Getting Your Head Around Supervising–Episode #4 | Setting Boundaries

“What do good supervisors do to set boundaries that minimize mistakes?” That’s the question I left you with after Episode #3.

We unwittingly set the stage for our supervisory mistakes. Setting boundaries helps us minimize them and avoid a chain of calamities.

Think respect.

Boundaries are essential for supervisors and employees, so they can work together at top effectiveness.

On the surface, you might think that setting behavioral boundaries is simply a control tactic, the way supervisors keep their thunderous employee hoards at bay or imprison workers in the darkness of dreary, nose-to-the-grindstone tasks. Not so, at least not in a healthy workplace.

Actually, boundaries, when well used, build mutual respect between supervisor and employees that help everyone avoid making senseless mistakes.

We go to work to exchange effort for reward. It’s the same for both supervisors and employees. We do our best work when we believe that we’re respected for who we are, what we bring, and how we execute the requirements of our job. We determine whether or not we’re being respected by the way we’re treated, individually and in comparison to others.

Respect begets respect, that’s an easy principle to live by.

We earn respect in many ways as supervisors. Most often it’s about the way we treat people: our courtesy, acknowledgement, fairness, and courage to name a few. The platform for building respect, however, is in setting boundaries.

Set unifying boundaries.

Boundaries are limits supervisors set around acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, so employees know what’s within or out of bounds. This makes it clear whether or not it’s acceptable to:

  • Refuse an assignment or ignore required processes and practices
  • Be late or absent from work without notifying the supervisor ahead of time
  • Disrupt the workplace with distracting behavior
  • Barge into the supervisor’s office to complain, make demands, or interrupt
  • Demonstrate insubordinate, rude, or uncooperative behavior
  • Engage with others in ways not appropriate to the company culture or society

The potential list of work place boundaries is unlimited and no supervisor can or should try to figure them all out in advance. You’ll know when you’ve failed to set a necessary boundary when an employee crosses it , you’re caught off guard, and/or there’s been a negative impact on your work group. Some work groups, because of their make up, operate on few articulated boundaries; others need many.

They key is to be honest with yourself about behaviors you absolutely won’ t tolerate as the supervisor. Start by thinking about supervisors you liked and visualize what they did and didn’t accept from their employees. Then reflect on things you’ve seen and heard coworkers do that you know were off base. Then put together your list.

The preparing is always easier than the doing. Always remember that boundaries aren’t just about what makes life easier for you, the supervisor. They’re set to make the workplace a positive, safe, and relatively stress free place for your employees and you.

Your boundaries are there to insure inclusiveness, no bullying, fairness across the board, consistency in enforcing company policies, and a climate of mutual respect. When you have good principles-based boundaries, you have the foundation for teamwork, collaboration, and initiative that builds a sense of value and self-worth in each of your employees.

Boundaries matter.

Boundaries ensure mutual respect among supervisor and coworkers, so everyone can succeed. There need to be standards around quality of work, goal achievement, courtesy and fair treatment, respect for differences, and ways of speaking to each other.

The boundary-setting mistakes supervisors make often mirror Goldilocks sitting at the three bear’s breakfast table, deciding which porridge bowl to eat–too hot, too cold, and just right. Getting the boundaries set right is the next step.

So what are the boundary mistakes that supervisors make and how do you fix them? We’ll tackle that in Episode # 5.


Getting Your Head Around Supervising–Episode #3 | You and Your Mistakes

So what do good supervisors do when they make mistakes? That’s the question I left you with after Episode #2.

Supervising is murky. It doesn’t lend itself to measurement. Subjective evaluation, yes, but hard measures, not that I can see.

There are terrific books on how to become a great supervisor, like Marcus Buckingham’s First, Break All the Rules, but they aren’t recipes. You can’t put your interpersonal style, employee performance expectations, and feedback methods in a blender and serve up the perfect smoothie every time.

Doing a good job as a supervisor takes a realistic frame of mind, accepting that a lot of the time you’re good, sometimes even great. But there will be times when you’re woefully deficient, times your employees remember most.

You will make people mistakes, some big and others relatively insignificant. You’ll learn a ton about your employees and yourself each time you foul up.

Supervisors not cut out for the job don’t react well when they mess up. Some withdraw, lose confidence, wither, or self-flagellate. Others get defensive, resentful, or disillusioned.

Good supervisors see every misstep as a learning experience. They know how to recover. Their frame of mind is always focused on progress. When there’s a setback, a miscue, or a failure, they act fast.

Concede mistakes.                                                                                                        

Supervisors often derail their own careers because they’re afraid to make a mistake, especially with their employees..

