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Posted by on Dec 19, 2012

How to Improve as a Supervisor

It had been a long, eventful week and I was greeting the weekend from the comfort of my favorite chair with a cappuccino when my wife came into the room to tell me she had discovered a secret of life.

Well, two, actually, but the second is the point of this blog.

OK, if you were wondering what the first is, it’s to do work you love. That’s actually very relevant to supervising people, but we’ll have to come back to that one another time.

For now, here’s the secret – the second one — she wanted to share: Hang out with really great people.

Having just returned from a reunion of Georgetown leadership coaching program types, and feeling the intellectual and emotional stimulation of a truly phenomenal bunch of people, I could really relate to Secret No. 2.

So what about you and supervision?

One thing I’ve noticed is that when we – anybody – spends time with negative, cynical, never-satisfied, complaining, low-horizon, don’t-bother, ain’t-it-awful, let-go-of-hope, bitter people, (and I think younger people sometimes refer to “The Haters”), we can find those parts of ourselves emerging. It’s like we fall into sympathy with the mindset, and may starting thinking to ourselves (or expressing to others), “You know, it actually really is pretty bad when you stop to think about it.”

Whether you call it mood contagion, the bad apple in the barrel, limbic system resonance or anything else, it’s a very real effect.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. And here’s something of a secret supervisors can use: Find other supervisors who are known for being great and buy them a coffee. Make it a good coffee. You know, a gourmet coffee.

And while you’re having this coffee, ask them about how they supervise others.

In doing this, you are going to hear the source code for great, effective behaviors and communication that work. This source code is the content AND structure of their thinking – how they interpret challenges and opportunities, what they have already experienced, assumptions they make, how expansive and accurate their perspective is.

Let’s say you’re struggling with two employees who are locked in conflict. You want to tell them to just get back to work, but you know that’s a little unrealistic. Easy, but not effective.

You may hear your new best friend say something like: “I always ask each of them to just listen completely to the other person – no interruptions allowed – go away for a day or two, and then come back and respond.”

The genius in such a move is that people really have to open up to the other perspective, and instead of deflecting that with arguing or mental gymnastics, they have to sit with it for a while. In such a context, they may start to see at least seeds of truth, and even if in a begrudging way, start to open up to a different way of seeing things. They also appreciate having their day in court to tell the story from their perspective with no interruptions.

This is just an example – there are easily hundreds, where someone playing the game at a higher level can give you some tips and ideas. I always say the best moves are stolen – no one has a patent on wisdom.

Another example might be that you are confused about what motivates employees. Another supervisor might ask you, “Have you asked them?”

Just four words might create the shift for you.

If you play tennis you know there’s a standard recommendation that if you want to get better, play against someone better than you. You are forced to raise your game.

So, find other great supervisors, find a good coffee shop, spring for the gourmet coffee, and access the source code of a later version operating system that they find runs well.

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