What I Have Learned About Supervision (Mostly the Hard Way)

Being a good supervisor is difficult and can be a thankless job. This is a continuation of the author’s article on attributes of a good supervisor based on personal experience as a federal employee and a supervisor and considerable research on the subject.

In this article (number five in my series of six articles about supervision and supervisors), I will list the final 10 (of 20) attributes, behaviors, and characteristics that I think a good supervisor should consistently demonstrate. The first 10 in the list are in my previous article.

11. Involves employees in the development of their performance plans (meaning critical elements and performance standards). The law (Title 5, Chapter 43), its implementing regulations (5 CFR Part 430), Office of Personnel Management (OPM) guidance, and many agency regulations call for meaningful employee involvement in developing performance plans.

However, I have talked to employees in a wide variety of agencies who indicated that they were not involved at all in the development of their critical elements and performance standards, or that their involvement was minimal. One of the things that I learned as a supervisor was that the employee who was doing a particular job almost always knew (far) more about that job than I did, so it was in my best interest to solicit employee participation in developing performance plans. Surveys done by the Corporate Leadership Council (CLC) have consistently indicated that the number one reason employees don’t do what supervisors want them to do is that they don’t understand what is expected of them.

12. Keeps employees apprised of how they are doing. This is easy when employees are doing well, not so much when they are not. But survey after survey, such as those conducted by the CLC, show that employees would rather get bad news on performance from their supervisor than no performance feedback at all. Employees often complain that they don’t get enough performance feedback of any kind from supervisors, which I think is mainly a workload and priority-setting issue. However, when it comes to employees whose performance is less than fully successful, supervisors (including yours truly) sometimes find reasons to avoid conducting the necessary counseling sessions, which are sometimes tough and emotional, because they dislike confrontation. However, I can truthfully report that I never solved one performance problem by ignoring it.

13. Maintains discipline in the workplace. This is an area that requires clarity, consistency and vigilance. It is really important for supervisors to convey the rules to employees, i.e., individually (and/or via new employee orientation group sessions) when they first come on board and then via occasional reminders to the unit. If you counsel an employee for being tardy, you can reasonably anticipate that he/she will point out to you that other employees (by name) have been tardy as well. Tardiness may not be an issue (i.e., where an employee is on a flexible schedule that can be adjusted on a daily basis), but breaks and lunch hours can become “loose” over time, so periodic reminders can be useful. If you allow an employee to engage in misconduct, it is highly likely that other employees will notice, and some of them may engage in similar behavior, figuring that either it isn’t important to you or that you’re not paying attention.

14. Models honesty and integrity. If your employees don’t think you are honest, or question your integrity, building trust will be virtually impossible. Walt Dabney, former Chief Ranger of the National Park Service, whom I cited in the previous article, used to say, “First figure out what’s right, then do it.” I can’t improve on that advice. I will only augment it to the extent of encouraging supervisors to apply common sense and their own “gut instinct” in dealing with workplace issues.

15. Demonstrates leadership skills in motivating a group of people toward a common goal. It is possible to have very talented employees who are not particularly productive as a work unit. It often takes leadership skills to get everyone one pulling in the same direction – in other words, to build a strong and effective team in which everyone feels vested in the success of the unit. I think the process of building and maintaining teamwork also includes regularly soliciting input from employees about how the work could be done better and faster, how customer service could be improved, etc. I would add “vision” here, and the ability and willingness to share that vision with employees. I also believe that if you are trying to build a team concept, involving employees in drafting policies that may affect them is helpful. I specifically failed to do that in developing a “dress code” for my office in one agency and (barely) lived to regret it.

16. Remembers to say thanks. Most employees know that not everything they do warrants a cash or honorary award, but virtually everyone, in my experience, has been appreciative when the supervisor says thanks for a job well done. Saying thanks works best when it is accompanied by specifics and is close in time to the completion of the assignment. It costs nothing but a little time and effort and often pays huge dividends.

17. Recognizes when she/he needs help and seeks it out. I always advise supervisors to talk to Human Resources (HR) at the first sign of a performance or conduct problem. Likewise, if a supervisor receives an allegation of discrimination, such as sexual harassment, or witnesses behavior which could constitute illegal discrimination, she/he would be well advised to contact the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) office immediately, and to talk with HR as well. I think it always makes sense to keep your own immediate supervisor informed when you’re dealing with any of these situations, and to recognize when your agency’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) could be of assistance. For example, you could bounce ideas for dealing with a problem employee off an EAP counselor; such conversations are confidential and you would be talking with someone who has professional credentials but is not part of the agency. I can remember benefiting greatly from getting stress management counseling from the EAP when I felt overwhelmed as a supervisor, and using an EAP counselor to help improve the working relationship between a supervisor and an employee who could not seem to see eye to eye.

18. Is available when employees need them. As a supervisor, you are responsible for getting work done through others. When one of those “others” expresses a need to see you, I would encourage you to make yourself available at the earliest possible moment. When you do schedule such a meeting, be sure that you can concentrate completely on the discussion with your employee. For example, if you periodically “sneak” a look at your watch or take phone calls during the meeting, chances are very good that your employee will jump to the conclusion that either he/she or the issue presented is not important to you and/or that you feel you have more pressing matters to address.

19. Gets out of the office and talks to employees on a regular basis. Sometimes supervisors are so results-focused that they are reluctant to engage employees in conversation because the employee is likely to talk about non-work-related issues such as family, sports, news of the day, etc. I was pretty much like that – I always enjoyed talking with employees, but I was also thinking about what work I wasn’t getting done while I was “socializing.” Getting to know your employees as people will involve an investment of your time, but I found – when I did finally start getting out – that my investment was returned many times over by the credibility I gained with employees and the insights that I picked up, such as how work processes could be improved or when something was wrong, such as an employee who was annoying the rest of the staff by spending too much time making personal phone calls. I also learned that employees generally welcome visits from their supervisor and are more than willing to talk about what they do and why.
Illustrating this point about the value of getting out of the office, FedSmith.com recently reported that new Housing & Urban Development Secretary Steve Preston is winning plaudits by eating lunch in the cafeteria with employees. "People notice things like that," an insider observed. Indeed, they do.

20. Learns from and applies previous experience. If there were things a supervisor did that caused you to grind your teeth in frustration, don’t repeat those behaviors when you become a supervisor. On the other side of that coin, there is nothing wrong with copying the positive behaviors that you experienced in dealing with your supervisors. If you really enjoyed working for a particular supervisor, figure out what that supervisor did that made working for her/him so enjoyable, and attempt to emulate the behavior. Remember that surveys show with great consistency that employees don’t leave agencies/organizations – they leave bad supervisors. I believe the converse is also true – that if you are a good supervisor your reputation will get around and employees will consciously and deliberately look for chances to work with you.

I could list more attributes, behaviors and characteristics of a good supervisor, based on my experience, but then the snoring of comatose readers could annoy their co-workers and 20 is a nice, round number.

I would be very much interested in hearing from readers about the characteristics of the best and worst supervisors they have encountered. In the sixth, and final, planned article of this series I’ll share what I think are some very important 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.”

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.