My Heroes: Line Supervisors
by Shaun Kieran

IIt’s been said that the postmodern world is a world without heroes. Some folks think that’s actually a good thing, while others – including me – think it’s beyond sad. Partly it’s about definitions of course, and it’s true that we’re not slaying monsters or planting flags in unexplored territory these days. But I will say my own work brings me into contact with some folks who regularly walk into situations that would bring a lot of people to their knees - situations filled with interpersonal conflict, anxiety, rage, nastiness, and sometimes even physical danger. I’m talking about some – not all – of today’s workplaces, and my “hero” in our postmodern world is a line supervisor trying to get it right. Just my own little piece of knowledge about what’s going on “out there” makes me amazed at what supervisors confront every day. More than ever, direct supervisors take the “hit” – the personal struggles, social problems, and cultural baggage our fellow citizens increasingly unload at work. Workplaces used to be separate worlds where personal reticence and social decorum provided a not-that-invisible shield which spared them – mostly- from immaturity and psychodrama. That’s sadly not true any more.

Granted, it hasn’t been a Leave it to Beaver world for some time now, but these days a supervisor needs to selectively ignore all kinds of personal foibles that used to be cause for discipline if not outright dismissal, while being a paragon of virtue him or herself – if only because even a minor supervisory misstep can open an organization to major liability. All the while line supervisors oversee - and are held responsible for - a major portion of their organization’s work product. Every year I encounter more and more people who shake their heads about the experience of being someone’s supervisor and say something to the effect, “no thanks” or “this is NOT fun, I can’t do it anymore.” Yet it’s also true that every year, bless them, other people step up and take the plunge anyway. It’s been genuinely rewarding to help some of these people sort things out, find their bearings, and move forward - and why coaching line supervisors is virtually my favorite coaching mission.

Of course, some supervisors are naturals. They’re comfortable inside their skins, they understand people intuitively, they know the work, don’t get fazed easily, etc. My un-scientific count says we’re talking less than ten percent here - maybe five. It’s actually good to know we’re still producing those folks. The rest are thrown into the crucible – deadline pressure, skeleton crews, mixed signals from above, worker immaturity, inability to hear criticism, betrayals, c.y.a. behavior, and overall lack of adult accountability. Amazingly, some come through it fine – actually thrive on it - but sadly others become shell-shocked, bitter, cynical, and - worst of all - stick around to inflict their unhappiness on those who work with them. The destructive power of a troubled supervisor is an awesome thing, and to this day I still can’t decide whether a bad supervisor is ultimately as comprehensively harmful as an inept parent, but it’s close.

Human encounters in the workplace have been one of my staples for many years now. As an Employee Assistance professional, “job one” for me is to help employees whose personal problems may be affecting their ability to perform at work – either by talking with them directly myself, or funneling them to the right services. But the line between performance problems and personal problems was never totally obvious or clear cut, and is even less so today – which leaves many managers feeling hung out to dry as they attempt to sort out what’s theirs to deal with, and what they shouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. That’s when it helps to be able to consult with someone they trust. In an ideal world, that’s their own boss, the person they report to. Here in this world, that may not be a live option – for a variety of reasons. Sometimes there’s an HR person who’s sympathetic and helpful, but sometimes that’s not possible, either. That’s where I come in.

My favorite coaching “niche” focuses on supervisors who want to get the job right – both for themselves and the employees who are counting on them. For me, having good supervision when I was just starting out was critical – it helped me get my legs under me, develop trust in my own judgment, and cope with all the unhappy people in a tough world. Some of the most appreciative clients I’ve ever had have been supervisors who’ve run into career-threatening problems, and who were wise enough to see it, and go get some help. When I’ve helped a supervisor, I know I’ve done a good thing because I’ve helped more than that individual keep his or her bearings – I’ve also helped the employees whose lives are being affected every day. It can hardly be overstated. A troubled or inept supervisor harms many people if he or she doesn’t get some help, and a good supervisor is as good as gold – and given what goes on at work these days - a true hero.

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