and/or my priorities. Many employees recognize that supervisors are often required to juggle multiple responsibilities, and will give them the benefit of the doubt, but if they perceive that a supervisor’s failure to follow through on commitments is a behavior pattern, not an occasional misstep, it can be deadly in terms of building and maintaining trust.

Sets a positive example by working hard and effectively

Here’s one positive example and one negative one: When Walt Dabney, who now runs the Texas State Park System, was Superintendent of the National Park Service’s Southeast Utah Group (Arches, Canyonlands & Natural Bridges), he joined his Maintenance crew as they completed a highway chip-and-seal job. By joining, I mean that he worked alongside them, spreading hot tar all day in the middle of a toasty Moab summer. After that, Walt had total credibility with his Maintenance staff. On the negative side, one of the most intellectually gifted managers I ever worked with routinely spent the first part of his day reading the Wall Street Journal in his office, which was plainly visible to his employees. As a result, he had very little credibility with his staff.

Treats employees fairly and equitably, but not the same

This means getting to know your employees as individuals. Employees come from different backgrounds and have different personalities, family situations, personal needs, etc. I think most employees appreciate it when their supervisors take the time to get to know them as individuals, and will respond positively in the workplace. Identifying with and understanding another’s situation, feelings, and motives is one of the dictionary definitions of empathy, an excellent quality for a supervisor to have.

Maintains a sense of humor

I think a sense of humor is one of the most important qualities any supervisor can possess. Legendary comedian George Burns advised young comics to use self-deprecating humor; I did that pretty well during my career as a supervisor, but then I was such an inviting target. One example: I was supposed to be “navigating” on a business trip to Canyonlands National Park, but I failed to advise my associate, Employee Relations Officer Mike Bieszad, who was driving, of the cut-off to Moab until we were well past it, causing Mike to have to back up a significant distance on Interstate 70, not easy to do when all of the other cars insisted on driving forward – and at highway speeds! The incident “leaked” to my staff, and the morning I returned from the trip there were a series of paper footprints leading from the parking lot to the building and all the way into my office. There, I found maps to every park in our region taped to the walls, a “travel kit” which included coins for a pay phone (now practically an historical artifact), and a name tag that read “If found, please return to…”

Shares credit for successes and accepts responsibility when things go wrong

When your Regional Director is upset about a mistake allegedly made by one of your employees, it can be tempting to let the employee take all the blame, but experience has taught me that 1) your employees expect you to listen to their side of the story before making any decisions or taking any action, and 2) you need to stand behind them and, if you find that the employee(s) was responsible for an error that created problems for the organization, you need to work with him/her to analyze what went wrong and to develop a plan for avoiding such problems in the future. For example, the employee may not have been adequately trained or may have been overloaded with work. A very good saying in this arena is “Don’t fix blame; fix the problem.”

Selects the right people for vacant positions

I think the key is to be heavily involved in the recruitment process from start to finish. The job analysis process is often left to Human Resources (HR), but wise supervisors review the position description (PD) for accuracy; identify the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) required to perform the job successfully; develop the crediting plan; review the vacancy announcement prior to publication; interview the best-qualified candidates, asking the same job-related questions of all; identify the best candidate for the position; and conduct appropriate reference checks before making an offer. Look for people skills and a history as good team players. It is often possible to teach an employee with good people skills the technical parts of a job, while an employee who has outstanding technical skills but an antagonistic personality or an uncooperative attitude can screw up a whole office.

Develops staff members

Make sure your employees receive the training they need. This can include collaborating in the preparation of an individual development plan (IDP) for the employee. Training money is often hard to come by, so work closely with your employees and your supervisor to identify and arrange for the training your subordinates need. When money isn’t available for formal training, or it otherwise makes more sense, look to alternative sources such as on-the-job training and temporary assignments/details. I found throughout my career that most employees were eager to take on more authority and responsibility. As employees become more skilled and are capable of working more independently, give them a chance, demonstrate your confidence in them and back them when they need it.

Developing employees may also include coaching, done by the supervisor or perhaps by a senior employee with excellent technical skills, and mentoring, which often helps employees learn about the agency/organization more quickly than they could on their own, including its “unwritten rules.” Many agencies prefer to use mentors from outside an employee’s chain-of-command to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

In the next article I’ll conclude my list of 20 positive supervisory attributes and behaviors, and in the sixth, and final, planned article of the series, I’ll share what I think are some very relevant thoughts from the NAPA document referenced at the beginning of this article.

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.