Helping a rookie supervisor around the bases


Some people step into the job of supervisor and instinctively know how to manage people. But most of us find our way by trial and error.

Last week’s column dealt with the workplace turbulence that can arise with a new supervisor. This week, let’s deal with how employees can help the supervisor — and themselves — succeed.

Why help a fumbling new supervisor? Let me answer that with a question: What’s the worst that could happen?

You lose a little time and put in a little effort and she continues to struggle. Maybe she improves slowly or someone decides she shouldn’t be a supervisor. Either way, you don’t lose much by helping her.

And someday you may be the new supervisor, so how would you like to be treated?

Let’s look at what happens if you do your job and do nothing to help or hinder. You won’t be criticized, nor will you be thanked. If you make her new job difficult, your co-workers might approve but the top boss will justifiably tag you as a problem.

If you volunteer to explain a few things, offer to help when you can — and don’t act like a sycophant or take advantage of the situation — it will be appreciated. You have nothing to lose by doing the right thing for the business regardless of whether your new supervisor survives. And there is nothing to be gained by being a jerk.

In the worst possible situation — your new boss has no experience as a supervisor and knows nothing about the industry or product — the top boss knew all of that when he made her a supervisor. If you thought you were going to get the job, then you have some tough days ahead.

Making your new supervisor’s job difficult will not result in you getting her job if she fails. So give yourself a week to fume about the injustice. But then you need to commit or start looking for another job. What won’t serve you well is acting aggrieved. At this point, how you decide to act will make your situation better or worse.

How can you help a new supervisor succeed? Be open minded, cooperative and willing to explain terminology, forms and processes. Your new supervisor may be an expert in your industry or product but will still have to learn the language, methods and peculiarities of your department or company.

Don’t make your first meeting a recitation of all your complaints and expect her to make your issues her top priority.

Alert her to any problems on the horizon. If you can suggest a solution make sure you explain the effect it would have on co-workers, other departments and customers.

New supervisors tend to be too nice or too mean. Too often they want to shake things up before they really understand the work and why things are the way they are. Even if the changes are a mix of good and bad, focus on the good. Remember that criticizing someone’s ideas makes them want to prove you wrong.

How long should you tolerate shortcomings? Things should settle down within six months. I am not saying that a new supervisor will become fully competent in six months, but she should have her footing and be able to handle the routine work of supervising within six months.

When should you alert the top boss of big problems? When it is clear that the new supervisor is intentionally doing things that are illegal, contrary to company policy or will damage the company’s reputation — and you know your supervisor is aware that what she is doing is wrong.

But, the top boss may not thank you for informing him. Doing the right thing doesn’t always pay off immediately.

What are the signs that you should start looking for another job? I have seen employees so frustrated with their boss that they couldn’t enjoy life, and their families were tired of hearing about the latest dumb thing the boss did or said. And I have watched employees change physically — they looked beaten down — as they tried to hold on to a job they used to love but had come to hate because of problems with a boss.

If the top boss is happy with your supervisor and your supervisor has settled in for the long haul — but you go to work with a sour stomach every day — the time has come to look for another job.

Virginia Detweiler, based in Walla Walla, provides human resource services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington with her firm HR Partner on Call. Her columns rely on reader questions and comments for topical material. Contact her by email at or phone at 509-529-1910. Because of job and employer sensitivities, care is taken to protect identities.


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