What Kind of Supervisor Do You Want to Be?

October 8, 2020 2:08 PM
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A supervisor meets with his employee across a desk; the female employee's back is to the camera and an open laptop computer is visible in front of the supervisor

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Maybe you’ve just been chosen as a supervisor, or maybe you’ve been a supervisor for a long time. Either way, this is your chance to be the kind of supervisor you would like to be from the very beginning or to make some changes which can greatly improve how you supervise and reshape the kind of supervisor you are. 

Supervising employees can be difficult, rewarding, and hard work all rolled together. Unfortunately, many new supervisors don’t receive a lot of training on how to be a supervisor once selected for the position. Instead, they are thrown in and told to supervise.

In some ways it’s a sink or swim on the job training program. Some only get training after they have been in the job for a long period of time and may have already developed some bad habits or no habits at all.

Some of the only training a new supervisor gets is what they learned from supervisors they have had in the past; this can be good or very bad. Skills based training is important for all supervisors, however as important is the philosophy and attitude toward supervision adopted by a supervisor. 

A supervisor is often a combination of the kind of person the individual is, the training received and the individual’s priorities as a supervisor. What also shapes a supervisor is the individual’s, and to some extent the employer’s, philosophy of management.

No book or course of training can change the kind of person you are. As an example, if you are an introvert, there is no training to convert you to being an extrovert. However, training can provide you with an understanding of how to use the qualities you already have to your advantage and to the advantage of the employees you supervise. 

Much of the training you will receive, or have received, as a manager goes in one ear and out the other because from your perspective the training is not directly applicable to your needs. The training you receive should educate you on the philosophy and attitudes needed to be a good supervisor as well as train you on the necessary skills.

Developing into a good supervisor takes time. You must decide if you are willing, given the numerous competing responsibilities, to allocate the time necessary. How a supervisor allocates time often depends on his or her choices as a supervisor.

The good news is that you get to choose what kind of supervisor you want to be. The priority you place on your role as a supervisor and the choices you make will directly affect the outcomes you obtain. Many supervisors don’t know what their philosophy of management is or even the fact that they have a choice in how they supervise.

When developing your approach to supervising there are four major areas you should think about: Communicating with Employees; Performance and Conduct of Employees; Supervising the Work of Employees; and Your Philosophy of Supervision. Each of these four areas will provide you with choices.

Communicating with Employees

How and to what extent you communicate with employees is a choice. Most people make choices based on what is important to them. You can choose to be a good communicator. One of the most frequent complaints of employees is the lack of communication from their supervisor.

In the workplace there are two types of communication: formal and informal. An example of formal communication is a staff meeting. An example of informal communication is a one on one talk in the hallway. 

As an example, you can improve your formal communication by determining the effectiveness of your staff meetings by asking the employees what’s good and what’s bad about your meetings. Often times, employees will be brutally honest. How you deal with this honesty will shape their belief and trust in you as a supervisor.

One of the easiest ways to improve one on one communication is to make a habit of showing appreciation for what an employee has accomplished. Practice this everyday by making a point of telling employees that you appreciate something they have done that day. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, just something that lets them know that you see and appreciate what they are doing. This can improve the trust they have in you and make them more interested in communicating. (For more information about improving communication in the work place see my book: Communication and Trust – A Guide to A Successful Workplace).

Performance and Conduct of Employees

Supervisors have a choice between managing an employee’s performance or simply evaluating it. Quite often the term performance management, as applied in the workplace, is an oxymoron. There certainly is employee performance but not necessarily any management of it.

The now defunct National Security Personnel System (NSPS) included a major attempt to change the performance management system in DOD. It failed. From my experience working with the implementation of NSPS, there was considerable resistance on the part of supervisors to do the work that was required to truly manage employee performance. They were too busy doing all the other things required of them.

Managing performance means setting goals and objectives for an employee that make sense and are realistic; constantly monitoring their performance towards those goals, not just once at mid-year; and assisting them to achieve all they are capable of achieving. This is hard work.

The rewards for taking performance management seriously are great but so is the commitment necessary to be successful. You can take seriously your role in managing an employee’s performance or you can evaluate their performance once a year. It is your choice what you do.

How you handle employee conduct issues is also your choice.

When conducting supervisory training classes, as we begin the discussion of the supervisor’s role in discipline, I explain my basic approach to discipline – early and often.

Many supervisors are reluctant to take disciplinary actions for any number of reasons including wanting to be considered a nice person and not wanting to have to do all the work involved. It is a major disservice to your employees to not apply discipline when it is needed.

Allowing successive infractions without taking action leads to a lessening of the possibility that the employee will change their behavior. The employee comes to believes they are immune from discipline and that they don’t have to do anything differently.

Discipline can be a wake-up call for some employees and if done timely can head off the need for more serious action later on. It’s your choice to let things go or to take an action which in the long run may be the best thing for the employee.

Supervising the Work of Employees

Supervising the work of employees is one of the most important roles of a supervisor. You have choices on how you supervise. You can micromanage, you can take a total hands-off approach or you can do a combination approach.

Micromanaging entails close supervision and even surveillance of everything an employee does. A hands-off approach allows an employee free rein on how they handle their job with little if any supervisory interference. 

With the extensive availability of telework, micromanaging takes on a different form. Requiring an employee to check in at various set times throughout the work day, requiring their computer camera to be on at all times, and requirements that an employee must return emails within a set number of minutes all could be considered examples of telework micro-managing. Never contacting the employee at all during the time they are teleworking and having no requirements for checking in would be considered examples of a total hands-off approach. 

Micromanaging can be a sign to employees that they are not trusted. Total hands off may give employees the idea that their work is not valued. Your choice is to make sure employees know they are being held accountable for the work assigned to them but at the same time not be so overbearing that they feel stifled and not appreciated for their expertise. 

Your Philosophy of Supervision

Deciding on your philosophy of supervising is an important choice.

There are two basic philosophies: compliance and collaboration. However, there is a third hybrid philosophy which is a combination of both philosophies.

Compliance is based on the concept of ordering an employee to do something and then holding them accountable for what was ordered to be done. Collaboration is an approach to supervision which entails the supervisor and employee problem solving to come up with the best approach to work through issues.

Your responsibility as a supervisor is to know when to use compliance and when to use collaboration. You must have the flexibility to use either approach as called for by the needs of the work being done. It’s your choice whether to problem solve a solution to a work problem or to simply tell employees how you want an issue handled. Making the correct choice depends on the nature of the problem. Making the right choice for a specific problem can greatly improve your effectiveness as a supervisor. 

How you act as a supervisor is not preordained, much of your approach to supervising employees and your success as a supervisor will be based on the choices you make.

© 2020 Joe Swerdzewski. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Joe Swerdzewski.

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About the Author

Joe Swerdzewski, former General Counsel of the FLRA & owner of JSA LLC is the author of The Essential Guide to Federal Labor Relations, A Guide to Successful Federal Sector Collective Bargaining, etc. For more info on JSA’s services, email [email protected] or subscribe to JSA’s newsletter.

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