Personal Consulting and Coaching

Successful Supervision 101: Focus on Being Effective Rather than Being Liked

When an employee is elevated from within an organization, the new supervisory challenges can be surprisingly daunting.

It all started when my client came to me looking for help ‘coping’ with her “very difficult,” (probably troubled) supervisor.  To make that long story short, my client responded so well to our various strategies for handling herself from there forward that, when her manager departed (she’d found another job), my client was the surprise internal promotion.  Despite some initial, healthy hesitation – based on her total lack of supervisory experience or training – my client was flattered and felt challenged.  She decided she couldn’t pass up the opportunity that had now dropped into her lap.

Our (ostensibly) final session, which occurred in the first few days after starting in her new position, was all gratitude and optimism.  She smiled as she told me that she’d even heard a faint “ding dong the witch is dead” coming from one cubicle.

Two months later, my client called asking for a meeting.  She sounded subdued, almost stricken.  You probably can guess what had happened. The “honeymoon” had barely lasted a month.  She’d started out still being “one of the girls,” taking the tack: “this is going to be fun, we can all relax, loosen up, trust each other” etc.  But the new, more casual workplace tone began bearing the wrong kind of fruit.  Productivity levels declined and error rates went up.

Instead of appreciation for her non-authoritarian approach, she was paying a price for it – and sadly, many of the most solid performers were now glaring at her as she passed their cubicles.  They were unhappy that she wasn’t riding herd on all the acting out.  Simply passing out work or following up on routine problems increasingly became loaded – sometimes cloaked in surface cooperation, but the resistance was palpable.  Worst of all, her direct supervisor had transformed from being an early “fan” to being chilly and guarded. Such a turnabout in so short a time would have been almost comic if it hadn’t been such a disillusioning blow to the new manager.  Talk about learning on the job!

Obviously in hindsight, the previous “troubled” manager had not been the only problem, and was being scapegoated to some degree. It can work out sometimes, but my client’s battlefield promotion without supervisor training had turned out to be too much of a stretch, too soon. The crucial distinction – being “authoritative” as opposed to “authoritarian” – didn’t come naturally to her, and required that her employees see that she was truly focused on the work product, and could (and would) accurately identify workplace realities including who was actually producing – and who wasn’t . 

A supervisor can be a friend, as long as he or she is the boss first.  Some people “get” this naturally, and others have to learn from sad experience then evolve toward that.  My client, in our final session, was shell-shocked and close to outright bitterness in a very short time because she felt “so betrayed” that her easy-to-get-along-with demeanor was so readily abused.

The simple moral to this story: “Managing people is not for sissies, and changing a workplace culture seldom is as simple as changing one person.”

Shaun Kieran

(207) 767-3864

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