Characteristics of Effective Supervisors

Whether you oversee a whole department of employees or one assistant manager or an ever-changing group of volunteers, you as a supervisor are ultimately responsible for the work of others. This takes skill and experience, yet most co-op supervisors end up in their positions without training or clear expectations of their role. Their difficulties are compounded when those they supervise were formerly co-workers on an equal footing in a situation without personal accountability. As a consultant for co-ops and other small businesses, I encounter the most confusion in the following areas:

Setting Standards

As a supervisor it's your responsibility to clearly and consistently uphold work standards for the people you manage. Standards define the quality and quantity of regular work that an employee is expected to maintain on the average. Failure to meet standards indicates that an employee is unable or unwilling to do the job. Standards can be quantifiable -- items rung per minute, frequency of bank deposit errors, amount of cheese wrapped on a shift, margin achieved on health and beauty aids. But standards need not be strictly measurable; they could be general descriptions of behavior expected in such subjective areas as customer relations, produce displays, newsletter layout, phone manner. And you may have to use subjective standards for those areas which the co-op does not yet have the sophisticated systems to quantify, such as speed of cashiering, o/s rate on popular products or spoilage in produce.

(Objectives differ from standards in that they are targets, goals to strive for, and they are largely determined by the co-op's short and long range plans. The objective-setting process is outside the scope of this article.)

Developing standards: While you may not singlehandedly develop the standards for your work group, you certainly should have the major voice in the process. Effective supervisors consult with their employees because the people doing the actual work are often good judges of what is possible under existing conditions, and because workers who are involved in the establishment of standards are more likely to feel a stake in maintaining them.


Characteristics of Effective Supervisors

Eugene Jennings of Michigan State University conducted a study of 2700 supervisors selected as most effective by both top management of their companies and by the people who worked under them. These supervisors also met effectiveness criteria in terms of department productivity, absentee rate, and employee turnover.

Traits and Behaviors (in order of priority)

  1. Gives clear work instructions: communicates well in general, keeps others informed.
  2. Praises others when they deserve it: understands importance of recognition; looks for opportunities to build the esteem of others.
  3. Willing to take time to listen: aware of value of listening both for building cooperative relationships avoiding tension and grievances.
  4. Cool and calm most of the time: maintains self-control, doesn't lose her/his temper; can be counted on to behave maturely and appropriately.
  5. Confident and self-assured.
  6. Appropriate technical knowledge of the work being supervised; uses it to coach, teach and evaluate rather than getting involved in doing the work itself.
  7. Understands the group's problems as demonstrated by attentive listening and honestly trying to project her/himself into their situation.
  8. Gains the group's respect, through personal honesty: doesn't try to appear more knowledgeable than is true, not afraid to say, "I don't know" or "I made a mistake."
  9. Fair to everyone; in work assignments, consistent enforcement of policies and procedures; avoids favoritism.
  10. Demands good work from everyone: maintains consistent standards of performance; doesn't expect group to "take up the slack" from a low-performing worker; enforces work discipline.
  11. Gains the people's trust: willing to represent the group to higher management, regardless of agreement or disagreement with them.
  12. Goes to bat for the group: will work for best and fair interests of the work group; loyalty to both higher management and the work group.
  13. Humble, "not stuck up"; remembers that s/he's simply a person with a different job to do than the workers s/he supervises.
  14. Easy to talk to: demonstrates a desire to understand without shutting off feedback through scolding, judging, moralizing.


However, this is not to say you can leave work standards up to individual discretion, since you are responsible for ensuring that the quality and quantity of work meet the needs of the co-op. Also, don't expect new workers to participate in developing their own work standards. They should first learn to perform up to prevailing standards before giving input on how they could be changed.

Implementing standards: You must affirm the standards at every point in the process of personnel management. When hiring to fill a job opening, you specify the job requirements, i.e. the experience or training an applicant must have in order to be given further consideration. Then the final selection, in which you should have a deciding voice, is made with reference to these requirements.

In training, whether you do it yourself or delegate the task to others, the work standards become the criteria by which you determine the success of the training. You spell out what the new worker should be able to do after being trained.

All new workers should receive the standards in writing so that they know in advance what you and the co-op expect of them. In evaluating new and experienced workers alike, the comparison of their performance to previously established standards goes a long way toward ensuring objectivity and fairness on the part of all evaluators.

