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We Don't Work For Our Supervisors, They Work For Us


If you are an individual contributor, your supervisor probably has a sizeable group of direct reports. The supervisor’s main responsibilities will vary from one company to the next. Typically, there are a few components:


  1. Communicating and interpreting strategic messages and assisting with generating tactics

  2. Supporting employee growth

  3. Mediating disputes

  4. Managing staffing levels (hiring & firing)

  5. Performance evaluation (often for pay adjustments)


Taken as a whole, it is clear that supervisors are service providers to the employees in their care. Why, then, do supervisors hold power? The reason seems embedded in components #4 and #5. Take these away, and supervisors lose their power. Google has experimented with this idea.


Ultimately, supervisors serve two masters. They must answer to their superiors by managing the directives being handed to them and serving their charges. Sometimes, these two masters conflict. When conflicts arise, the easy choice is to support their leadership; sometimes, that’s the right thing to do. Often, it isn’t. Standing up against your superiors for your charges is never the easy thing to do.


When the supervisors of team-based individual contributors treat them like customers, they can apply the same incremental approach that Agile teams use to continually improve customer value delivery. This mindset change is paramount. As long as supervisors see themselves as lording over their subordinates, they will fail to look for ways to improve the value they deliver.


Agile practice is built for teams. The twelve principles apply only to teams. Frameworks that have tried to scale the principles to the organization have largely failed to deliver the promise because the value comes from teams. Getting leaders to become a support structure for teams is at the heart of servant leadership, but it is counterintuitive.


We are programmed to strive to move up the hierarchy. More money. More stature. More authority. What if top-performing individual contributors had to take a pay cut to move up? Would they do it? Some might. I would contend that they are probably the best suited to do so.


My favorite quality in a leader is humility. From humility comes empathy. Leaders with these qualities are great coaches and mentors. Power dynamics ultimately come from the individual. The organization’s culture can encourage or discourage destructive power dynamics, but regardless, individuals will choose how they implement their relationship with those whose careers they hold in their hands.


Training can help, but finding the right people with the right mindset is essential. Empowered teams require empowered individuals. If those individuals have supervisors who are sapping their intellectual and emotional freedom, the team will suffer for it.


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