So You Think You Want to be a Supervisor

So You Think You Want to be a Supervisor

January 12, 2023 Good to Know 0

You think to yourself: I’m really good at my job. If I were in charge, I’d fix a lot of things. I’d get people to work happily together. I’d let upper management know the truth about things they obviously don’t know now. I am very skilled, technically. I know the most about what works and what doesn’t. I know who works hard and who needs to be fired.

I’d make a great supervisor.

Then you get the promotion and reality strikes. Hard. Nothing is like what you thought it would be. Turns out that upper management knows a lot more than you thought, but the fixes aren’t so black and white. In fact, most of your job is now colored in various shades of grey. That poorly performing employee has a complicated story and history. Maybe he never got properly trained or provided with useful feedback. Getting people to work collaboratively and happily is a lot harder than it seemed from your previous perspective. Everybody has a different point of view on who’s doing what and how things should be done, just like you did when you were part of their team.

Your relationship with your former peers takes an unexpected turn. People you thought were your friends take advantage of the “friendship”, expecting you to turn a blind eye to performance issues. Or they start cutting you down and talking behind your back when you don’t acquiesce to their demands. You try to enforce policies and procedures only to be called a bossy control freak. Friday night drinks after work become awkward, as you realize that you are now perceived as one of “them”.

You find that your tie-breaking decisions are always in demand for questions and complaints.  Is it too hot, or too cold in here? Did she take too long a lunch break, as reported by a co-worker? Is he not carrying his fair share of the work? Why does she get to leave early? Why do you let him get away with stuff?

One of my first jobs was Retail Training Manager at a bank. I was responsible for developing and implementing a complete training program for Teller Supervisors, a first-line supervisory position. The two-week program was comprehensive, covering all aspects of the technical and supervisory elements of the position.  I got a call from one of the supervisors shortly after she

started her new job.

“You didn’t tell us about this!” she exploded.

I asked for details. I got more than I asked for.

“So. I’m in the ladies’ room. IN A LOCKED STALL. Suddenly a hand appears under the door, waving a check. ‘Can I cash this?’ comes a voice from the other side. ‘You have to approve it.’

“I can’t even go to the bathroom without interruption! I eat lunch in my car, and they still find me. I have one teller who checks absolutely every move with me, and another who does the exact opposite of whatever I tell her to do. The male manager wants me to address a body odor problem ‘because she’s female’. His original plan had been to leave a bottle of deodorant at her window. Everyone tattles on everyone else. If I had known what I was getting into…”

Ah, there is was. “If I had known…” I had thought the training program covered all the essentials, but there was a key thing missing. The Transition. Going from worker to supervisor is a culture shock. All to often, the person promoted to supervisor was the most skilled worker, not necessarily the person with the best people skills. The two jobs require different skill sets and job preferences.

You can see the result of promoting the wrong people when the supervisor spends more time doing tasks than managing people. They revert to what they know best to achieve a sense of personal accomplishment, but as a supervisor, their accomplishments are measured by the team’s collective results.

Too many people think that being a supervisor is just a matter of knowing the job better than anyone else. In fact, it’s about developing a team of people whose individual contributions make the whole team successful. In response to our teller supervisors’ culture shock we developed a program to better prepare people for the realities of supervising titled, “Pre-Supervisor”. Its informal title was “Are you SURE you want to be a supervisor?” This half-day session was an informative overview of what to expect in the transition from worker to supervisor. Some of the key points included:

You will be representing management. There will be times when you need to explain and support decisions you may not personally agree with. You will need to understand the thinking behind such decisions and help your team work with them. You can’t take an “us vs them” approach. You ARE them. Imagine the kind of support you’ll get from your team if you introduce a new procedure with “wait’ll you hear what the powers-that-be want us to do now!”

You may be been an active participant in trash-talking “them”. Not only can you not do this anymore, it may well be you that becomes the new target.

Your relationships will change. Some people will try to take advantage of you. Others will cut you off simply because “you’re not one of us anymore.”  Fortunately, there will be some good people who will continue to support you. Be prepared to adjust your socializing.

Your job is all about people. You’ll need to ensure that you have the time to manage them by effective time management, prioritization and delegation. Yes, you will need to delegate some of the technical tasks that you are really good at and enjoy.

You need to be a leader, not a boss. “My way or the highway” is not going to work well. You’re inviting passive aggressive behavior. Never underestimate a team’s ability to take down an unpopular boss.

You don’t have to know everything. People quickly see through bravado. Respect and appreciate other people’s knowledge and skills, and they will reciprocate.  

You’ll find that what seemed cut-and-dried from your previous perspective is a lot more complicated and nuanced. It’s great to work in an organization that handles individual situations with flexibility, but it also requires skill, time and patience. Not everyone will understand decisions you make that you need to keep confidential.

If you understand these challenges and still decide supervising is your next career step, there are skills that will help you to be an effective manager. But your first step is understanding just what you’re getting into. If your idea of a good job is that it would be great if it weren’t for the people, this is not the job for you.

Approximately 20% of the people who attended the Pre-Supervisor program decided NOT to become supervisors. Not only did this save the bank time and money, it spared people from becoming unhappy supervisors, or their unhappy employees. Considering we spend about 35% of our time at work, it’s important for all involved that the right people are in the right jobs.