Learning to be a Supervisor

Last week I went to a CPD25 training seminar on management and supervisory skills, which was led by Peter Williams who works as an Assistant Campus Library Manager at the University of East London. I was really looking forward to this session as I currently manage a team of library assistants as part of my new role as an Assistant Librarian, but supervising is still fairly new to me so I was hoping that this seminar would offer me some practical advice about staff management.

Peter began by outlining his career path and experience; he had worked at Senate House Library for six years, starting out as a shelver and then progressing to become a library assistant. He told us that he had never intended to become a librarian – at that time he was in a band and wanted to be a musician, and library work was just something he was doing in the short term. Peter made the point that as librarians and managers we should be aware that the people we supervise may not be as passionate about libraries and library work as we are. He pointed out that people who work as library assistants are often at different stages of their lives and are likely to have different attitudes towards their jobs depending on their priorities and interests. He admitted that he himself wasn’t always a model employee when he worked as a library assistant as he had poor timekeeping and was often off sick, and he said that he now wonders what he was like to supervise at that time!

In the end, Peter told us, his band didn’t get a record deal and so he decided to go for his Librarianship MA. After this he began working at UCL as the deputy supervisor of the Science Library issue desk, which was his first formal supervisory role. He was responsible for supervising several members of staff when they worked on the desk and he also had the opportunity to sit on recruitment panels.

He told us that at first he was quite self-conscious about the fact that he was now a supervisor and was slightly embarrassed about having to manage people. This resonated with me and I was glad to hear that someone else had felt this way.  One of my challenges as a new supervisor has been trying to balance my usual friendly, laid-back demeanour against having to ensure that people carry out my instructions, in addition to occasionally having to offer criticism. Although I always try to offer criticism in a friendly, constructive manner, I really don’t enjoying criticising others and would rather avoid it if I can.

Later in the seminar, Peter asked us to form groups to discuss the skills or traits that we thought a good supervisor should have. These are the ones which we identified:

  • Communication skills
  • Problem solving skills
  • Organised
  • Understanding of the pressures on team members
  • Good time management
  • Self-confident
  • Good listening skills (we thought that this ought to come under communication skills, but in practice often didn’t so was worth mentioning separately!)
  • Having an awareness of the work that your team members do
  • Approachable
  • Sense of humour
  • Negotiation and flexibility
  • Recognises and praises good work

Peter added that leadership, decisiveness and emotional intelligence were important in a good supervisor. He defined emotional intelligence as the ability to perceive and respond to emotions in others and in yourself and he referred us to Goleman’s five components of emotional intelligence:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Motivation
  • Empathy
  • Social skills

Peter said that self-awareness in this case is about having a sense of your own strengths and weaknesses; for example, he mentioned that he disliked conflict and preferred to avoid it, but he recognised this trait in himself and didn’t let it impact on having to deal with difficult situations at work.  I can see from this that one of my weaknesses is the fact that I don’t like giving criticism, but I recognise that I need to be aware of this weakness and overcome it in order to be an effective supervisor.

Angry manager

An angry, grumpy manager who shouts at his/her employees is a bad manager!

In terms of the other elements of emotional intelligence, Peter explained that self-regulation is about keeping your temper and controlling your emotions – an angry, grumpy manager who shouts at his/her employees is a bad manager. Motivation is about your own commitment to and enthusiasm for the job, while empathy is of course about considering other people’s feelings and motives. Lastly, social skills are defined by Goleman as ‘friendliness with a purpose’ and these are important when persuading people to do things or to accept changes in their working practices.

Peter said that all of the above traits of emotional intelligence could be learned or developed, and that one of the most important things to remember was to look at things from other people’s point of view as well as your own and to adjust your approach if necessary.

Peter then went on to describe his own supervisory style. He pointed out that some supervisors could be quite easy-going, while others could be stricter, but that there was no one right way to approach supervision. He described his own approach as follows:

Be flexible – if people need to leave early, for example if they have childcare needs, allow them to take a shorter lunch break so that this is possible. This approach can be helpful for you too if you also need to leave early one day. However, offering flexibility like this will also depend to some extent on the culture of your organisation. Make sure that you are consistent in what you do and that people don’t take advantage of your flexibility, and obviously ensure that the level of flexibility that you offer does not affect the service provision. To some extent, flexibility also has to be earned – for example, new members of staff shouldn’t necessarily expect to be offered flexibility immediately as they may first need to prove that they’re a consistent and reliable worker.

