Personal Consulting and Coaching

Want to Be a Successful Supervisor? Avoid these 11 Pitfalls.

Obviously, it’s always best to be positive about being a manager, but sometimes it’s good to keep in mind what not to do. You don’t have to be a natural authoritarian personality to be a good supervisor, but you do have to keep your concentration.  You don’t have to be a schmoozer, but your employees are gauging how comfortable you really are in the role.


This list was given to a client who specifically asked about no-no’s as she headed into her first supervisory job. Of course, it doesn’t only apply to “newbies.”

Making it about you — conveying that you’re there to get recognized, punch your ticket, show how smart you are, etc.

Wrong or not, people speculate about motives constantly.  If there’s even the slightest hint that you get pleasure, or your sense of worth from “being the boss” it will be detected in a hot minute, and you will pay a price.  If you convey that you’d rather be somewhere else, or think you deserve to be higher on the food chain, you’ll pay a price — people will resent you, talk about you behind your back, generally resist your efforts, and find a way to put you in your place, etc.

Not being curious.  Not constantly asking, in essence: how does what we’re doing connect with and enhance what we’re trying to accomplish?

Authentic curiosity looks clear-eyed at, and keeps turning up, what doesn’t work, so that what does work is revealed. Curiosity is the right stance practically, and it’s also a kind of relaxed energy. The humility and the spirit of discovery are contagious, even for most dyed-in-the-wool cynics.

Not communicating expectations of success — an optimistic assurance of support and certainty that everything will be okay.

Free-floating anxiety goes with being a human group — even over fairly straightforward tasks, let alone those that have any complexity to them at all.  Managers should avoid adding unnecessary stress.  They should emphasize that good, focused effort (not 16-hour days) will accomplish the mission, that there’s time, energy, and support to get things done, and that everything’s going to be OK

Not giving frequent feedback.

People need reassurance more than you wish they did.  They need to know you’re on top of things, and they need you to see that they’re on task, that you like being out of your office, having a look. It also means that if things start to veer off, you’ll notice before too much time passes.  And, of course, they need to be told they’re doing a good job. Praise is good — it just needs to be done skillfully, not gratuitously.

Not heading toward a problem — being passive.

This requires some care. You don’t want to jump too soon, inject negativity, or say something before you know you’re right, BUT  that’s different from being sure to have your own early warning antenna that helps you be aware ASAP that you may have a problem — and get on it.  Passivity is almost always penalized.

Not conveying the big picture, especially what a good outcome will look like, and why it’s good.

People need to be reminded where their efforts fit into the larger scheme of things.  Not only does it help with motivation on the front end, but it helps with innovation and problem solving as the process unfolds.  People see the value of what they do, in context. The net result is more brainpower invested in overall mission success.

Focusing on one’s own “output” to the detriment of others to whom you’ve delegated work.  (“My work is more important than your work.”)

This is hard these days because line managers often are saddled with their own work product that requires a substantial time commitment.  Suffice it to say, however, that employees are uncanny in their ability to detect the amount of time you have for them, and resent it if you’re too often unable to give them the time they need to produce work for you.

Telling people how to do their work, rather than reiterating what they’ve been hired to do.

This is both obvious and harder than it seems.  Some people do seem to need or want to be told exactly HOW to do something, but then resent it. In general, let people bring their own temperament, rhythm, sense of priorities, etc. into how they accomplish their assignments.  It feels less robotic, de-personalized, and without human valueYes indeed, some folks are extremely passive and exasperating, but if supervisors don’t overreact and keep moving forward with the right mixture of encouragement and candid feedback, most are pulled in.

Making it about you, revisited — assuming that opposition, resistance, and criticism are all about being adversarial toward you, and therefore to be disregarded.

Get out from under Social Darwinism as soon as possible, even if it feels like that’s what’s going on at the other end.  Keep your eye on work performance (your actual job), and you virtually can’t go wrong.  Don’t make someone else’s struggle with their work a personal insult directed at you. Therapists call that narcissism.

Not showing fundamental awareness of the need for dignity and respect.

It’s amazing.  Some people are brought up well, get this one early, and never come close to breaching this.  Others seem to never get it at all.  Most learn, from sad experience, that it’s the true reason for most of the blowups at work. People react very emotionally to the slightest hint – especially in front of others – that they are seen as inadequate, “less than”, etc.  Supervisors have pleaded to assure me that they NEVER intended to convey that message, but — with a raised eyebrow, a throwaway comment in a meeting, or by not saying “hello” in the hallway — they did.

Not saying “thank you” enough.

Enough said!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jay Fulton Thursday, February 10, 2011 at 5:29 pm

This post really made sense to me; it aggregates a list of suggestions that are practical. And you saved the best for last! Finding things in someone’s behavior, about which you can truly, justifiably, and honestly say thank you is a big card to play in the game of workplace. Even those who respond gruffly, notice that you saw the praiseworthy behavior. An honest “thank you” might dramatically improve the tone of workplace communication, and especially if you’re listening carefully to what comes back.

shaun Thursday, February 10, 2011 at 6:16 pm

Hi Jay-

I think you’re my first “reply” that came through Facebook. As you may have noticed, I post in surges, and this one comes from awhile back.
I’m always struck by which tidbit of experience strikes a chord. As I’ve always said – from the time I started doing this work – some managers have a feel for this stuff naturally and don’t ever get into a “ditch” with employees, but all kinds of folks, who aren’t stupid, do make laughably basic mistakes far too often.

Those are the people I was meant to help.

Thanks for commenting, Jay.


Thanks for

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