How Being a Supervisor Made Me a Different Subordinate

When I sent Dan Rockwell an email yesterday to elaborate on a question I had raised at the Leadership Freak Coffee Shop, I said “I have been meaning to write a blog post about how my experience supervising employees changed the way I behave as a subordinate.” Although this weekend and the first weeks of 2011 have handed me plenty of other “seeds” from which blog posts could grow, this one is begging to be written.

Photo Credit: anankkml

From the time I started at Healthy Kids in August 1994 until November 2009, I was supervising employees. The number varied, and sometimes there was a supervisor between me and the more junior employees, but I always supervised. Before that, I supervised telephone counselors when I was with the Telephone Counseling and Referral Service (TCRS) (now Big Bend 211). Prior to TCRS, I was a resident assistant/head resident at college starting the summer after my freshman year of college. This period that started November 2009 is the first time I have not been supervising anyone since I started at Healthy Kids, and concurrent with that move I got a new supervisor. 

One of Greg Smith’s specialties is “employee retention,” and I recall reading in his Navigator Newsletter a few years ago his “Top Ten Reasons Employees Quit,” in which he discusses the results of a retention survey he conducted. Thirty-five percent of respondents answered “yes” to the question “Was the attitude of your direct supervisor/manager the primary factor in your quitting a previous job?” I suppose my opportunity to retain staff through my attitude has come and gone for now (read my attempt to reconcile that here). Now I find myself on the other side, as a subordinate, and I see things through a different filter.

Communication

Doesn’t it all boil down to this in the workplace? I know I am sending a whole lot of communication up. I understand, more than I did before, that it is my responsibility to rescue the things that get stuck in the flood of information with which my supervisor has to contend. We have all seen (or heard), “well, I don’t know, the revisions have to be approved by a supervisor – I sent them last week/month/year and haven’t heard back.” Even ultra-organized supervisors can lose track of a project task in the midst of competing priorities and urgent issues. Help them out – remind them tactfully and do not use them as an excuse for a stalled task.

Values

One of the very first things a new enrollee in Florida’s Certified Public Manager program does is an exercise in “motivators.” You list the top five things that motivate you in the workplace. The class combines all of the motivators, and the instructor presents the results. Whereas the common thought is that “money” would always be number one, that is not consistently the case. Other things like “encouragement,” “flexible time,” and “opportunities to learn” are equal to or more important than money. When I supervised, there were some things I would not have been able to give even if I had been convinced they were a particular employee’s biggest motivator (for example, I did not have the authority to allow anyone to telecommute), but I tried to be in tune with people’s motivators. This is an area where I see even more clearly from my not-a-supervisor role how disappointing it is when my values don’t seem to be taken into consideration. It reminds me of a time a decades ago when I was a kid — I was with my mom at my grandparents’ house (where we spent many weekends) and my mom had decided not to take me to youth group at church – I think a grandparent was ill or in some way more needy than usual. I said to my mom, hoping to be supportive, “I love you,” and she immediately said back, “I can’t take you to youth group, that’s it.” I guess she thought I was trying to suck up and earn the youth group trip; my motives were completely misunderstood. Workplaces that really try to understand what makes their employees “tick” and support that will get heaps of productivity out of those grateful employees.

Shared Vision

I suppose, in the past years, I was pretty oblivious to the fact that fellow staff and the people who reported to me did not necessarily feel “signed on” to the mission statement that I had helped write before many of them were affiliated with our organization. More recently, we had a consultant come in and work with management (director level up) on mission, vision, and values as part of a strategic planning process. Being part of that process meant a lot to me; now I sense a bit more acutely what the people who were not invited into the process must feel. While it may not be logistically possible or practical to gather every single employee around the table, it’s important that development of (and implementation of) organizational mission be “real” to everyone who works for the organization, whether they stamp the envelopes or sign the paychecks.

Pressure

One of the biggest ways in which my view has been refined is the fact that when you are between more senior management and less senior staff, you are constantly having to customize the message given to the junior people to leave out content that is not pertinent to them and/or will create unnecessary concerns or distractions. Now that I am only on one side of that equation (the “less authority” side), I seesaw between understanding that my supervisor has pressures that influence the tasks I am given and result in things that are in actuality relatively low priority being given a high priority “label,” and having an almost compulsive need/desire to know what’s behind the messages I am given.  Employees like to understand the “why” behind their assignments. Except in the case of some very delicate information, employees can be trusted. If your employee is that untrustworthy, perhaps there are other issues that should be explored. 

Am I a better subordinate for having also been a supervisor? I would say the jury is out. While the jury deliberates, I will take some guidance from Tenzin Palmo, who wrote this in Neighbors Are Our Practice:

“Everybody encounters in their life people who seem to be born only to have the function of pushing all our buttons, who seem motivated to be difficult and to cause us problems. Instead of making us angry or wanting to retaliate, these people are actually our greatest spiritual friends. Because while it’s very pleasant when everyone is being nice to us and all the situations in our life are running smoothly, we don’t learn anything.”

Do you have any insight to share with me from a similar time in your life? Any experiences discovering that someone who “pushed all your buttons” turned out to be your “greatest spiritual friend”? Tell me about it in the comments!

Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many.