Trying to be a perfect, by-the-book supervisor takes all the fun out of it. It’s a job more like white water rafting than a canoe trip. You get all wet, bounced around like a pinball, bashed against the rocks, and even thrown into the drink when you don’t hold on tight enough.

But, when you’re finally on dry ground, you realize how exhilarating it was: the risk, the camaraderie with your raft-mates, the demands of the river, and the courage you discovered was really in you.

Supervising is a wild ride. It tests you like the river. Your employees are about as unpredictable as the speed of the rapids and the rocks hiding below the surface. No one knows what they’re getting into when they agree to supervise.

We might like to predict how it will be and convince ourselves that we know what to do when the raft gets swamped. But we’re only kidding ourselves.

It’s true that some supervisor mistakes are more egregious than others. You can’t, on a bad day, speak abusively to an employee, even if it’s someone you and others believe has long needed a tongue-lashing. Abuse of any kind under any circumstance is both wrong and an indelible black mark.

You also can’t behave unethically: steal time, permit employees to break company rules, violate laws, and misuse company resources. These bad behaviors should go without saying, but I’ve read enough news coverage on errant business leaders to know that they need to be said.

Unless you want to make yourself into neurotic, hyper-controlling nut case, it’s just better to accept that you will make mistakes and do your best to fix them.

Think first.

Most mistakes that create employee problems come out of our mouths. We say the wrong things, at the wrong time, and in front of the wrong people in a tactless tone of voice, with bad body language, and without full awareness of the situation.

Sometimes we know right away that we bumbled, so we can correct ourselves. But most often, we don’t understand the impact until there are signs much later, signs that spell trouble.

We unwittingly set the stage for our mistakes by not thinking about the significance of what we, as supervisors, say and do. Clearly we don’t want to set ourselves up for calamity, but to avoid it, we need to adopt some important mistake-minimizing steps, like setting and maintaining boundaries.

So, what do good supervisors do to set boundaries that minimize mistakes? We’ll tackle that question in Episode #4.

Getting Your Head Around Supervising–Episode # 2 | It Starts with You.

What does it take to provide good supervision? That’s the question I left you with after

Episode #1.

The quick answer:  

Stay connected to the needs of your employees.

Supervisors affect the ability of employees to produce good work through words and behaviors that either positively or negatively affect self-esteem, self-confidence, growth, and optimism about their career future. That’s a very big deal, one that makes being a supervisor deeper than it may sound.

The you-role connection

Too many supervisors forget that they’re leaders. Their job is to create an environment where employees want to be followers, willing to stretch themselves to achieve results that will pay off and make a difference.

Earning that employee following starts with understanding what you do that attracts or repels it. There’s no formula for that, alas.

Supervisors need to face and master their hot buttons. There are employees who can spin gold out of straw (Yay) and others who inevitably turn gold into cow patties (Boo) because their work ethic and attitudes fall short of expectations. Some employee behaviors  may frost you, likely to bring out your worst. As supervisors, we’re all tested.

Each situation teaches you something important about yourself. How you handle each one showcases your respect for individuals, the team, the work, the company, and yourself. Strike the right balance and increase the depth and range of your following.

Supervising reveals what you stand for, the principles you won’t compromise. I knew what they were for me when I was willing risk my job or my influence to:

  • go to the mat for employees I thought were being unfairly treated
  • challenge policies that made it impossible for employees to serve the customer well
  • openly voice objections to  company mixed-messages that were demotivating

Being a good supervisor means getting over yourself.  Big shot supervisors end up as easy targets for undermining employee noise. Supervisors with humility earn the respect of their employees when it’s evident that they’re working to help employees succeed, not the other way around.

Getting it right

Every day supervisors need to make decisions and take actions that must balance the needs of the organization and their employees.

Good supervisors understand how to adhere to policies and practices without being shackled by them. They can resolve difficult employee problems without compromising the standards of fairness to others. They can advocate for their work group with upper management  without undermining others.

Good supervisors need to know what’s going on without micro-managing and to intervene for the right reasons at the right time.

On that point you may be asking yourself, “How do I know what to do, when to do it, and how?”

I’d like to say there’s a formula for that too, but there isn’t.

Every supervisor learns how and when to intervene by doing it. When you see, overhear, or sense a problem, need, or infraction, you must act.

Some situations require immediate action and others give you time to think. Getting it right is the challenge; mistakes are inevitable but rarely lethal.

Sometimes supervisors must be judge and jury, teacher and Dutch uncle, coach and referee, cheerleader and conscience. The buck always stops with you, that’s why you’re earning them.

Supervising people well (yes, they are people first) can be the most important contribution you make to their careers, even their lives. There lies the true weight of the role.

