How to be a Great Supervisor

Aerial photo of Hornbake Plaza at night

We have learned over the years that there are definite approaches to supervision and managing employees that work better than others. Of course, schools offer degrees in this area, so we have cornered the market on "what works".

The following are tips, some of which were generously borrowed from Dr. Elliott Jaffa, which describe characteristics of great managers. We chose these because they make sense to us based on the kinds of situations we have seen at UMCP and the effectiveness that these approaches appear to produce.

Characteristics of Great Managers

They understand that their first priority is maintaining productive relationships with their employees.

It is only through these relationships that the second priority "getting the work out" can be accomplished.

They give clear instructions. 

Do not assume that employees automatically know what you need.

Catch the employee doing something well.

This helps build their self-confidence and self-esteem. It also goes a long way in helping to build the relationship between the two of you (see above).

Take the time to listen.

How to Be a Better Listener Using Active Listening Techniques

Stop Talking This is usually much harder than you think

Relax the Person Ask them to sit down, make them comfortable, exhibit inviting body language

Don't interrupt - use silence

Empathize by reflecting their feelings. Do not say: "I know how you feel." Do say: "It sounds like this makes you frustrated, angry, overwhelmed, etc."

Paraphrase - repeat back to them what you heard them say

Ask open ended questions. Prompt them to continue speaking with who, what, where, why questions. Talking is therapeutic.

They are calm, non-reactionary and mature.

Remember you are supposed to be the adult, which removes your luxury of being able to react emotionally to situations.

They are confident.

They are able to express confidence and to infuse their employees with the same hope and confidence about their abilities to get the job done.

They can coach, teach, and evaluate.

A difficult and time-consuming task, but always worth the time put in up front. Not only will employees learn how to do their job better, but it also communicates your interest in them.

They are not afraid to delegate. 

The biggest mistake that new supervisors make is to think that they have to do it all themselves. This usually drives those employees you supervise crazy. 

They gain understanding of problems through active listening. 

See above. There is no way to solve a problem unless you understand it. Make sure to get input from as many people as possible within the department, because there will be as many different views as there are people.

Earn respect through honesty by not being afraid to admit mistakes.

Saying "I don't know" or "I made a mistake" goes a long way. Your employees know when you have anyway, so why not be human and admit it?

They are fair. 

Be careful about preferential treatment. It tends to be a blind spot for many of us.

They demand good work from everyone and don't tolerate lazy performance.

It is a shame how many good and productive employees we lose on campus every year because they were infuriated over seeing some employees do nothing -- and be allowed to get away with it! There is no one to blame in that situation other than the supervisor.

They support and back up employees to upper management. 

There is nothing worse than a supervisor who takes credit for the work performed by his/her employees. It is a guaranteed way to lose whatever trust you had. Look for opportunities to shine the light on them. Without always having the ability to reward financially, this is sometimes your only means of recognition.


They are sought out by employees and easy to talk to. 

Again, because they know that you are concerned about them.

Negotiating Conflict At Work

This is an area that has received a lot of attention lately due to an increase in expressed frustrations within the workplace, and the knowledge that there are effective techniques to address differences. We have seen an increase in "workplace complaints" that have come to the FSAP in the past five years. Our approach is to sit the parties down together and attempt to mediate the personal and/or work-related concerns. There are many resources on campus that offer services to supervisors for handling workplace difficulties. In addition to the FSAP, there are Ombuds Officers for Faculty (Dr. Ellin Scholnick at x51901); and Staff (Cynthia Tucker at x50805); and Graduate Students (Dr. Barbara Finkelstein at x53132); Staff Relations (x55651); and the Center for Leadership and Organizational Change(x55249) which can conduct retreats and work with departments on larger-scale problems.

Supervisors should not feel that they are alone in addressing any on going concerns. The easy way out is to ignore the problems, however, this only postpones more trouble down the road. Be pro-active and address workplace concerns and conflict. Your employees will appreciate the effort.