Is active supervision slowly dying?

Many new job entrants say they receive far less supervision in their first jobs than interns, who are around for a few summer weeks.

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“We had to fire her, because she kept taking her phone out in client meetings.”  “He doesn’t communicate.”  “He’s got a weird understanding of ‘casual Fridays’.”

These are all quotes about newly-hired employees we see in the workplace.  Like our peers, my company invests significant time and dollars to recruit superstars who will dazzle our clients and enrich our culture.  And, as at many companies, new hires often report “being thrown into the deep end of the pool” immediately.  Most survive this first-week immersion, and learn the ropes the hard way (which tends to indelibly sear the lesson into the most enduring part of the brain).

But even if this “immersion” ends well by producing a battle-tested professional, the unanimous opinion of all involved is that we could have done better: easy questions went unanswered, deliverables were unnecessarily re-worked, and team relationships suffered due to unexpressed expectations or ungiven feedback.  Why does this happen in so many organizations?

Here’s the honest answer I didn’t want to acknowledge at first: for a host of reasons, on-the-job supervisors are not actively supervising like they used to. We’ve neglected to appreciate – and reinforce – the critical task of supervision, and this ultimately hurts organizations.

To fully process that simple premise, we need to get clear on something: what does supervising entail? For the purposes of this article, we’ll boil supervising down to just two behaviors: providing clear expectations up front, and giving feedback when those expectations aren’t met (or are met).

So why have we ignored this age-old skill – supervision – that transcends centuries and industries?  I found several obstacles hampering active supervision.  Here they are:

Supervisors are producers, too

Few new-age companies have the luxury or the culture of separating the coach role from the player role.  One of the players is often assigned the coaching role, and is expected to do and supervise the other doers.  It’s easy to see how this quickly devolves into the “supervisor” doing the bare minimum (administrative time reporting enforcement, forwarding emails of policy changes, and annual appraisal-writing).

Remedy: Instead of assigning a supervisor, formally offer the supervisor role, and provide time to do it.  Some benchmarks support at least 20% of time to be freed up for supervising.  Make it clear that this is a real leadership role with path to advancement, and is a career-worthy activity.  Also, don’t assume the top individual performer will make the best supervisor.  Good supervision and top individual performance don’t always correlate.

Supervisors assume expectations have been set by someone else

Human Resources provide basic company orientation, and frequently, supervisors assume this includes giving each new hire a set of job expectations.  But that assumption is false: the centralized corporate organization can provide only those expectations that are universal, which are a poor substitute for the expectations of the project team and role within it. 

Remedy:  Institute team-based orientations, in both group and one-on-one sessions, where the team and the supervisor can articulate explicit expectations about work norms, role expectations, and deliverables.  Assign a first-month ‘buddy’ employee to give the new team member a safe place to ask questions.

Supervisors expect that new team members are experienced professionals

Every supervisor’s first priority is to get the team to finish the job, on time, with no defects.  (Some supervisors consider that the only priority, and don’t see growing good employees as a priority at all.)  In my first job out of college, I learned much more than technology and business skills.  I learned about pinpoint shirts, when to thank clients for paying for our dinner, and the difference between billable and unbillable time.  My supervisors taught me those lessons.  When a new college graduate hits their first job, the supervisor’s first response may be to give them a desk and put them to work, assuming the expectations are clear, and that the employee is an expert professional.  In this environment, the art of good first-job supervision has perished. 

Remedy:  Explicitly distinguish between starting an experienced professional and starting an employee new to the work environment.  This is tricky, since not all experienced new hires are veterans of all work environments, nor are all college hires devoid of professional experience.

Supervisors find it uncomfortable to give feedback

As we defined it above, half of supervision is providing feedback.  Yet, it’s challenging for a player-coach to tell fellow players how to improve their performance.  Today’s work environment heightens that challenge because it includes more social interaction than ever before.  Adding even more challenge is that feedback to career-starters is often laced with personal elements: etiquette, norms, and communication, which are all sensitive subjects to raise.

Remedy: Same as the player-coach remedy above: give supervisors some cover by formally designating their role, and offering them the job along with its expectations.

Taking pride in supervision has its roots in the centuries-old apprenticeship model, wherein a new worker spent time working alongside a veteran craftsperson, learning the job, skill-by-skill, scar-by-scar.  Good internship opportunities still live by this practice.  But ironically, many new job entrants say they receive far less supervision in their first jobs than interns, who are around for a few summer weeks.  This needs to change, and organizations need to take supervision – especially of career-starters – seriously again.

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