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NEW SUPERVISORS: You’ve Been Promoted! Now What? Avoiding New Supervisor Potholes

You’ve been promoted; congratulations! You are excited about starting your new job, vowing to be the best supervisor you could possibly be and never doing what your past “terrible” supervisors have done to you! You are on the road to future success at your company and you’ve got great hopes for tomorrow.

However, after a few weeks on the job, you end up thinking, “why in the world did I ever say yes? Things were so much easier with my old job.”  Before you end up here, read the two common scenarios below and consider these proactive ideas to prepare the road to being an effective supervisor.

Pothole #1:
You’ve now got the opportunity to supervise the way you always thought it should be done and you jump right into being that person. A few weeks down the road, you are confused and frankly, a bit angry, when your staff doesn’t respond positively. In fact, you are hearing in the rumor mill that they actually liked the old supervisor better than you. You ask yourself, “What’s up with that?”

It’s time to put on the brakes and repave the road. One of the first lessons in managing people is that each person, department or group is unique and requires a different supervisory approach. What works for you, might not work for your staff; furthermore, what works for you might not work for your manager either.  Make this your first step as a new supervisor: do an assessment of the current environment. Here are two suggestions:

1. Meet with your immediate manager. Ask your manager what he or she expects from you as a supervisor. Gain clarity on the communication with your manager: how often and about what? Does he or she prefer face-to-face meetings, e-mail , virtual meetings or phone calls? Gain clarity around decision making and authority: what decisions are within your realm to make, where should you be making recommendations only and what role would your manager like for your staff in decision making? Find out your manager’s assessment of your area: what does he/she see as the area’s strengths, areas for improvement and needs? Gain clarity around the goals for the area and deadlines.  Ask about any resources that might be available to you, particularly in the early months in the new position. Ask for your manager’s support and advice.  Schedule a follow up meeting right then and there to get feedback on your performance as you put these things to practice.

2. Meet with each member of your staff. Commit to listen first, and then speak. Find out what leadership style works for each employee and how he or she operates best.  Use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership to diagnose what supervision is needed to help the individual grow. Use Herzberg’s Theory of Motivation to discover what elements are important to each individual in creating a motivational environment. Ask questions such as: what types of skills do use in your current position? Do you need any additional training or new skills? How often did your former supervisor give you feedback? Did that work for you or would you like more/less?  How involved have you been in determining the best methods for doing your job? Have you improved the processes in the past? Do you have any ideas as to how the current processes could be improved? When you reach a goal or have a success on the job, what is the best reward for you? How do you like to be recognized (public or private)?  Be persistent in uncovering any expectations the employee may have of you as the new supervisor. A word of caution: Be careful not to make promises in the heat of the moment that are impossible for you to do. It’s better to say, “I’ll check into this or thanks for your input; I’ll take it into consideration and get back to you with answer,” than promise, and not deliver. If you say you’ll follow up, do it. This is the time when the staff will be testing you to see how trustworthy you are. Don’t be surprised to hear that these meetings are being discussed among the staff. Be sure you treat each person consistently and fairly. They’ll be watching for favoritism or negative bias, especially if you’ve been promoted from within the work area.

Speaking of internal promotions, pothole #2 deals with the problems created when transitioning from peer to supervisor. This topic has generated the most discussion and heartache for new supervisors in my supervisory training.

Pothole #2:
You thought that your friendships with your peers would remain the same after you got promoted. Now, you realize that they are treating you differently, and honestly, you are treating them differently as well. In fact, just this past week, you ate lunch at your desk alone, telling yourself you were just too busy to step out for lunch. This weekend you have your regular get together and you aren’t sure whether it is a good idea to go or not. You think to yourself, “I never thought getting promoted would mean losing my friends.”

As I mentioned earlier, one of the most difficult workplace transitions is from peer to supervisor, and probably, the most common. After all, you were very successful at your job and know the employees, the work area, processes/systems, company values and expectations. Promoting from within has its clear advantages, but this road can end up with deep potholes, like the one above.  Again, the key to overcoming these problems is first, to come out of “denial” and recognize that being promoted to supervisor means your former work relationships are going to change. Second, be assertive and willing to initiate communication to address the issues before they damage your relationships with others and your ability to supervise.

Start by having an upfront and direct conversation with each of your former peers/friends. Surface how your new role will affect the working relationships and come to some mutual agreements on what you will talk about (and what you won’t) and what will be expected in the new relationship. It is very important to acknowledge that you are forming a new relationship here – there will be some losses (closeness from gossiping about peers or talking negatively about management perhaps) and some gains (maybe some of the ideas that have been floating around might actually get implemented now). What is most important is that you open the dialogue and bring the issue out into the open. You now have the opportunity to define what is expected of each of you in the different situations that might occur before they happen and cause problems or damage good friendships.

It doesn’t end there though. When differences or new situations occur, be ready to address them and set new guidelines that work for everyone. As the supervisor, recognize that you may need to be the one to initiate the conversation.

Another word of caution: When you get pressure to leave it alone or reassurance that nothing needs to change, state firmly that it does and the reasons why. Recognize that while at first, the staff might welcome your nurturing and understanding and buddy-buddy status,  in the long run, if you appear to be more of a “friend” than “supervisor,” they may doubt your ability to be effective – including making difficult decisions that are best for the work area and handling the poor performance of staff members.

These are just two of the possible potholes for new supervisors.  If you’ve had a winter like we’ve had this year, you know that there are more out there.  The best thing you can do is to uncover all the possible problems (don’t forget ones like the direct report who knows more about the work area than you do or the staff member who wanted the promotion and didn’t get it) and work out a strategy before you are face-to-face with the situation.  Being proactive rather than reactive prevents you from making the mistakes caused by shooting from the hip.  Use your manager and others as a good resource; learn from their mistakes and successes. Speaking of learning from others, what advice would you give the new supervisor?

We’ve put together a great new free guidebook on the Innovative Leader.  Many of the tips and tactics have to do with management and supervisory skills that can be used to lead your organization into the next century.  I encourage you to download it!


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