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It is hard to be a good supervisor: But worth it!

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 Regional Director of Party Bus Coordinators, but if you have four folks who have to send you their time cards every one to two weeks, you are supervising someone.

In my previous blog, I shared all of the ways it is easy to be a bad supervisor. It’s easy to put your schedule first and demand things be done your way. It’s easy to give limited feedback and just expect your employees to “Make it work!”

Working in the nonprofit sector, people are quick to look at other factors for the reason why people leave their organization and the sector. They can point at the low wages, compassion fatigue, or the need to live up to representative community leadership and ignore that Gallup finds that more than 50% of employees leave their job because of their boss/manager. We need to accept that the nonprofit sector is not immune to having bad supervisors… if anything it is worse.

So what is a supervisor to do? It is hard to be a great supervisor. It is challenging to be open to feedback, to truly listen, to put in the time needed to prepare for check-ins, to stand by difficult decisions, and to give critical feedback in a constructive way to those you supervise.  All of that is very true; in this blog, I want to share some ways it be a great supervisor, and I want to assure you, while it may not be easy, being a great supervisor is worth it.

Tip one for being a good supervisor: Listen to what is being said, seek to understand, and not to respond.

Listening to what is being said by those you supervise can sound easy enough. Noises go into your ears, your eardrums vibrate, your brain processes the information and you nod your head a couple times to show you are listening. Many folks have perfected the “listener look” even when they can’t repeat what was just said.

There was a time when I, as a supervisor, thought it was only important that someone felt heard, rather than truly listen. I’m not proud of that time in my supervision, and I strive not to repeat that bad habit.

Now I know, it is important to listen to understand. That means listening beyond the words. Listening for tone, emotion, and context. Combine the words you hear with the body language you see. Is the person presenting closed off body language? Are their arms crossed because the room is cold or because they are frustrated? Are they gesturing with their hands more because they are passionate or feeling frantic? Is this different than usual? Was there a shift in one in your check-in? An increase or decrease in pace, speed, even volume? Noting all of these things (or at least what your employee’s “normal” looks like) will make you a better supervisor because you will be able to identify when something is abnormal.

So make the effort to listen to what is being said and make sure you understand what your supervisee is trying to communicate, as much as possible. Repeat back what you think you heard and ask if that is what they are trying to communicate. Remember that, particularly in difficult or stressful moments, people can lose some of the ability to communicate as clearly as they want or, even, to listen to themselves

Tip two for being a good supervisor: Provide critical feedback, with sandwiches, and don’t forget your water bottle.

Giving critical feedback isn’t easy. It is important to know, though, that you are doing a disservice to every future co-worker, supervisor, supervisee, client, funder, or partner to your supervisee if you notice something that needs to be adjusted in your employee’s work performance but don’t address and communicate the issue clearly. For example, you might be ok with your supervisee being consistently late to meetings. That doesn’t mean, however, that their colleagues won’t think their time is being disrespected by that lateness. If this issue (and what it could mean for their reputation) isn’t brought up, your supervisee can’t learn, and they may miss out on projects or future promotions.

When giving constructive feedback, the “sandwich” method (praise, feedback, praise) can sometimes help. The idea here is to give praise to something being done well, give the critical feedback, and then end on more positive reinforcement. This can help in the reception of an idea and foster a greater opportunity for the change needed to be heard and embraced. It also lets your employee know that this is just one work habit that needs to be changed; not a sign that they are terrible at their job.

Also, when giving feedback, it is important to stay calm! There is some research that shows the acts of eating or drinking something can help reduce a person’s stress levels (use that lizard brain to your advantage). That’s why I try to bring my water bottle into all my check-ins and meetings, both to hydrate but also to try and trick my body into calming down if needed. I can’t be under attack by a lion (or directing stress at another person) if I’m sipping out of my Bubba water bottle.

Tip three for being a good supervisor: Strive to be the example

Most folks will have lots of supervisors in their life.

For me, there are folks who, on reflection, were great supervisors to me, but I wasn’t at a stage in my own professional or personal maturity to recognize it. There are others who were profoundly impactful because they were excellent, and I was in a place to learn from them. I also remember my supervisors who left me feeling broken, unworthy of the job, incompetent, and sapped of the energy I needed for the work. Which of these supervisors do you want to be?

Positive modeling has impacts out there in both small and large organizations. We often learn well by seeing and mirroring folks near us be successful or not. A supervisor and supervisee relationship has a lot of daily, weekly interaction and your own behavior as a supervisor is likely to get picked up by your colleagues, for good or bad. If you can’t model showing up on time, why should your supervisee show up on time? If you want your supervisees to stay home when they are sick, but you still show up to work coughing, you aren’t practicing what you preach (I’m bad at this, and sometimes require a friendly push to go home). Ain’t nobody got time for my germy hands to be grabbing at the communal coffee pot.

Final thoughts: It is worth the effort

Even if it is hard, it is valuable to strive to be the example of a great boss. It is hard to replace talented people, but engaged, supported, and challenged supervisees can produce more than those left to fend for themselves, or that feel unsupported.

If nothing else, no matter if you did your job well or poorly, someday your supervisee may be your boss or that big funder you want to impress. When that happens, what example do you want to know you gave now that the positions of power have flipped?

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Please Note: Each blog is written by the individual author, and the views expressed may not be shared by all YNPN members.


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