Supervisors supervise

My subject line comes from Esme Raji Codell’s novel Sahara Special about the very wonderful teacher Miss Pointy. When a talented writer in her class neglects her journal, Miss Pointy merely comments, “Writers write”.

Supervisors supervise. It sounds obvious, but not all supervisors do it. Over the course of the past eight years of being a Youth Services Supervisor, I’ve come to realize that it’s a lot more work than I initially thought! I mostly think of it as heading up a group of very talented, smart, dedicated staff and working together with them on behalf of our patrons. Mostly, that is how it works.

But along the way, I’ve learned from an excellent supervisor (my own) that being a good supervisor takes more. It requires doing a lot of thinking about what direction you want your department to head, and communicating that to your staff. You have to listen to their concerns and their ideas and be willing to let your vision be reshaped. You have to respond to billions of emails. You have to keep track of money and time and manage schedules–ugh.

The hard part, and the one that’s really easy to neglect, is offering thoughtful feedback. It’s where the supervision comes in. Checking things off on a performance review isn’t enough. You need to tell each staff member what they’re doing that’s great, and take the chance to compliment their qualities that you especially appreciate. But you also have to work with them to set goals, because setting and fulfilling goals is a big part of what makes work satisfying. In this more collaborative, democratic work environment, actively supervising can feel a little authoritarian, but it’s a necessary part of the process.

The worst thing you can do as a supervisor is refuse to supervise. It makes staff feel adrift, like no one knows what they’re doing or cares. If they have a strong work ethic and a strong sense of self, they’ll continue along okay, but they won’t rise to their potential. Worst, though, is when a supervisor neglects staff, and doesn’t point out problems. Maybe you want to be nice, and you don’t like offering criticism. Maybe you know you should say something but you don’t feel up to it today. Maybe you hope it will get better if you give it time. Maybe you just live in oblivious-land until the neglected employee finally does something you notice, and then, watch out! Suddenly the neglectful supervisor overreacts and nobody comes out happy.

Hiring a great staff and ignoring them is like planting a garden and refusing to water it. Supervisors supervise.

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