Don’t micro-manage – encourage initiative and try not to check people’s work constantly throughout the day. Times when staff do need to be micro-managed are when they are new or when a new policy or procedure has been introduced. Not micro-managing doesn’t mean not taking an interest in the work that your staff are doing – their work may sometimes be routine but you should never take them for granted and should always treat them with respect. Staff often have their own ideas and opinions about the way that their work is done and they may be able to suggest helpful changes or improvements. If you don’t take an interest in their work, this can be demotivating for your staff.

Encourage discussion and new ideas – as above, invite feedback from staff as to how procedures could be improved, as this can encourage them to have a sense of ownership about their work and help to build a productive team spirit.

Lead by example – for instance, if you want your staff to offer a high level of service at the issue desk, make sure that you always go the extra mile when helping library users so that you act as a positive example of what you expect. Don’t regularly arrive late to work unless you want your staff to think that this is acceptable. Also, it can help to show that you are willing to do some of the unpopular jobs that your staff tend to avoid (such as enforcing library regulations!), as this will show them that it is everyone’s responsibility, including yours.

Learn from your mistakes – it is inevitable that you will get things wrong as a new supervisor, but try to see your mistakes as opportunities to learn and improve.

Pass on as much information as possible – as a supervisor, you’ll be privy to more information than your library assistants and it is important to share relevant, non-confidential information with your team. This can be tricky if the culture of your organisation is quite secretive when it comes to sharing information, but staff will always talk amongst themselves in organisations and so as far as possible it is best to be open and honest with the people that you supervise. This encourages trust and helps to keep your staff in the picture regarding changes and developments.

I found the above advice to be really useful and I think that it would have been beneficial to have been given such practical advice about staff management while I was still at library school. Much of what we were taught on the Management module during my MA was quite general and in retrospect I don’t feel that we really explored the reality of what it is like to manage people on a day-to-day basis. However, perhaps this is something that to some extent can only be learned from direct experience of staff management.

In the final part of the seminar, Peter talked about the issue of poor performance and how to deal with this as a supervisor. He listed the most common poor performance issues as:

  • Making mistakes
  • Not pulling their weight
  • Poor timekeeping
  • Personality clashes
  • Personal hygiene
  • Spending too much time on the Internet

He said that the first step to dealing with a problem is to collect evidence. With something like timekeeping, this is fairly easy as you can keep a record of when someone is late, but the issue of someone not pulling their weight can be more tricky because the evidence may be subjective.

Once you have gathered evidence, Peter said that you should speak informally and privately with the staff member in question – and face-to-face, not via email! First ask them if there is a problem – for example, if they are consistently late, it may be because they have childcare issues or other problems at home. Alternatively, if they’re not pulling their weight with a particular task, it may because they don’t fully understand what they need to do and they could benefit from some extra training.

If there are no problems such as the ones outlined above, Peter said that it is important to make clear your expectations and explain to them, in a friendly way, that you’ll be monitoring their performance going forward and that you’ll set a date to discuss progress after a certain period of time (perhaps two weeks or one month, depending on what is appropriate). Peter said that you should follow up this meeting with an email summarising what was discussed, to ensure that there is something recorded in writing.

After this, the staff member’s performance should be monitored for the agreed time period and a meeting should be held to review progress. Peter said that some people just need a nudge in order to improve, whereas others may show improvement in the short-term but then their performance may lapse again. If this happens, Peter said that this is when the difficult decision must be taken as to whether to have another informal chat with the staff member, or whether to refer the matter higher to your own manager. Peter advised us to be aware that if we referred the matter higher, the process might become more formal and might be taken out of our hands.

Peter advised that a poor performance issue should generally be referred higher for the following reasons:

  • If the staff member’s performance hasn’t improved
  • If there are serious issues, for example involving drink or drugs
  • If there is anything to do with bullying or a grievance
  • If the staff member has had a lot of sickness (he pointed out that our organisation might have a specific policy which required us to refer this type of issue)

Peter said that in his own personal experience, people not pulling their weight had been the most common issue that he had come across and he said that the most difficult thing is deciding when to act. He suggested that when a problem becomes persistent or starts to affect the team as a whole, this is when you need to address the situation using the guidelines given above. However, he advised us that we could always get informal advice from our own managers about how to handle a difficult situation, and he reiterated the importance of emotional intelligence when it comes to dealing with staff management issues.

Overall, I found the seminar to be extremely useful; I learned a lot about the practical aspects of supervision and I will definitely be attending more of the CPD25 seminars if the opportunity arises – many thanks to the organisers and to Peter Williams!

Goleman, D. (1998) What makes a leader? Harvard Business Review, 76 (6), pp. 93-102.

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One Response to Learning to be a Supervisor

  1. Alice Tyrell says:

    I was hoping to make this session, but wasn’t able to be away from work on the date, so thank you for the very useful write-up!

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