Supervisors: Biggest Asset, Biggest Liability

Fran S.

Fran S.

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While conducting a recent climate assessment, I was questioning a supervisor about their oversight of the work environment.  How did they take stock of employee morale and engagement?  What were the cultural imperatives?  The response was a shoulder shrug and an assertion that “If employees have a problem they need to come to me.”

I have often said that if I had a dollar to improve any work environment, I would spend ninety-five cents on supervisory development.  Research indicates clearly that employees base their impression of the quality and culture of their organization on their contact with supervisors.  Workgroups in which employees report that their supervisor  cares about them as a person, talks to them about their career progress, encourages their development, and provides opportunities to learn and grow have lower turnover, higher sales growth, better productivity, and better customer loyalty than workgroups in which employees report that these developmental elements are scarce.

To the degree that supervisors spend time with employees, clarify expectations, provide support and assistance to employees, communicate key information to them and build trust, the positive perceptions engendered are generalized to the company and create engagement.  To the degree that these activities are absent, the opportunity to build employee engagement is squandered.  To the degree that the absence results in “bad” supervision, it can result in employee theft, sabotage, poor retention, low productivity and claims and charges against the employer.

When I use the term “bad” supervisor, I am not contemplating a monstrous person who wakes up each day contemplating opportunities to make their subordinates miserable– we will save them for another blog post.  Rather, I am talking about a good performer who has been promoted to a supervisory role and believes that the skills that got them their promotion are the skills necessary to perform in their new role.  That supervisor will likely continue to focus on “the work” and neglect the people. Ironically, a smooth transition is a sign the organization has not prepared the supervisor.  In reality, the transition to a supervisor should be profoundly jarring. Supervision requires a radical refocusing of purpose from doing to facilitating and from executing to enabling.  This is a full-stop change.

Too often, organizations underestimate how profound a change or recalibration a promotion to supervisor must be.  This is especially true in organizations with “working supervisors” who continue to carry  assignments and perceive they are performing well by continuing to execute “the work.”  In many cases, job descriptions and expectations don’t even specify that a significant portion of a supervisor’s time should be spent supervising! These supervisors have not been given the tools they need to build effective relationships with their employees. Because no expectation has been set for supervising well, the result is often quite destructive.  Untrained supervisors easily build bad habits such as failing to communicate or bullying people into performance, without ever recognizing they are mistreating people. They may avoid conflicts, mishandle imminent performance problems, undermine their own authority by developing personal friendships with direct reports (or carrying those friendships with them through the promotion,) or use their authority in destructive ways.  The effects will show up in performance, morale, productivity and even safety.

Supervisory training is essential, but even some supervisor training programs tend to spend too much time on the administrivia of supervision and HR-related topics, paying little attention to mentoring strategies, effective communication, listening skills, and conflict management. So what can organizations do?  I believe that it is incumbent on in house HR professionals to lead the development and execution of a new supervisor onboarding process.  After all, when new hires come on board, we know that a well-organized onboarding process can accelerate productivity and improve retention. Why not consider that a newly promoted employee is essentially re-entering the workforce with a different set of “goggles” on, and needs to be reintroduced to the organization as a leader.  Here are some key components to a six month to one-year supervisory onboarding process:

  1. A reading list. This should be a short but powerful list of resources the newly promoted employee would be expected to read (including some prior to assuming the promotion) and could include some great books on practical supervision, such as The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins or The Working Supervisors Support Kit by Wally Bock. It could also include some books fleshing out key parts of organizational leadership. Two of my favorites include Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer by Michael Roberto and The Emotionally Intelligent Manager by David Caruso and Peter Salovey, but your list can include whatever book is favored by your leadership team or your CEO as well. Not only are the readings substantively beneficial, but growing a crop of leaders who have a shared foundation is great for alignment and culture.

  2. A second reading list. Including reading the job description of each direct report, the employee handbook and relevant performance management materials. Included in this could be a document describing the organization’s culture and values. Don’t have one? Get working!

  3. Monthly meetings. Meeting with their own supervisor to discuss the readings and to have general discussions about the transition into management. These meetings should be apart from meetings where real-time issues are discussed. These are coaching sessions. Of course, this means your middle managers need to have some coaching skills — and a clear message that “hand-holding” a new supervisor can net tremendous organizational benefits. Topics should include organizational culture and alignment of management philosophy and the supervisor’s strengths and how to build on them

  4. A peer mentor. Someone who has made the transition into effective supervision and can be an informal advisor and support person outside the reporting chain. This person can invite the new supervisor to sit in on their meetings as a way to learn facilitation and meeting skills, or can share lessons they have learned on their own journey.

  5. Training. Whether it is an integrated supervisory skills training course or a series of seminars or classes outside of the organization, there should be a one-year training plan for every new supervisor. Compliance and ethics training, financial acumen training, communications training, and conflict management training would be key components of a well-developed supervisory training. A solid course in labor relations should be included for union workplaces.

  6. HR orientation. This is an opportunity for the new supervisor to understand how HR can partner with them and coach them as they approach performance management and disciplinary matters, as well as begin a trust-building process. HR should take an active part in the onboarding by meeting with the new supervisor monthly or more often to assess the new supervisor’s integration into their new role. Rather than front-loading information about HR processes, they can be introduced on an as-needed basis.

  7. A network-building guide. This identifies key contacts in the organization with whom relationships need to be built. This might include relevant people in IT and finance, content matter experts or clients and vendors with whom trust and familiarity are important. The new supervisor should be able to demonstrate progress in building a strong and helpful network.

Yes, this is a lot.  It will take time, effort and expense.  It is the best investment an organization can make.  Even if you take only one or two of these steps for every newly promoted supervisor, you will be increasing the odds of organizational success.  The difference between a good supervisor and a bad supervisor is too great to ignore.


Fran S.

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