Note: For this blog, I’m using manager and supervisor as synonyms, and they should be viewed as skills implemented and required based on job responsibilities. Your title may say Associate Director of Regional Bouncy Castle Rental Logistics, but if you have 3 folks who have to send you their time cards every 1 to 2 weeks, you are supervising someone.
It is easy to be a bad supervisor. No seriously, it is way easier to use the positional power to make your supervisee’ lives harder, your organization’s results down, and your staff turnover high and team morale low.
The nonprofit sector has trouble already with competitive wages, compassion fatigue, and the need to live up to representative community leadership, so it can be easy to blame those factors as the reasons folks leave their organization or even the sector. While those are all are real reasons for why folks pop on Linkedin on their lunch break, Gallup finds year after year that more than 50% of employees leave their job because of their boss/manager. The nonprofit sector isn’t immune from this, and, if anything it can be even worse.
Example one of being a bad supervisor: My schedule reigns supreme!
As a boss, it is easy for you to decide your schedule is the most important ones and others must fit in it. You might even be doing this without knowing it.
Being late or canceling your check-in with your team members consistently says, "My time and priorities are more valuable than yours." There are, of course, many reasons why you are late. You may be building relationships elsewhere (a valuable thing to do) or stuck on I-94, or there may be an accident up the Green Line, but if you don’t tell your supervisee that, they will be sitting in a conference room, coffee shop, or office somewhere thinking about what else they could be doing. I have been on both sides of this, and communication was the thing that made me feel more understanding when my supervisor was late. A text, a phone call, and a loose "be there 10 minutes late" did miles more work to show respect than an apology after without communication.
You also have to know that your supervisee may be wondering if you being late is part of a bigger pattern and whether that means their time is not valued. An apology is nice, but seven apologies don’t make up for those three hours I could have collectively gotten back.
Effective and respectful supervision: If you know it takes you time in between meetings to process, use the restroom, or have a hallway chat, make sure to give yourself a literal time buffer in your schedule. Start talking organizationally about if you truly need the full hour for certain meetings or do you actually need more or less time for some? Trying to squeeze a full project implementation plan in a one hour chunk may not be sufficient, but the decision on the breakfast catering may not need the full hour as well. Most importantly, honor the time commitments you make, and talk to your supervisees when meetings need to be rescheduled or canceled.
Example two of being a bad supervisor: "Make it work"-Tim Gunn
"Make it work!" is a nice little focusing line for Project Runway in which Tim Gunn mentors contestants who are actively seeking to best each other in clothing design. That line works great for reality television, but it doesn’t work for the supervisor and supervisee relationship in a normal workplace where people should be working together to make it work!
You are giving your staff little room for agency if you lean on "motivational techniques" like "I told you so," "Just get it done," "That is the way we have always done it," or "I’m not interested in a bigger solution right now because we need to do the hard work for our clients/members/support/donors/students/etc to be successful." Doing this also makes it much easier to give vague expectations and to close yourself off to feedback.
That last one (“We can’t think big right now; it's crisis mode") can be particularly pernicious in our nonprofit sector. Many in our sector do hard and challenging work because they signed up to support our community. We can get stuck slogging uphill while doing incredibly tedious, taxing or hard work season after season, when our real answer is to build a lift, stairs, or elevator depending on our resources (also known as a better process, smoother communication, or clearer guidelines). That's why it is important to look back after a project is done to discuss what worked, what didn't, and what you will do different next year. At the very least, we should take time to write down a map of the easiest path (also known a writing best practices after the last hard slog).
Effective and respectful supervision: Write out the context, background, proposed process, and reasons for a task or assignment that will be given to your supervisees beforehand. This doesn’t need to be long, and it could be jotted down on a post-it note, notecard, or into the instructions for a project. Being able to do this lets both you and your supervisee be better prepared mentally, and it will let you see if any of the tasks need to take a particular form or if they will need more time. Not all your supervisees need the same level of context, but having it available is a greater way to set them up for success.
Example three of being a bad supervisor: It’s my way or the highway.
Demanding your way is the easiest way to be a supervisor, and it captures all elements of supervision including your implementation, logistics, and follow-through. There are some habits you could get away with when you weren’t a supervisor, but that doesn’t mean they can continue now. While having a slow email response may have been an endearing quirk when you were responsible for just yourself, it now means you miss your team’s questions, updates, and communication. When you see your vision as the only path to success, you can miss out on great ideas from your team or the pitfalls of your own vision.
Even in our beloved nonprofit sphere, the hierarchy associated with supervisor to supervisee relationship is fraught with inequity in message, feedback, implementation, and progress. This inequality is only expanded when a "my way of the highway" approach is used. It is much easier to have your word be the end of a conversation when you are the one approving PTO, recommendations for promotions and special projects, year to year increases, evaluations, and your supervisee’s continued employment. Your team also won’t feel listened to if you always have a quick retort when your staff gives any element of feedback; you are showing them that you aren’t really listening to their ideas—you’re just listening to prove yours.
Effective and respectful supervision: Ask your supervisees questions like: What do you need to be successful? What have I done that you didn’t like, care for, or got in your way?
When they respond, commit to listening to their answers! And I mean truly listen! Don’t just listen to respond, retort or try to trap them. As a supervisor, you should seek out feedback, ask for it consistently, and act on it with sincerity. I have made it a habit to ask those I supervise these questions during every check-in. It becomes a way for me to look at anything big and small I could improve, and it includes everything from giving a quicker answer to a question, improving my email follow-up, or understanding what someone means when they tell me "the way you talked to me felt dismissive, and I felt disrespected."
Creating a habit of asking for consistent feedback and acting on it is a way to change your supervision quickly and responsively. Simply waiting for your quarterly 360 evaluations or only thinking to ask when you have extra time in a check-in, leaves you open to large gaps in how your team is truly feeling about your work as a supervisor.
Being a good or great supervisor is hard. It takes preparation, follow-through, and communication. You must be open to feedback, able to individualize your support, and respect the time and effort of your team. Doing the hard work of good supervision is always important to the work we do, and it also benefits the supervisor. Searching, hiring and onboarding new supervisees is really hard and if your management style doesn’t become responsive, respectful and reasonable, you’ll be doing a lot of the hard work of replacing 50% of your team over and over throughout your career.
Please Note: Each blog is written by the individual author, and the views expressed may not be shared by all YNPN members.