Beyond periodic evaluations, the supervisor has an even more important (some would say the single most important) obligation -- providing ongoing, frequent coaching to help the worker improve and maintain satisfactory performance. This implies the existence and affirmation of known standards. Extensive research and our own experiences tell us that day-to-day feedback is a far more powerful motivator than once or twice a year performance evaluations.

Motivating Workers

Fran Tarkenton, former NFL quarterback and now management consultant, said: "There are three basic elements in the employee's environment that the manager can change to improve performance: 1) the example that the manager provides, 2) the direction provided to the employee, 3) the consequences that follow the performance."

Setting a positive example means living up to the standards you ask of the people you supervise -- always coming to work on time, refraining from lengthy personal phone calls, treating customers helpfully and respectfully. Don't underestimate the subtle, even unconscious, effects of your behavior. If you moan and groan when you have to work the cash register, talk cynically about "the customers," fail to attend member meetings, or regard floor work as "paying your dues" toward a higher status job in the office, how effectively can you motivate workers to put priority on customer service?

Providing direction includes prioritizing projects and daily tasks, and establishing standards and objectives. Research results demonstrate fairly conclusively that performance improves significantly when employees have specific goals and improves even more when they participate in setting the goals.

Of the three elements of motivation, providing consequences is probably the most powerful and the most overlooked. Often supervisors assume that because they don't control the reward system of their organization they can't bring about meaningful consequences for excellent work. Most co-ops are saddled with pay scales based on seniority or "equal pay," extremely limited resources, and multiple decision-makers on internal hiring.

But this needn't keep you from giving positive reinforcement for what employees do well and specific feedback to improve their performance. You can give intangible but highly valued rewards to the people you supervise by letting them know what you appreciate in their work, giving them public recognition, asking for their opinions, listening attentively to their ideas.

Some situations that call for positive reinforcement are:

  • work beyond the call of duty, more than might reasonably have been expected;
  • work that consistently meets your expectations, showing commitment and dependability;
  • creative ideas or suggestions, solutions to sticky problems;
  • signs of improvement, however slight, from a below standard performer.

You may feel that problem workers would take any recognition of improvement as a signal that you'll settle for inadequate increases in quality or quantity of work. On the contrary, results of behavioral research indicate that people try harder when praised and that marginal performers will continue to improve.

To be an effective motivator, your praise has to be specific, timely and sincere. Focus on single actions, recent events and contributions of real value to the co-op. Don't wait for formal performance evaluations and don't give out "marshmallows," all sugar and no protein-generalized statements without reference to specific behavior.

Workers also need your constructive feedback that lets them know exactly what to do to improve performance. The guidelines for criticism are the same as for praise. Be specific, be timely and relate the desired improvement to the needs of the co-op. Constant informal coaching takes some of the fear and intensity out of periodic performance evaluations.

In cases of repeated violations of agreements, chronic failure to perform up to standards, and acts of misconduct like theft, harassment, drug use on the job, your co-op's disciplinary action policy should give you the authority, indeed the duty, to document the problem, issue warnings and initiate firing procedures. But punishment, while necessary in such cases, does not in itself motivate good work performance. All it does is get someone to stop doing something you don't want. To help the worker to replace the undesirable behavior with something better takes coaching and positive reinforcement, where warranted, on your part.

Conflict Resolution

When conflicts arise between workers you supervise, you are responsible for seeing that the quality and quantity of work does not suffer. This includes preventing the conflict from involving more people -- co-workers, board, members and costing a lot of work time. You are not responsible for seeing that people like each other or feel good about the situation.

Too often inexperienced supervisors feel they have to play Solomon and get bogged down in disputes about who said what or did what first. You are not a staff therapist or even a mediator. Aim for structural solutions before personal ones. Refer back to the job descriptions and work standards. Revise job descriptions if necessary to clarify and perhaps differentiate tasks to remove some of the friction.

When one employee complains to you about another, budget your time for listening to complaints and enforce the time limits. Ask her/him to state exactly what s/he is asking you to do. Then make a decision on the request in the light of your role and responsibilities as a supervisor. There are no sure-fire solutions to personality conflicts, but you can minimize your own headaches.

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