The Courage to Supervise

by Shaun Kieran

“Courage” may seem a bit dramatic, but it gets at a truth.  Supervisors do more than simply manage workflow or carry out orders from on high.  Supervisors are the daily human face of the organization and, because of the way people are wired, virtually take up residence in a portion of an employee’s brain.  It isn’t exactly a parent and child relationship – obviously – but many elemental feelings are the same.  Some supervisors instinctively “get” this without even thinking about it; others are aware of  the reality of those kinds of feelings and aren’t that bothered by the fact that it’s true.  But some supervisors are very aware, very much affected by it, even burdened by it, and keep pretending or wishing it wasn’t true.  It weighs them down.  The very worst situation is when a manager is totally oblivious to his or her own psychology – not just that of their direct reports. They truly don’t realize at all how relentlessly real that dimension is – but cluelessly make unnecessary mistakes that quickly ripple through the workplace.

Obviously, supervisors are not – and shouldn’t be – therapists. The need to focus on the work, not the “soap opera,” is precisely what makes the workplace a healthier place for many to spend time than their own home.  Structure, expectations, clear communication, civility, respect, problem solving, candid feedback, real deadlines are all crucial to how people rise to the occasion, concentrate, cooperate, and accomplish tasks.  The healthy workplace expectation of emotional maturity turns out to be good for people.

The courage part comes when a supervisor must deal with an employee who can’t – or won’t – see that their feelings are interfering with receiving work-related feedback as intended. It would be comical if it didn’t so often become deadly serious.  Some employees get so upset –  frightened, anxious, wounded, angry, resentful, or immediately adversarial – that even the most diplomatically expressed constructive criticism is interpreted as a personal attack.

Sure – there are many human layers involved: people have personal issues with authority, they have political beliefs about management and labor, they have their own issues with self-esteem, they have addictions, they battle depression and mental illness, they have very real family relationship problems, etc.

It can be exhausting.  I’ve seen supervisors get intensely angry, get depressed, get anxiety attacks – wish they were anywhere but where they are.  The big thing is that emotions run so high it affects short run judgment – and mistakes get made.  Some of those mistakes can haunt the supervisor for a long time.  Obviously, it helps if the supervisor him or herself has a good boss, but too often supervisors feel criticized, isolated, and hung out to dry.  They tend to nurse their wounds privately.

Scared yet?  Obviously, it doesn’t have to be that bad.  Many people have eased into their supervisor role, had good support, good experiences, learned as they went along, and came out fine.  Sometimes it’s about weathering that first crisis  – about your employees, your bosses, and most importantly, about yourself.  That’s partly how people like me have come into existence – to provide direct employee assistance and workplace consultation – so that the learning is allowed to happen.