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National Association of Counties * Washington, DC / Vol. 30, No. 15 * August 10, 1998

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"Supervisot Needs Assistance" - "Supervisor Down"

Dear HR Doctor,

After years of hard work and great performance evaluations, I was recently promoted from a clerical position to supervisor. I now supervise five people who were my colleagues just a month ago. Already I worry that I will not be able to be a good supervisor and that I will make mistakes. My boss tells me not to worry and everything will work out, but I am concerned. Do you have any suggestions?


New Supervisor on the Block

Dear "New,"

Thank you for raising an important point reflecting a major mistake that we make as managers. It is particularly important that, when a vacancy for supervisor is to be filled, the best possible candidate in terms of knowledge, skills and abilities is selected. Not only is that best for the public service, but if you want to think of it selfishly as a manager, realize that by selecting a great new supervisor your own workload improves. You can focus on more strategic issues and spend less time on interpersonal squabbles yet, despite realizing this, there is a tendency to promote people who were excellent technicians doing their line jobs very well. After all, they know the work and are, therefore, in the best position to supervise others in performing that same work - at least that's what we think.

Unfortunately, it isn't long after the congratulations party is held in the office to celebrate that fine employee's new promotion that things often begin to go wrong. The new supervisor is no longer paid and assigned to perform line work. The skills that make the supervisor successful are the skills of interpersonal relations, as well as understanding the work.

The supervisor is a human resource manager in a very real sense. We often fail to give that person the tools and the support to be successful. The result is that the happy and confident performer we just congratulated begins to withdraw from confrontation, becomes less able to make a decision, or perhaps, begins adopting a "command and control" style in which he or she makes rapid decisions in a forceful style which has them labeled in the future as "dictators." Soon the manager is involved in counseling and corrective action for the increasingly frustrated new supervisor.

In effect, by failing to recognize the importance of providing very strong support and tools to the new supervisor, it is management that has created, if not contributed, to the dilemma. If action isn't taken to intervene and interrupt this negative cycle, the next gathering involving this new supervisor will not be a congratulations party, but rather a difficult performance evaluation meeting, if not a disciplinary meeting.

In law enforcement, no call is more serious to the officers in the field than "officer needs assistance" or "officer down." Such a call generates instant response from all available personnel who rush to the scene, render immediate aid and address the problem vigorously and professionally.

It is time we recognize that a similar situation exists when we ask people to perform supervisory or management duties for which they are not prepared and for which they are not well supported.

Sending an untrained, inexperienced police officer to the scene of a difficult law enforcement problem alone and without backup is a foolish action, which no police administrator would knowingly condone.

Why don't we realize that the same thing holds true with "dispatching" a new supervisor without training in supervision and interpersonal relations, to the scene of a difficult new task? What can we do to avoid calls such as "supervisor needs assistance" or "supervisor down?"

First, the selection "tests" in choosing a new supervisor should not be limited to the candidates' technical competence as a line worker. When a job analysis is performed before recruitment begins and an up-to-date job description is present, it will accurately reflect the "KSAs" - the knowledge, skills and abilities - required for the work.

The job description of a supervisor needs to clearly reflect the essential elements of interpersonal problem solving, communications clarity, conflict resolution skills, ability to set priorities and to coach and counsel others. The "tests" used in the selection process need to be built around assessing the strengths of candidates in these interpersonal skills areas.

The HR Doctor next recommends that an agency develop a new supervisor orientation program. In Broward County, Fla., this program is a formal, multi-week course required for all new supervisors. It is known appropriately as "Positive Start."

The curriculum covers how to identify liabilities and control them, the importance of role modeling and guiding others in an ethical and professional manner, conflict resolution, guidance on the resources available to help the supervisor and various exercises in developing the self-confidence and the skills needed for success.

Information about "Positive Start" will be gladly "dispatched" to you if you contact the HR Doctor.

Second, supervisors, in particular, need to understand the fact that they are agents of the organization. They are, as the Latin-speaking attorneys reading the column will understand, "respondeat superior." That is, when they act, it is really the county government that acts. When they know of a problem, such as sexual harassment in the workplace and they "walk by" and take no action, it is the county that is taking no action and ignoring the problem. This failure dramatically increases county liability.

New supervisors need to understand the primary expectation that they will be positive agents for the organization and not "walk by" something that is wrong. Their job is to stop, interrupt negative performance or behavior, and take corrective action.

However, they need to understand where to go for help and how to do these sensitive interventions. The organization must provide such assistance. It is unreasonable to expect that any supervisor, let alone a new supervisor, will be equipped to deal with the most difficult interpersonal problems without support and backup. The agency must clearly convey to the supervisor that there are sources of help available. Major sources of help include - of course - human resources.

A strong HR function will include a professional assigned as the "duty officer" - someone available at all times to any manager on any given day to present a problem and discuss risks and alternative solutions. No one can stand alone effectively in the human resources area, but contacting a colleague with the skills and experience to help makes the job much easier.

The same is true for a strong employee assistance program where advice on behavior, coaching and counseling should be readily available. A legal advisor from the county attorney's office may also serve as a valuable resource for a supervisor.

The point is, there are many sources of help in the organization, but the new supervisor needs to know how to access this help and needs to feel comfortable in doing so. "Calling for backup" must not be viewed as failure or as an admission of inability. Quite the opposite is true. The best managers and supervisors recognize a problem that is a potential high liability and seek out advice and help from others.

Third, the new supervisor's greatest source of help should be his or her own manager. The manager must be a mentor and a coach with an open door policy, offering free and immediate access to the subordinate supervisor.

An open style of communication sends an important message to the new supervisor that says, "I want you to communicate with me and I need your advice and information. We are a team of 'two' with a mutual responsibility of success of the agency. I want you to be a success as the new supervisor."

The way to ensure that happens is for problems to be identified early and for the right intervention to occur rapidly.

The HR Doctor recommends regular meetings with supervisors individually, as well as in a "staff meeting" setting. The meetings need to feature a restatement of work requirements, goals and objectives. These goals must include measurable progress "milestones." How will we know when we are being successful? When progress is evident?

The meetings need to include recognition and reward. When goals are not being met, the reasons why need to be explored in a professional and collegial manner and steps taken to amend unrealistic goals or address the reasons why the goals are not being met. The manager needs to regularly ask how things are going and "what can I do to help you?"

All of these supportive steps need to be done in an atmosphere of mutual respect. The new supervisor needs coaching and needs to know how he or she is doing in the eyes of the boss.

The agency has a responsibility to provide answers to this question and to equip the new supervisors with the skills and the tools to get their work done. Doing the job right the first time saves everyone from wasting energy and becoming frustrated.

All of us, at times, will have to issue a "supervisor needs assistance" call, but the best managers try to "get in front" of such calls by appreciating the concerns of their subordinate supervisors in advance and taking action without even being asked.

The HR Doctor recommends that every organization assess how well it provides this kind of support for new supervisors. If the assessment comes up short, take steps now to prevent much greater problems later.

Best wishes in your supervisory career and never be afraid to ask for help.

The HR Doctor


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