Why Developing a Philosophy for Supervising Employees is Important

Collaboration and compliance are philosophies for supervising employees.

A personal philosophy is a framework that helps you to understand who you are and to make sense of your life. A philosophical framework helps to guide you in how you act and the decisions that you make. While we often do not realize it, we all have a personal philosophy. Similarly, you will also need to develop a philosophy as a supervisor because you will also need a framework that guides your supervisory approach and actions. 

Many supervisors may have already adopted a framework for dealing with employees based on their own personal experiences of being managed by their past supervisors, with varying results. 

Two Basic Philosophies 

Deciding on your philosophy of supervising is an important choice. There are two basic philosophies: 1) compliance and 2) collaboration. There is also a third philosophy, which combines the first two, of both compliance and collaboration.

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. A philosophy of compliance is based on the idea that a supervisor should direct employees as to what they are to do and hold them accountable for their performance by evaluating how well they comply with the directions. This approach leaves major decisions in the supervisor’s hands while allowing minimal input from employees. If employees do not comply with the supervisor’s directions, they will face negative consequences. Compliance is often used when supervisors try to force change on employees.

Collaboration is an approach to supervision that entails the supervisor and employee problem-solving together to come up with the best approach to work through issues. A philosophy of collaboration involves engaging employees in making decisions. Collaboration is usually used when supervisors wish to foster change through employee support, which, in turn, can create a good work environment for employees.

This approach requires significant input from employees, who must take active responsibility for assisting in the problem-solving process. A supervisor, of course, cannot engage in collaborative problem solving alone. It takes the active engagement of employees. Additionally, successful collaborative problem-solving may require training for both supervisors and employees.

The responsibility of a supervisor is to know when to use compliance, and when to use collaboration. A supervisor must have the flexibility to use either approach, as necessary, based on the needs of the work being done. It is the supervisor’s choice whether to problem solve a solution to a work problem or to simply tell employees how the supervisor wants an issue handled. Making the correct choice depends on the problem. Making the right choice for a specific problem can greatly improve the effectiveness of a supervisor. 


All supervisors know that getting the job done is the highest priority. How the supervisor gets it done can have a big impact on success as a supervisor. Knowing how to use a compliance approach successfully is an important skill. Providing directions for new assignments and tasks is a normal part of the role of a supervisor or manager.

What follows are effective ways to direct employees:

1. Be specific when assigning tasks

Employees need to understand both when a task is to be completed and how it is expected to be done. Therefore, be certain to create an atmosphere where an employee is not afraid of asking questions when they do not understand what they are to accomplish. Provide employees with the opportunity to ask questions.

Also, offer the opportunity to clarify their questions. This step helps strengthen communication between the employee and supervisor, and thus improves the probability of a successful outcome. The employee then has the opportunity to confirm that they fully understand what is being asked of them. 

Here is an example of what happens when tasks are not clearly understood by employees who fear questioning the supervisor:

Early one afternoon, Eric receives an email from Nina, his direct supervisor, asking him to complete a particular task “ASAP.” Based on his previous experiences with Nina, Eric does not question the meaning of “as soon as possible” and assumes that this must be an emergency. Although he is currently working on a weekly report to be submitted to headquarters later that day, he puts it aside in order to prioritize Nina’s task. As a result, when the weekly report is turned in late, headquarters reprimands Nina and the entire branch office. 

Nina is angry that Eric did not complete the weekly report on time. She believes that he should have understood that the email task was not nearly as important. When Nina tells Eric how unhappy she is, he explains that he thought that she had needed the “ASAP task” immediately.

Nina calls HR to take disciplinary action against Eric for not completing the weekly report on time. When HR asks Nina what “ASAP” meant, she replies, “Eric should have known that it did not mean handing in the weekly report late.” Although Eric has always understood the importance of submitting work to headquarters on time, he believes that he followed instructions by giving the “ASAP task” priority over the weekly report. Long ago, when he had asked Nina which tasks should be done first, Nina had told Eric that someone at his pay level should be “able to figure out” how to prioritize his tasks. He should not need to talk to her each time a task is assigned. 

In this situation, both parties made assumptions, but neither attempted to confirm whether or not those assumptions were correct. Because making assumptions is often easier than addressing issues, some people will rely upon their own assumptions about other people’s wants, needs, and motivations. Unfortunately, these assumptions are frequently incorrect and can actually create disputes in the workplace.

Things that start out as misunderstandings can therefore escalate into a serious problem between supervisors and employees. The best way to avoid assumptions is to create a workplace climate where employees never fear asking questions. In our scenario, Eric was afraid of asking questions because it would make him look like he did not know how to do his job therefore he assumed the ASAP project was his top priority.

2. How you give directions can have an effect on the success of an employee

Actions, such as your tone of voice, word choice, and body language, can help gain support for what needs to be accomplished. 

Here is an example of how to give employees directions: 

Contrast these statements: “Get this done now!” and “Sam, it’s crucial to the success of the project for you to get this done quickly. I know you are busy with other things, but this has to be a priority to help accomplish the mission. Thanks for understanding that it has to be done right now.” What can be perceived in the initial statement as yelling at an employee is not as successful as the following statements explaining the need for prompt action.

There is little doubt the latter approach would be perceived as positive and the former as negative. When you take the time to explain the business importance of the task you are requesting to be completed, you are both teaching and showing respect for the employee you asked to complete the work.

