Be a Better, Adaptive Supervisor

Following is an interview gleaned from a podcast with Lyn Freundlich, director of administration and human resources at TSNE MissionWorks. TSNE’s Denise Moorehead spoke with Lyn about supervision, what makes a good supervisor, things that supervisors can do to help their employees be more effective and ways to incorporate supervision fully into the life of a nonprofit organization.

Following is an interview gleaned from a podcast with Lyn Freundlich, director of administration and human resources at TSNE MissionWorks. TSNE’s Denise Moorehead spoke with Lyn about supervision, what makes a good supervisor, things that supervisors can do to help their employees be more effective and ways to incorporate supervision fully into the life of a nonprofit organization.

Denise: There is hardly enough time in a day or a week for supervisors to get their own work done. How does a manager find time to provide supervision that is truly beneficial to her or his employees and organization?

Lyn: I get asked this question a lot, and there is not a magic answer about finding time. The truth is that good, effective supervision does require time.

Our minimum ideal, our minimum expectation, is that supervisors meet with their staff individually, one-on-one, at least half an hour every other week. And in addition to that time there is preparation for the meeting, time needs to be spent doing that, and then there is time following up for the supervisee and for the supervisor.

I understand that people are really, really strapped for time, and ultimately I think this is a fabulous investment. The more effectively we supervise our staff, the more effectively we are able to do our work. And so in the long run I think the time is well spent.

Denise: Many employees say that they don’t see the value of supervision, though. It seems punitive. So what is supervision anyway?

Lyn: Often when we do trainings we make people say the word supervisor. Particularly in this nonprofit culture, people look for euphemisms: Let’s check in. This is my colleague.

And I think it’s really important that we use the words supervisor and supervision because it clarifies our relationship. And I think by doing that, and making it more normative, the idea that supervision is punitive starts to diminish.

I also think that when employees get good supervision they realize that it’s not punitive, it is actually very helpful. Supervisions can spend–should spend–time with their staff doing problem-solving, brainstorming, planning for the future. None of those things are punitive.

Denise: When is a supervisor going beyond the bounds of appropriate supervision?

Lyn: Appropriate supervision is an interesting concept. One of the things that we like to do when we’re training is help supervisors identify their preferred style of supervision:

  • Where they’re most comfortable
  • How they behave most comfortably and most naturally

[Once they do this] supervisors should then stop and think about what each individual staff person needs and learn to adjust their style to meet the staff person’s needs. So, it would be inappropriate for a supervisor to say, for instance, “Okay this is how I am. I’m your boss, and you have to deal with it.”

It’s much more appropriate for me to think about the people I work with and what they need from me and how to be most effective with them.

Denise: Can inappropriate supervision go the other way, in the other direction? You were saying it is inappropriate for a supervisor to take a “do what I say” stance like some parents might do with their kids. But can you go the other way and perhaps be a little too chummy and not draw the line appropriately?

Lyn: I’m sure that could be the case. And again in the nonprofit sector, in particular, when our relationships tend to be more informal, there’s always the risk that any collegial professional relationship can become “too chummy,” as you say.

That said, I think the better we know the people we work with – and that includes supervisors and supervisees – the better we know them as full people and the more effective our working relationships will be. So, as long as we’re able to retain effective working relationships, have professional disagreements, those sorts of things, I think we’re on safe ground.

Denise: That’s good to know. What role should a supervisor play in supporting employee development?

Lyn: I think it’s a key and critical role for supervisors to work with their staff to identify their own professional goals, where they’d like to go, what they’d like to be able to do and then to help staff figure out how to get there. Organizations benefit when supervisors do this, because an organization is able to retain staff more effectively.

I also think the whole sector benefits. There’s a lot of research out there talking about a projected leadership void, a leadership gap. I think the more that we can do as supervisors to support emerging leadership through professional development, the better situated the sector will be for the future.

Denise: What are some of the best practices that a supervisor can employ to help employees develop their skill? And perhaps, as you speak about it, you can give us some specific examples.

Lyn: Sure. Again, I want to go back to figuring out, as a supervisor:

  • What is most effective?
  • How I can be most effective, given an individual employee’s needs?

What is effective employee development, effective professional development for one employee, may not necessarily be effective employment development for another.

Some employees really benefit from directive supervision, from being shown how to do things and learning to master skills that way. Other employees are at a point where they do best if supervisors delegate broad responsibilities. [These employees do best to] have the opportunity to plan and implement their own progress.

[Supervisors] want to think about each employee’s strengths, and should ask them, “What would you like to learn? How do you learn best?” This supports employees as they develop [career and specific job] skills.

I think it’s always beneficial for supervisors to look for opportunities for staff to grow and to shine and to think creatively beyond the bounds and the scopes of a typical job description.

For instance, you may have a receptionist that does a good job as a receptionist but doesn’t want to be a receptionist all the time. There may be opportunities for [him or her] to develop skills that require being away from the reception desk. Help [him or her] to think creatively about how can you can provide opportunities for growth – and not be boxed into our idea of what the job should entail. This can support employee development.

Denise: Since so many nonprofits are strapped for cash, supervisors hear the phrase “employee development/professional development” and get very nervous. They say, “That’s not something we can afford to do.” Can you talk about some low-cost, or no-cost, things employers can do to support an employee’s professional development?

Lyn: Absolutely. And I think the reason why people panic is because they think employee development means that they need to send [employees] to trainings. They think they need to provide tuition reimbursements to increase their education.

And certainly training and educational opportunities are valuable, but what I think really helps employees develop is experience. So supervisors should look for opportunities for staff to gain new experience. That is probably the most effective, and low-cost, piece of work they can do.

Employee development may be:

  • Teaming an employee up with someone they don’t usually work with who you agree they can learn something from.
  • It may be giving them opportunities to do something beyond the scope of their work. To try writing something for a publication or doing public speaking or training if that’s not ordinarily part of their work.
  • And then, whenever employees are stretching, it is important for the supervisor to give them clear feedback, so they can learn from the experience. Then the next time they have the opportunity, the employee will be able to take those learnings and improve their performance, improve their ability to do something new and different.

Denise: What do you think is the most important thing supervisors should understand about their role? 

Lyn: Supervisors often have multiple responsibilities. They have their job, as they see it, and then supervision, which can feel like something that’s tagged on.

In fact, supervision should be considered part of the whole job. The way that I look at it: We, as supervisors, will be most effective when staff we work with are doing the best job possible. 

Denise: Thank you Lyn for speaking with me today. I certainly learned a lot and I imagine [those accessing your advice] will as well.


Lyn Freundlich presents special workshops on Effective Supervision and Advanced Supervision for our Better Nonprofit Management Training Series. Learn more about the series and register for her workshops here.

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