The payoff

With the challenges of supervision come great rewards, so remember to savor them: the satisfaction of seeing your employees perform at their best, of contributing to their growth and future success, and of discovering your best self  as you grow as a leader.

Good supervisors have the courage to do what’s right even when there’s a price to pay. They’re honest about their deficiencies and mistakes; care genuinely about their employees, even the one’s they don’t like or who fall short; and insightful about what’s really going on around them, enabling them to take the right action at the right time.

So what do good supervisors do when they make mistakes? That’s a topic for Episode #3.


Getting Your Head Around Supervising- Episode #1 | What’s Your Take?

Supervising  doesn’t seem that hard.  It sure didn’t to me at first.

I never set out to become a supervisor, but I always paid attention to the supervisors I had, particularly what I did and didn’t like about the way they treated me.

I figured that, given the chance to supervise, I’d just imitate the good and exclude the bad stuff. How simplistic was that?

Ah, the memories

I can recite with ease every boss who helped me improve my skills, build confidence, and prepare myself for the next, usually bigger, career step.

I also remember the duds vividly. If I were to sketch a cartoon version them, you’d see a clown, a sexist, a scaredy-cat who kept a log of his pocket change (Don’t ask!), a stuffed shirt, and an empty suit. Funny, isn’t it, how those ineffective supervisors live forever as caricatures and the great ones as idols.

You can probably make your own list of loser supervisors pretty easily too. You may still be working for him or her. The most important thing is not to become one.

That’s why I’m writing this series.

Embracing the gig

Supervision is an endless initiation, a testing ground for your ability and courage to own it as your profession.

If you’re lucky, you’re chosen to supervise work you know something about with good performing employees. Hardly anyone is that lucky.

Good supervisors learn, in short order, that their effectiveness hinges on how they connect with their direct reports. That includes demonstrating humility, sensitivity, awareness, firmness, consistency, and courage, delivered predictably and sincerely.

Good supervisors help their employees get better.

The big revelation

Supervisory success  comes down to [drum roll] actually supervising. Not pretending to supervise. Not over- or under-supervising. Not supervising some people and not others. And not giving up on it.

I wouldn’t write this, if I hadn’t seen it all (even done some of it) and the havoc not supervising creates.

Look at your list of awful supervisors, and you’ll see what they generally had in common: The inability to deal effectively with you and others around you.

Since employees do the work, good supervising is about delivering the support employees need to do it well. Employees don’t get the right work done just because there’s a goal, a productivity report, or an assignment made and checked on by the supervisor. They get it done because the supervisor figures out what’s in the way and removes it.

You don’t have to be called a supervisor to be one. Anytime you have a direct report, you’re a supervisor. You might have the title of manager, director, project leader, or even vice president.  In every case, you  have to supervise real people, so they can get the work done without imploding, rebelling, subverting, or hurting their careers, the business, and your professional brand too.

I spent over twenty years at a Fortune 500 electric utility company supervising both small staffs and large, multifunctional groups. I’ve supervised all kinds of employees in diverse functions, doing challenging, stressful, and important work against demanding timetables and performance goals.

Those employees counted on my direct or indirect supervision for their job success and satisfaction. That’s a pretty heavy responsibility, in my book.

How well you supervise underpins your career legacy.

The struggle

I’ve repeatedly asked myself:  “Why are so many supervisors poor or mediocre at best?”

Here’s my best answer:

Supervisors are often uncomfortable, even intimidated, supervising their employees. Why? Because people are unpredictable. They come to work with attitudes and expectations unique to them that need to be addressed.

People are a supervisor’s biggest challenge because, quite simply, they aren’t the same. They aren’t programmable, automated, or mechanized. They can’t be predicted with precision–not their output, their emotional responses, reactions, or intentions.

Every supervisor needs each person to function at his or her best every day and the only way to ensure that is to provide supervision that works for them.

The big question is: “How do good supervisors do that?”

Episode #2 will start to answer that question. Please come back.

When the Boss Is Out to Lunch, Share a Dish of Calamity.


Bosses are supposed to avert workplace calamity not cause it by being indecisive, indifferent, or disinterested!

Too many bosses insulate themselves from the real work their employees do, believing that it’s somehow not relevant to their job. They would be wildly wrong.

The price of neglect 

There’s nothing pretty about arms-length leadership. It frustrates employees and leads to problems. Employees pay up front and the bosses later, if at all.

I saw this firsthand when I spent a day in the field with Ed, an electric utility company serviceman in my department. At the time I was the new director of customer service where overdue accounts receivable were through the roof. I was supposed to fix that. “Really?” I thought.

