Supervisors: Can They Be Nice People?
by Shaun Kieran

Of course they can. I’m obviously being a bit provocative with my title, and if you’re one of the lucky folks who have had positive experiences either working for, or being, a good supervisor yourself, you know it’s true. But I guarantee there are many, many other people out there who base their own doubts about the truth of that statement on direct, sad experience.

In fact, some of the most poignant moments from my early EAP work came from seeing the disillusionment and sense of isolation so many line supervisors experienced after a few scorching encounters with angry, unhappy employees It’s a jolt to anyone’s self-confidence, in addition to being a real blow to idealism and optimism for human advancement. On the ground, it can turn really tragic when supervisors transform their own early encounters with their employees into imagined "lessons" about people which lead to bitterness, passivity, cynicism, and generally adopting an authoritarian style. "When I was nice they took advantage of me, and only when I got tough did things turn around." That may literally be what happened, but you absolutely don’t want to go where that ultimately takes you.

Granted, part of being a “nice” person is about temperament – some people are more naturally sunny or cheerful, and it shows in the way they handle themselves around others. They definitely have a leg up on those who may be more reserved or guarded in their demeanor. And to be clear - there are plenty of supervisors who are good human beings even though they’re not particularly touchy-feely, and don’t go around with a plastered-on smiley face. My obvious point is that a) nice is a good head start, and better than not nice, and b) nice does not mean being stupid or a pushover.

The absolute key to having a reasonably successful career managing others begins with understanding that workplaces are mini "cultures." That means that the mood, the general atmosphere, at a workplace is as "real" as any other variable, and that a major piece of that atmosphere is shaped by the personalities of the people who supervise. The perfect situation is when the tone is set from the top - a group of supervisors who support, encourage, teach, coach, and use mistakes as opportunities to get things right and learn. These places do exist. Sadly, some workplace cultures are so laden with anxiety and anger you can cut it with a knife, and supervisors who should know better give off those feelings, rather than buffer their employees from them.

This understanding about cultural atmosphere by the supervisor is not simply an intellectual one, and doesn’t rest on book learning or formal education; in fact, it’s better when it operates at the gut level. There are always times when crucial projects generate deadlines and pressure, and Lord knows, virtually no one’s sitting around twiddling their thumbs these days. But a workplace that’s in relentless "push" mode which also allows people to be unpleasant - even rude - to each other, is doomed to endless breakdowns, open conflict, resignations, firings, and workers comp claims Workplaces that are respectful and have firm cultural rules about conduct - both explicit and implicit – are truly more productive, have fewer behavior problems, and retain higher quality people.

Yes, in a large workplace, supervisors may not have much actual control over what goes on, but they do have control over themselves, or more precisely how they manage themselves. Does that mean supervisors have to put on an act? The real answer is yes, sometimes, a bit, although it’s the kind of "act" most people appreciate instinctively and don’t see as being phony. It’s a commitment to being a grownup focused on the work, and virtually everything good follows from that.

Today’s workplace is more informal and, I suppose, more relaxed than ever, and seems to invite people to be less inhibited about expressing a wider emotional range. Some people say more about their love lives, family conflicts, money troubles, politics, and emotional demons than their co-workers need or want to hear. For better or worse, workplaces are charged up with emotional energy that is unavoidably contagious. And while it’s true that most supervisors understand that they should mostly downplay their own emotions, employees are uncanny at noticing and gauging the mood and stress levels of supervisors. Some supervisors choose not to be aware of this, but they do so at their peril. What’s unfair is that being cheerful and positive is good, but doesn’t guarantee success; being difficult or troubled or unreasonable or arbitrary guarantees problems, including explosions. Because of this, supervisors who are not managing themselves well will find reasons to be elsewhere - in meetings, offsite, or staying behind closed doors - and tend to focus on their own workloads. Big mistake. When things get edgy or stressed, that’s when supervisors need to be walking around, checking in, offering help, saying “thank you.”

It’s amazing how many employees react badly to even the most mild, diplomatic criticism. That’s another one of the ways things are different from the "good old days."

Some of them are aware they’re playing games, but some employees can never admit to themselves even the slightest under-performance. The bad news: it’s likely to be that way a long time into the future. The way forward: no matter the provocation, it should never be about who the supervisor likes or doesn’t, or who schmoozes whom, or even the pressure on the supervisor from on high - it’s about the work itself. Supervisors who succeed, convey engagement – not phony gung ho, or Type A obsessiveness – with doing the work, and getting it right.

If this is beginning to sound like 50 other supervisor manuals you’ve read, it’s because the manuals are right. Having been through this from every angle, countless times, it simply turns out that supervisors with the best success and fewest problems sit comfortably inside their skins, display confidence in the employees and their skills and abilities to do the job, know and want to know what’s going on, and truly try hard to help their people succeed. There are many personality types, and it may well be true that extroverts have a small advantage in a workplace setting, but the distinguishing quality possessed by good supervisors is that they are trustworthy in the workplace. They don’t "play favorites" in the clutch, don’t get rattled easily, are clear-eyed about the work, and know good work performance when they see it.

That’s why a person doesn’t need to be angry, scary, and heavily authoritarian in order to motivate people. When problems pop up, as they inevitably do, not only are those problems minimized by the "cultural groundwork" that’s been laid, but they can also be dealt with as if they’re right out of the manual – problems to be solved, policies to be fairly applied.

The focus is on understanding what’s going on. If it’s a behavior issue, it’s a performance problem. If the performance problem is caused by a personal problem, "here’s the number to our EAP." It’s not about getting on the supervisor’s good side, nor is it about the supervisor somehow cajoling, pleading, or counseling the employee. Reasonable expectations, clearly communicated, are good for the workplace, and good for the employee.

It’s not always a snap, but it isn’t that hard. If you concentrate, and have the honesty and courage to sort things out as you really see them – rather than how you want to see them – you’ll be fine. And that’s what people use me for, to help them get their bearings, to get into sync with the connection between managing ourselves and managing people. We need all the well-adjusted, emotionally healthy people we can get into those supervisor slots. The whole world needs them.

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