I have the privilege of teaching a supervision course this spring and a couple of my students asked: “Why do supervisors not perform a better job of supervising?” Having been a rotten supervisor earlier in my life, I think I have the shell of an answer that might be of benefit to my students and of benefit to my fellow supervisors-in-training.
It is not that supervisors and managers are all sadists and sourpusses, or that they wake up each morning wondering what vile and disgusting things they can do to the people they are charged with supervising. No! Rather, I think, the answer is that supervisors were either never trained to practice good human relations, or they think they are already “Saint Supervisor the Perfect.” In so thinking, they stop daily learning and growing as supervisors, managers and leaders and inevitably slip backward, taking their people and organizations with them.
Think about it, if you are a supervisor, were you promoted because of your incredible human relations and personnel management skills, knowledge and abilities? Or were you promoted because you were the most able to do the job? In most cases, it is the most technically competent and productive people who earn the promotions, not the ones best trained for leadership.
So, how then do most people learn to be supervisors? Most learn the same way that one of my children learned how to swat mosquitoes. Let me take you back to the summer of 1986. It is a hot June day in the Golden Heart City, and my mother-in-law is in the kitchen making cookies while my wife and I are taking down a mirror in preparations to wallpaper the bedroom; my 3-year-old is at our feet copying grandma hunting for mosquitoes. When my mother-in-law would smack an insect, she’d shout, “Gotcha!”
My little one, mimicking grandma, shouted in a squeaky little 3-year-old’s voice, “Gotcha!” and successfully smacked a hapless mosquito. That poor, squashed mosquito happened to pass between a hammer (somehow captured by my child) and our now shattered bedroom mirror. While my 3-year-old’s instincts were right, his implementation of mosquito swatting strategy was somewhat flawed.
By observing Grandma, the little one learned not to let mosquitoes breed in the house. By watching grandma, the child learned how swat them, but unfortunately missed a few nuisances of the art of mosquito management. Like my 3-year-old, far too many supervisors in Fairbanks seem to be using “hammers” to knock “mosquitoes” off their employee’s foreheads rather than gently brushing them off. In so doing, supervisors defeat the very outcomes they set out to accomplish.
Supervisors with a temper, who shoot from the hip, who exhibit favoritism and who use threats and coercion are using “hammers.” These tactics may get rid of employee behavioral irritants, or “mosquitoes,” but they also leave a trail of shattered employees. Unfortunately, these hammer-handed supervisors are like grandmas and teaching their next generation of supervisors how (not) to supervise.
Instead of spending all my time using my hammers to try and get my employees to stop being irritating mosquitoes, I have learned mosquito infestation prevention. There are some screen doors that supervisors can employ in the workplace that are very effective in keeping irritations to a minimum. The obvious list begins with clear communication channels, honesty, fairness, being available and visible, having a vision, good values and the self-control to consistently act upon those values.
Charle Dexter is a professor of applied business emeritus. He may be reached by email at email@example.com. This column is provided as a public service by the UAF Community and Technical Colleges.