For starters, the company needed to terminate electric service for accounts seriously in arrears, particularly businesses, in accordance with regulatory and fairness standards.

Part of Ed’s job was to collect or cut service, and I needed to see how the process worked. That day we had a cut order for an Italian restaurant that had defaulted on its payment arrangements several times.

We arrived to discover the owner was not there, even though he knew we were coming. It was about an hour before the lunch crowd was expected, so employees were scurrying to get things set up.

We told the restaurant supervisor what we were there to do. Once the employees heard, they started pulling out all the stops to get prepared.

To locate the meter, Ed and I had to walk through the kitchen past pots of marinara sauce and down a rickety staircase into a dark cellar divided into eight storage cages. That made me pretty nervous!

When Ed had found the meter, he yelled upstairs, “Are…you…ready?”

“Wait,” someone yelled, “we have to get the fish back into the freezer.”

A couple minutes passed before we got their okay, and everything went black.

We followed our flashlight back upstairs to find employees still doing what they could to protect the food and figure out how to handle things over lunch.

The supervisor knew we needed a check from the owner to restore service. He was making frantic phone calls trying to reach him. We explained that we’d be back early afternoon and hopefully he’d have a check for us.

When we returned, the owner still hadn’t been reached. The supervisor handed us a signed check for $500.00 made out to Sal’s Seafood. He’d crossed out the fish store’s name and wrote in the electric company’s. I really felt for him, but that wouldn’t fly.

It’s about being there. 

When that restaurant owner heard this story, he likely shrugged it off, making the utility company the bad guy. He wouldn’t be able to relate to how stricken his employees felt when the lights went out. He won’t have heard the complaints from his customers or seen them leave.

He might, in fact, have blamed his supervisor for being unable to talk us out of cutting the power. He probably wouldn’t praise his staff for saving his food inventory or finding a way to appease his customers.

When leaders aren’t in the thick of things, seeing them firsthand and internalizing their impacts, they never really get it. For proof of that, one episode of CBS’s Undercover Boss should be enough.

Frontline employees are the business.

The people who do the work are the business. Executives and managers direct. First-line supervisors and frontline employees deliver. When things go wrong, they’re the ones that execute the fix.

Arms-length leaders and owners are a liability to their companies. They drive employees out, discourage engagement, and compromise the health of the business.

Every owner and manager needs to get out from behind his/her desk and spend time with employees, seeing what they’re seeing, understanding what they’re doing, and finding ways to remove obstacles.

How about scheduling a day a month with one or two of your employees starting now? Or invite your boss to see what you do? You’ll never regret it!

Has there been an arms-length boss in your work life? I’m all ears!


People Problems Afoot? Get the Words Out! | Supervisors As Challenged Communicators

“I’m speechless!” Ever said that? It usually pops out when we’re given unexpected praise or are caught unaware.

Being “speechless” is a problem when we’re expected to say exactly the right thing when something important is on the line.

Keep your foot in your shoe. 

We rightly expect our bosses to be good communicators. We need them to solve problems and motivate us by saying the right things at the right time.

Being a good communicator isn’t just about stringing words together. It means:

  • Correctly sizing up a situation
  • Understanding employee motivation
  • Effectively assessing behavior
  • Internalizing different perspectives 

All of this needs to be done before we utter a word.

Words are powerful things.  

I make no excuses for bosses who are poor communicators, but I do empathize with them. Most bosses supervise others the way they were supervised.  They often get promoted for their technical competence not their “people skills.”

There are other contributing factors too:

  • Lack of training on how to use words effectively*
  • Inability to articulate performance behavior
  • Fear of employee backlash or criticism
  • Unwillingness to risk conflict
  • Arrogance and/or disregard for employees 

*(Communication training is a workplace staple, but it’s usually more about interpersonal dynamics and listening than about language.)

Here’s what this poor communication often looks like:

  • Your supervisor gives you no feedback on your performance during the year, then rates you “needs improvement.”
  • Your boss says nothing about your absences until you get a termination warning notice.
  • You report that you routinely hear inappropriate remarks within your team and your boss says or does nothing.
  • A work group employee is visibly despondent and the boss ignores the situation. 

It’s not that supervisors don’t want to address these situations. It’s that they don’t know what to say or how to say it. Their fear of saying the wrong thing outweighs the risk of having problems escalate.

The right words can turn straw into gold.

When you’re a supervisor, the company expects you to handle the people issues. That means you need lots of words in your tool kit. 

Supervisors need to know what to say and how to say it, using words that don’t trigger reactions they don’t want while getting the results they do.

Successful communication is also about how you start the conversation, tone of voice, body language, and your intentions.

