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Supervision: What You Must Learn to Do
by Wally Bock

Job descriptions are filled with phrases like "motivates team members to top performance" and "establishes and communicates team goals in accordance with company policy." The only thing wrong with those phrases is that they don't tell you anything about what you actually do as a supervisor.

If you're trying to decide if getting promoted to supervisor is for you or if you want to be a great supervisor or if you design training programs for supervisors, you'll do better if you concentrate on what supervisors have to do every day. This article will help you.

The Supervisor's Core Activity

Your core activity is to talk to people who work for you about their behavior and performance. Behavior is what people say and do. Performance is the measurable result of work. Many of the things you must learn to do well are necessary to accomplish that core activity.

You must know the core tasks that your people should be able to perform. Most jobs have six or seven core tasks. You need to know what those tasks are and how to measure and describe unacceptable, acceptable and excellent behavior on each.

You must know your people. You need to know their ability level for each of the core tasks. You need to know if they willingly pitch in to help the team succeed. And you need to develop a way to identify and build on each person's preferences for how they want to be supervised.

You must assign work intelligently. You should be able to assign work in a way that the task will be done well and your people will stay safe. "Safe" in this case may mean physically safe, but it may also mean "safe from organizational consequences."

You must communicate clearly. Learn to give good, clear instructions. Learn to vary your communication style for different subordinates.

You must follow up to check for understanding. Part of communicating is listening. Learn to listen actively. Part of supervisory work is observation. Watch how people do what you've assigned.

You must use every contact as an opportunity to coach, counsel, correct and encourage. In an ideal world, everyone who worked for you would handle every task competently and enthusiastically. Part of your job is to help your people grow toward complete competence in the work to be done and toward their career goals.

You must bring up behavior and performance issues effectively. You need to know the communications techniques for talking about behavior and performance and meld them with your ability to adapt to your subordinates' individual styles and communication preferences.

You must know how to come to an agreement with your subordinate about what will change. When you agree with a subordinate that something will change you need to specify five key things. What will change? When? How will we know? What if it doesn't? How much control will the subordinate have about how the work will be done?

You must do most of your coaching and counseling informally. For most people, most of the time, that will work just fine. Changes get made. Growth happens.

But, you must also know when and how to move from informal evaluation to formal evaluation. Sometimes a person can't or won't do what needs to be done. Then you need to shift from informal to formal, from undocumented to documented.

You must know how to document behavior and performance in a way that will stand up to scrutiny and challenge. Once you're documenting behavior and performance, you must know how to do it right.

That's pretty much it for most supervisors. In addition to the core supervisory work, most supervisors also have other tasks that vary from organization to organization. But in every organization, supervisors do the work that makes the organization go.

Every day supervisors use what they say and do to influence the behavior and performance of the people who work for them. Every day they affect productivity and morale. Every day they make a difference.

Wally Bock helps organizations improve productivity and morale by selecting and developing great leaders at all levels. He coaches individual managers, and is a popular speaker at meetings and conferences in the US and elsewhere. This article first appeared in the Three Star Leadership Blog ( It is based on material in Wally's Working Supervisor Support Kit (

Wally Bock may be contacted at or


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