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Enhanced supervisory skills a must today

Deb O'Gorman

Each night, the news shows employee badges collected, and laid-off workers escorted from their offices.

During these challenging economic times, workplaces teem with emotion. The impact on employees both those leaving and those remaining is very real. While much has been said about general staff morale, the impact these changes have on supervisors is rarely told.

Supervisors both the seasoned professional and the newer manager find themselves riding the business, economic and personal rollercoaster wave while their subordinates rely more on their leadership than ever. Skills that are valuable for successful supervisors are amplified when the workplace fluctuates its staffing levels, hours of operation, product/service modifications, flattening of management, merger or restructure. Employees’ woes such as bankruptcy or home foreclosure also compound the problem.

To understand the skills needed to be effective, it is helpful to look at who meets the definition of supervisor. The U.S. Census Bureau has 400 titles under the supervisor classification including foreman, team leader, overseer, cell coach, facilitator and area coordinator.

Given the broad range of titles, it is not surprising to find differing roles that companies have assigned to supervisors. Frequently, they must set work schedules, measure performance, provide employee feedback, discipline employees, serve as confidant or quasi-counselor, and in some companies make hiring and firing decisions while serving as the morale cheerleaders for remaining team members. A pretty big bill to fill already, but when you add the supervisor’s legal responsibilities, this can be overwhelming. On top of this, they are also responsible for a safe business environment, employee training and a harassment-free environment.

How supervisors are selected in your company may help identify skill gaps and set priorities for obtaining critical skills to deal with current workplace situations. When supervisors are selected based on demonstrated success in a technical ability whether that is assembly, selling, logistics or patient care the transition to supervisor often finds the individual ill-equipped to handle the people-side of business.

Those promoted simply based on their length of service often have difficulties effectively dealing with people. Using a sport analogy, its like the star player becoming the sideline coach of the team; still on the playing field, but with greater objectives than being the star player.

What specific skills contribute to supervisor success? Common broad skill sets include the ability to communicate, allocate resources, manage projects, deal with conflicts and follow procedures, regulations and specs.

Basic communication is really a combination of skills imperative for transfer of information and harmony in the workplace. Supervisors often need assistance to learn how to listen effectively and design messages that are clear and concise. Supervisors must be able to deliver “the message” whether it’s reporting to management, across departments or within the team. In addition, they need to spot non-verbal clues by understanding vocal attitude, intonation, facial expressions, gestures and posture to ensure the message was not only delivered but received.

Conflict resolution demands the ability to listen and hear what is being said, to identify conflict triggers, to clarify the issue and interactively arrive at a solution and project calmness under pressure to get to the heart of the problem before it’s too late. Supervisors who are versed in diversity and generational difference have been shown to significantly reduce workplace conflict and improve productivity.

The ability to write is also imperative. Lacking this skill can affect a supervisor’s success. Whether it’s e-mail, memo or letter, manager must know how each medium is used and how to construct a message with correct tone, grammar and format. Widespread use of text messaging and blogging require supervisors to be even more adept in communicating. Companies must also offer guidelines on what can be communicated. A harmless sharing of a joke, ill-thought out response to a question about pending lay-offs, comment about upper management and so forth can turn into a legal issue.

Project management provides an essential tool for the supervisor to allocate resources by defining the multiple elements of a project, setting goals, adapting to changes in the workplace and meeting deadlines.

The ability to allocate resources includes more than just understanding the flow of materials, equipment use, inventory, workspace use and supplies. Allocating the people resource has a significant impact on efficiency of human capital. Depending on the industry, 18 to 52 percent of operating expenses are payroll costs. To effectively allocate people, you must have the ability to make the most of the subordinates supervised. Understanding the “Three Ws” of effective delegating When, What and to Whom can help the supervisor assign tasks and delegate effectively to fully utilize workers. Delegating is vital in gaining and keeping the team buy-in and a particularly useful tool when staff reductions or other staffing changes are made and business is in flux.

To optimize allocation requires time management skills as well. This can be of value to supervisors when prioritizing their own work and that of team members being asked to take on more, particularly when the supervisor is wearing both the “player” and “side-line coach” hats.

How well-equipped are your supervisors for change? For many, the fear of change is much worse than the actual change. Supervisors who know how to introduce change without inducing defensive reactions are vital in setting the daily tone. Knowing how to accept and process change helps supervisors better encourage employees and fellow staff members.

Supervisors play a vital role in company sustainability and future growth. They are the link between you and the technical expertise and front line producers. They not only have a direct impact on team performance and the overall bottom-line, but supervisors also represent you and the company in the community. The education, experience and abilities of your supervisors have an economic value for you. The investment in training can help your company better weather the downturn and catch the turn-around wave.

Deb O’Gorman is director of customized employee training with the Truckee Meadows Community College Workforce Development and Continuing Education Division. Contact her at dogorman@tmcc.edu.