A common complaint managers have about their supervisors is that they “don’t lead”. 

Usually, that means that they don’t take initiative, solve problems, provide direction, or set clear expectations with follow-up. Before looking at the supervisory responsibilities for leadership development however, it is important to consider the company and upper management role.

Are you sure that there is clarity around what you want supervisor leadership to look like and where the lines of control and communication lie?

It is very common for managers to say that they want supervisors to take initiative but when they do, clampdown and take that freedom to make decisions away. Click To Tweet

Once you have considered that possibility and adjusted for it, there can be quite a few reasons why a supervisor has difficulties leading.

Generally speaking however, these reasons usually fall into three categories:

  • Need good examples to follow

  • Don’t know the difference between operational excellence and leadership excellence

  • Unconscious emotional sabotage

In this article, I’m going to describe what each of these categories looks like and provide you with some actions you can take to correct the problem.

Category one: need good examples to follow

In this context, the supervisor wants to do a good job and has an attitude of support towards his/her team. It’s just that he has no or very few examples to look at and emulate. Often the only examples he has experienced are people not setting clear expectations, losing their temper when things don’t go their way, or avoiding.

When you have good intentions but no image before you about how to carry them through, it takes a lot of effort and self awareness to figure out how to get started. Not knowing or not wanting to put in that kind of development, the supervisor just continues the less impressive examples he or she experienced. The result? Same mistakes, and increasingly poor engagement or retention from the team.

What to do:

  • There are number of humorous YouTube’s that show bad manager examples. Showing one of them and then asking the supervisor what could be done differently or better can be helpful.

  • Take a look at some of the excellent examples in the book by Mark Breslin, “Alpha Dog”. There are some great stories and checklists that he created that give examples of how to do things right from supervisory perspective.

  • Take your supervisor(s) on a tour of another business and ask them to be prepared to report back on management and system tips they pick up during the tour. This can be surprisingly effective because most people think differently as soon as they are outside of their usual work environment.

Category two: don’t know the difference between operational excellence and leadership excellence

In our second example, the supervisor has had examples of good leadership and knows what is expected of him. But he doesn’t understand that people who are there for the first time or who have a different approach from him need a different kind of communication to get the job done. Once he knows what to do, he is happy to apply the skills, but he needs to be taught, have an environment in which to practice that doesn’t cause him to lose face, and where he can gradually reinforce the improved skill over time.

What to do:

  • Have a chat the supervisor about recalling what it was like to learn skills that he learned to be good at his job. Ask him what the beginning, the intermediary, and the mastery level would be and how they would show up in the workplace. This can help supervisors with setting appropriate expectations and with coaching their team towards operational success.

  • Meet one-on-one on a regular basis with your supervisor(s) to discuss management opportunities and incidents and help guide them towards more intentional actions that they measure for results.

  • Get them into a supervisory leadership training course! Management requires a new skill set that frequently has very little to do with being good at operations and being technically skilled. Management skills can be taught and most adults like knowing what the skills are so they have something to aim for.

Category three: unconscious emotional sabotage

For the final example, the supervisor will often have the necessary training, skills and good examples to follow. But for some reason there are areas of poor performance that just don’t reach the desired level of improvement. It appears the supervisor is “stuck”. You may find that you have already spoken to the supervisor on a number of occasions but it doesn’t seem to help. The same issues keep coming up even though generally, the supervisor is doing all right.

What to do:

Ask the supervisor the question “I noticed that this particular area seems to be difficult for you to master. What’s going on for you?” I would not be around the bush with compliments in the beginning. Just go straight to the issue and ask what’s going on. Chunk down what they tell you until you get to something they can actually take action on.

For example if the supervisor says, “I just don’t feel very motivated to do this”, ask “What feels demotivating to you?” Ask, “when you think about doing this task, how do you feel?”. Ask “On a scale of 1 to 10 how anxious are you about doing this task?” These kinds of questions help you get to the emotion behind what is sabotaging the supervisor in that particular area. Once you get to that emotional piece, you can ask “What is one thing you could do to feel more… (Confident)?”.

If you keep bringing the task back to the supervisor while focusing on increasing the emotions required to get the job done, it is better than providing your own suggestion which they can always dismiss is not working for them. There are however times when it is helpful to offer suggestion. Before doing so however, ask “I do have some ideas about this. May I share them with you?” This is important because people are open if you ask their permission to share advice yet they are not open if you just give it to them.

Your advice will most certainly be refused if you haven’t gone through the process of discovering what is going on emotionally for the supervisor first.

The sequence is: ask what is going on, chunk down the information, get a read on the emotional intensity that is likely the key to the sabotage, then ask them what action they can take to increase confidence, decrease anxiety, or both.”

In each of these categories there are actions you can take that have as a result an increased focus on what can be instead of on what can’t be.

I suspect that since you are reading this post, you are the type of person who wants to see leadership growth! And I have a masterclass for that!

Find out more about helping your supervisors to lead effectively, check out our masterclass on November 14 at 10:00 am MST:

Developing a leadership mindset: The journey from operations to supervisor thinking. Details and registration here.

About Marie:

Marie Gervais, PhD, CEO Shift Management is a business-to-business entrepreneur who specializes in helping employers train their middle management to lead, get their workplace learning online and interactive, and conduct team assessments to figure out who to promote and how. She has a background in integrating internationally-trained individuals to the workplace and has supported many businesses in their efforts to hire, retain, support and promote immigrant and diverse employees.

Get in touch – she would love to hear from you: marie@shiftworkplace.com or 780-454-5661