3. Trust your employees

Resist the urge to oversee or micro-manage an employee’s completion of the requested task. Many organizations spend a fair share of their budgets on upgrading computer hardware and software in an effort to increase productivity. IT improvements are easy to implement. You order the equipment, install it, and then train employees on how to use it. Any productivity gains can be easily monitored, too. However, implementing, assessing, and valuing increased trust in the workplace are more complicated. Most managers understand the inherent value of supervisor-employee trust; translating that into saved costs or gains in output might seem impossible. 

As a solution to that problem, Stephen M. R. Covey’s, The Speed of Trust, explains how to quantify the value of trust for increased productivity in the workplace. Covey posits that there are quantifiable dividends in the form of increased employee productivity in workplaces where supervisors and employees trust one another. On the other end of the spectrum, when trust is absent in a workplace, organizations are taxed in the form of diminished output. Leading effectively is learning to trust that your team can complete tasks without you. 


If you are a supervisor, think of a workplace problem that you are currently having and how problem-solving with your employees would develop a sound solution as well as a more successful workplace. If you are an employee, think of how you can assist in solving a workplace problem through collaboration with your supervisor. What follows are five basic steps for collaborative supervisor-employee problem-solving:

1. Identify issues

Each participant in the problem-solving process must have a clear understanding of what issue needs resolving. Defining the issue at the beginning will greatly improve the chances for success. 

For example, Tucker, who supervises the accounting reports section, is concerned that his employee’s reports are being turned in late. He has two options. On the one hand, he can warn employees that if reports continue to be late, consequences will result. In order to successfully use this compliance approach, Tucker must know exactly what he wants done, and his employees must obey completely. On the other hand, Tucker can try to find out why the reports are consistently late. If he chooses this collaborative option to work with his employees, then he should meet with them to discuss the problem. 

2. Identify interests

Before the meeting, Tucker should notify employees of its purpose, so that they can prepare to work together. Each participant should identify their own needs to be satisfied, as well as what concerns must be addressed in order to reach a successful solution. Importantly, this process is based on explanation, not justification. 

To open the discussion, Tucker should look for reasons, and not solutions, by asking his employees why the reports are not being submitted on time. As the supervisor, Tucker’s main interest is the work being accomplished on time. The employees’ interest is not only accomplishing the work, but also having adequate time to devote to the task. By soliciting his employees’ opinions, Tucker will discover their reasons for the late reports.

3. Develop options

Group brainstorming will allow Tucker and his employees to formulate options for getting the reports done on time. Tucker should ask for possible solutions from each participant, and all options should be discussed. For example, one option might be to change the submission deadlines for the reports. Another option might be to lessen the amount of information to be covered. A third option might be to require that all employees check in with Tucker on a regular basis. 

4.  Develop standards

Standards are a strainer through which we run all options to weigh their value as solutions. Standards will help determine which options make the most sense. Examples of a standard could be cost-effectiveness, efficiency, or fairness. 

5. Judge options according to the standards

Each option should be judged according to the standards. In Tucker’s situation, if one option involves hiring additional staff when the standard is cost-effective, then this option is clearly not the most appropriate. While all participants in the problem-solving process should be involved in judging options, the supervisor will make the final decision. 

This problem-solving process will further create the byproducts of increased communication and trust, which will lead to a more collaborative work environment. By engaging employees in solving problems, supervisors create opportunities for transparency, which is essential for developing, increasing, and maintaining trust. However, collaborative problem-solving is not intended to replace a supervisor or employee’s accountability for the implemented solutions.

Employee Engagement

As a supervisor, whichever philosophy you choose, compliance or collaborative, you should still consider encouraging employee engagement in the workplace. High levels of employee engagement in an organization are linked to superior business performance, including increased profitability, productivity, employee retention, customer metrics, and safety levels. An engaged employee is defined as one who is fully absorbed by and enthusiastic about their work, and so they take positive action to further the organization’s reputation and interests. Communication and trust are important to the development of engaged employees.

Here are some tips on how to encourage engaged employees: 

  1. Communicate clear goals and expectations.
  2. Share information and numbers.
  3. Encourage open communication.
  4. Recognize that not communicating or communicating late can damage engagement.
  5. Develop trust in the employees for the organization and its managers.
  6. Provide constant feedback on the positives.
  7. Give immediate feedback.
  8. Show how feedback is being used.
  9. Collaborate on and share problem-solving with employees.
  10. Celebrate achievements.

If, as a supervisor, you want to have engaged employees, then you must also have both good communication and trust in your workplace. While engagement is the newest approach to having a more successful workforce, it really just comes down to the basics of the effectiveness of your communication. In addition, the employees must trust the organization, and, most importantly, its managers and supervisors.

Using both compliance and collaboration as philosophies may be the best approach for many supervisors. Not all things can be accomplished successfully using a strict compliance approach or relying solely on collaboration. Knowing how and when to use each philosophy for many supervisors works the best.

In choosing your philosophy these are your choices: 

  1. You can choose a compliance philosophy of supervising.
  2. You can choose a collaborative philosophy of supervising.
  3. You can choose to be able to use either compliance or problem-solving approach, depending on which one meets the needs of the task you are trying to accomplish.
  4. You can choose to have engaged employees. 

Whichever philosophy you choose, being able to successfully implement it will be all-important. 

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 info@jsafed.com or subscribe to JSA’s newsletter.