My first real stint at being a manager seemed like a contradiction in terms: I was supposed to supervise colleagues who were older and had more professional experience than I did. What did I have that they didn’t?
There was a faulty assumption lurking in my thinking that I needed to sort out. Being a supervisor doesn’t mean that you have to be smarter, better, wiser than anyone else. In fact, folks who think they are any of those things tend to make for pretty lousy bosses. I’ve come to realize that being a manager has a lot more to do with being willing to take on additional responsibility for the good of the whole and putting yourself in a position of support, not on a pedestal.
If you are new to the role of being a supervisor, experience has taught me that it’s important to learn how to say these three things.
1. Say “thanks,” and be specific.
Early into my current role, I attended a multi-day training for supervisors. We spent a lot of time discussing employee incentive schemes for improving morale and productivity. In the end, the training affirmed what we all know already: people appreciate feeling appreciated.
The type of appreciation that people appreciate differs from person to person, but usually it’s best to keep it simple: more often than not, save the trophies and the awkward solo-lunch-with-the-boss, and deliver an honest, sincere, and specific thank you.
A generic 30,000-foot-level “thank you for your good work” means about as little as it takes the effort to say. Instead, pay attention and take note of people’s individual contributions. What did they put additional care into doing? Take additional care, then, in calling that work out. A good thank you communicates that people matter and their work matters.
2. “How can I best support you?”
Take a close look at your new position description and the position descriptions of the individuals who now report to you. You’ll notice something if you look closely: it’s not nearly as much their job to work for you as it is your job to support them.
The top two things no one wants in a boss: someone who is either a micromanager or completely AWOL. What feels like too much or too little supervision can be very different from employee to employee by virtue of their personality type and experience level. Some people want more interaction and assistance from their supervisor and others value greater independence.
Don’t assume you know what each person needs and wants. Ask what you can do to assist them, and sometimes the answer might be to do less than is your instinct. Asking this question doesn’t mean that the supervisee determines the parameters of your supervision. Indeed, some employees may need more intervention than they want or ask for, but it’s a good starting point to approach supervision through the lens of support.
3. “Here’s the plan I propose, here’s why, and I welcome your feedback.”
Point #3 here is a counterweight to #2 above. Poor management, and along with it poor morale and poor productivity in a team, often is the result of poorly communicated expectations and direction. It’s vital to ask what employees need to do their individual jobs well, but it’s just as vital that everyone feels confident in knowing what the collective mission is.
It is inherent to the role of a supervisor to identify and articulate what is expected of your team as a whole and what each person is expected to do. The latitude that supervisors have to determine their team’s goals can vary widely, but it’s best to not “pass the buck” too often in blaming upper management for setting directives that you are now charged with executing. When possible, clearly state for your team the goals you are collectively working toward and the steps you propose to get there. Explaining the rationale behind these goals and steps can foster a sense of team ownership of the work.
In the case of changes that some might object to, it’s often better to explicitly acknowledge the changes rather than hope no one will notice or say anything. Welcoming feedback doesn’t mean that you will change the proposed course of action — in some cases it won’t be in your purview to do so — but giving people a chance to express their opinions, disappointments, and suggestions leads to a healthier, more trusting workplace culture and helps uncover better ways of doing the work.
Learn to say these things and say them often. They are some of the most important things you can say to the people whom it’s your job now to support.
But more than anything, learn to listen.