An Open Letter to New Supervisors

by Sean on August 11, 2010

Congratulations! You are about to begin an exciting chapter of your career. Your power and responsibility have surged. Regardless of how much training you’ve received, there is no substitute for experience. I’ve seen a lot of supervisors get off on the wrong foot. Some survive this, others don’t. Here are some of the most common errors of new supervisors and how to avoid them. Like with all safety rules, these tips are written with the blood of the victims.
Mistake #1: Confusing supervisor with tyrant
Many new supervisors get stressed by the thought of being responsible for a staff of several people. One way they deal with this stress is to impose ridiculous rules and controls. These tyrants will demand to know everything happening with staff and require approval of any and all decisions. This is probably the worst mistake, and sadly, one of the most common. It is common because it is caused by fear.

This guy has definitely made mistake #1.

Before supervising, these new people were only responsible for their own performance. Now they are responsible for a whole department! It can also be caused by a misplaced sense of prestige associated with the promotion. When faced with a tyrant, employees react by reducing effort, avoiding the supervisor and sometimes quitting or transferring out of the department. This behaviour can escalate to insubordination and even outright mutiny.
You can avoid this trap by assuming your staff knows what they are doing, or at the very least, are adults who can figure things out on their own. Your job is to manage the department, not the individual tasks. Instead of thinking up rules to control your employees, think of the objectives of the organization. Once you have established this, present issues to your employees and get them to help you solve them. I guarantee they will come up with better, more innovative answers that you will. In addition, you will break through the resistance they will have for your “half-baked ideas.” Just be sure to give credit where it is due.
Mistake #2: Doing everybody’s work
Many employees are promoted because they were really good at their jobs. When they become responsible for a department, a natural reaction is to do or revise the work of all their employees. This comes from their best intentions for the company. They want all the work of the department to be to their personal standard. The troubles arise from the fact that time and energy are limited, and supervisors that do this become bottlenecks. In addition, employees will reduce employee output because they will rightly assume that any mistakes will be caught.
The way to avoid mistake #2 is to take a long-term view of employee work. Sure, all workers were not created equal and there will always be errors to deal with. If you share these issues as teaching opportunities, you will get employees to take ownership over their output. If you manage your employees’ performance this way, you will move towards your department’s long-term goals of higher output and quality.  Again, regardless of your energy and talent, you cannot out-perform your entire department.  Your job is now to get the best performance from your employees.

This supervisor is guilty of making mistake #1, but nobody could accuse him of mistake #2.

Mistake #3: Being a pushover
Many new supervisors try to avoid mistake #1 by trying to be friends with the staff and not rocking the boat. Mistake #2 can sometimes result from this. Supervisors promoted from within the ranks  are susceptible to this. In addition to being weak with employees, supervisors can face undue pressure from managers or other supervisors. You may be asked by a manager to discipline an employee based on the manager’s dislike for them or an old dispute. While this mistake doesn’t have the problem of pitting the employees against you, if you are a pushover, you aren’t doing the job you were given. If you don’t manage your staff, why does the company need a supervisor at all?
Mistake #3 is intellectually easy to avoid but emotionally difficult. Nobody wants to discipline his or her former peers, but sometimes the job requires this. You must be principled when you do this. Employees realize that there are parts of a supervisor’s job that aren’t pleasant. Many of them have passed up promotions because they don’t want to deal with the tough job of supervision. As long as you take action based on the principles of the organization, you will gain your employees’ respect, if not their total agreement. When assigning tasks, tell your employee what needs to be done instead of asking them if they feel like helping out. In dealing with the manager that wants to use your proxy to settle their score, remember that the employees report to you, not the manager. If he has a legitimate issue, then deal with it. If not, remember, just because the manager has a problem doesn’t mean that you have one.
If you are able to avoid these three mistakes, you will be in a better position to succeed than the vast majority of new supervisors. This should give you enough time to learn your new role and get really good at it.  Good luck!

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