The Supervising Series | Defining Culture and Establishing Boundaries as a Supervisor (in Training)

In our last two articles in the Supervising Series we explored how to identify, communicate, and act on your career goal of becoming a supervisor. Let’s fast forward, assume you’ve achieved the opportunity to serve as a supervisor, so now you get to just tell people what to do all day, right?! Well, that’s definitely one way to go about things, but as the old saying goes “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”.

As a supervisor you have the privilege, responsibility, and challenge of setting a tone and curating a culture, whether that be one of support and collaboration, or hierarchy and toxicity. With that in mind, I provide a few considerations and resources for those embarking on their first supervisory role. These are by no means “must do’s”, but rather concepts to explore and use as you shape your supervisory style. Supervision is part art and part science, and truly as unique as each individual in the role. Additionally, supervisory style is not stagnant, it will continue to evolve with you as you gain experience and have the opportunity to supervise (and manage-up) more individuals over time.

Look where you came from in order to see where you’re going
Take some real time to reflect on your own past supervisors; think about their actions or words that were most impactful on you (both positively and negatively). Consider:

  • Were there techniques they employed with you/your team to help build rapport? 

  • Did they have a knack for providing critical feedback that helped improve performance? 

  • How did they demonstrate gratitude or praise for good work?

Take your favorite approaches and make them your own. And in that same vein, keep in mind the ways that former managers negatively impacted your joy for work and be diligent to not repeat these habits. 

Be clear but not concrete
Establishing a culture requires clarity, however it does not have to be written in stone. Consider:

  • Recognizing your own values and expectations is important for identifying the culture you would like to imbue for your direct reports. Additionally, understanding the values and expectations of your direct reports will help you in refining the culture that fosters the highest levels of productivity and collaboration. 

  • Foundational elements of your culture (i.e. attire in the office, answering emails only within business hours) can be set forth both verbally and by role modeling. Communicating key elements to new hires early can help folks acclimate quickly and feel comfortable finding their groove. 

It is not a one-size-fits-all approach and should evolve to suit the needs of your collective team and job responsibilities over time.

Boundaries are essential, but don’t have to be a barrier
Whether you’ve been promoted within your organization and are now overseeing former peers, or you are the “new kid on the block” and working to develop relationships in a whole new organization it’s important to identify and establish appropriate boundaries for yourself and with those you supervise. This doesn’t require being cold/standoffish, or developing a hierarchical methodology to communication, but it should establish that you (as a supervisor) can provide feedback and push your staff to achieve and accomplish. If you become friendly, or even close friends with your staff, it should not impact your ability to hold your staff accountable to their responsibilities in the workplace. For some individuals, in particular those that are being supervised, this can become murky, however, others may understand that your relationship will, and should, look different in and outside of the office.

Supervision is both challenging and rewarding, but if it is “too easy” then you may want to evaluate your approach. Becoming a strong supervisor is like building muscle -- you have to work at it consistently. Ultimately, the best type of supervisor is one that is always a work in progress, and open to feedback from their supervisees.

Alex Brown is a member of the AHEPPP Board of Directors and the Senior Director for Student Alumni Programs & Family Engagement at UCLA.

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