Try these on for size: 

Situation: I had an employee who always over-explained things. It was starting to alienate colleagues and detract from her developing brand as a great project manager. She was a very sensitive person but unaware of this situation.

Communication: Beth, we’ve worked together for a long time. You know how much I count on you to get things done the right way. I’ve been paying special attention to your presentations over the past month and noticed that you give more information than your listeners want. I often see them tune out. Have you ever noticed that?[Nod]. I’d like to help you address that. Are you game? [Yes.] 

Situation: The company assigned a fellow to my workgroup to see if he could be “saved.” I asked to meet with him one morning and he came bopping into my office, quite care free. He said, “You wanted to see me, Boss.”  

Communication: Harry, I’d rather you not address me as “Boss.” [“Well, you don’t have to be thin- skinned about it.] After all, Harry, I don’t address you as Employee.” [He asks, “Then what should I call you?] Just call me Dawn. [Okay.] 

Start with you heart in the right place. 

Honesty and kindness can give you a pass when your words aren’t the best. Words that are clear, factual, and non-judgmental will serve you well. To be business fit is to stay current, fully equipped with the words you need to communicate effectively every day! Think Webster!

Can you share a time when words got you into or out of trouble? How would you assess their power at the time? This’ll fire up our discussion.


What’ll It Be? Truth or Lies? | Feedback as Career Currency

Are you tough enough for American Idol style feedback? I wish I were, but know I’m not. Applause and praise are what we want. Booing and criticism are not.  Truth is, the route to success takes us down both paths.

Eat up all your feedback. It’ll make you strong.

Successful people gobble up all the feedback they can get. Sometimes it’ll be negative feedback—criticism directed at their faults and shortcomings. Other times, it’s positive—praise for accomplishments and talents. They’ll take it all.

Without feedback, we can’t get better. So why, do we: Avoid it? Resist it? Contest it?

Because it’s scary. It’s likely to expose truths that we may not want to face or unsettle our fragile self-confidence.

The good news about feedback 

It’s simply information. The more specific it is to us and the situations we’re in, the more useful it is.

It’s ours to accept or reject. We’re the ones who process it, assess its validity, and apply what makes sense.

It’s alive! Feedback is a function of how we interact with others and perform at our jobs. Negative feedback one day can become positive feedback the next.

It’s also ours to give. We can even provide feedback on the feedback we’re being given—the content, the style, and the relevance.

It’s evidence. Feedback reveals the realities of our work environment—standards of behavior and performance, attitudes of bosses and co-workers, and the culture of our companies.

The bad news: All feedback is not created equal! 

The only feedback worth taking is delivered by good people. I mean people that we respect, who hold themselves and us to high standards, who are fair, balanced, and knowledgeable. It’s their feedback that can help us become more successful.

Feedback given from people who wish to demean, insult, ridicule, weaken, or control us is to be rejected.

The power of feedback is granted by us. Although some feedback may be hard to swallow because it forces us to take an honest look at what we’re doing, it should not be hurtful.

The best feedback is constructive and empowering. It gives you specific things to do, change, watch, master, and practice and a way to measure how well you’re doing.

How it works—No lies, Pinocchio! 

1. Years ago when I was teaching English, I gave a student a “C” for one quarter. She started sobbing. Her parents came to complain, expecting me to raise her grade. I explained that it made more sense to give her honest feedback on her writing now rather than wait for her to flunk freshmen comp on their dime. After all, I let my students rewrite every paper after I’d graded it, recording only the better grade. Her parents backed off. She worked harder and improved.

2. There was man in my department who had been second in command before I came on as manager. For years he had been responsible for the preparation of IT proposals that were all but incomprehensible. I gave him feedback and collaborative assistance. He refused to accept it despite the objective data. He was both unwilling and unable to see beyond his own reality. His career stalled and he retired early.

3. I had to face the hard truth myself as a corporate manager responsible for an organization of nearly 500. The managers kept coming to me with their problems, expecting me to propose  solutions. I was overwhelmed to exhaustion. One of the VP’s gave me a tough “behind the woodshed” talk about holding people accountable and not owning their problems. I listened, chewing on my lip pretty hard to keep from crying, and got the message. It saved me.

Open up and let the feedback in 

Our careers thrive when we get the right feedback at the right time by the right people. Asking for feedback is the best way to build your business fitness. Be specific. Say, “I would like your feedback on my work? How can I do better?” Honest feedback is money. When you get it, invest it immediately in yourself, and watch your returns go wild!

What’s the best or worst feedback you’ve ever gotten? What happened in the end? I’ve bet you’ve got some good stories!