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Supervisors in the Knowledge Age

July 31, 2013

We live in an age defined by environmental uncertainty, workplace diversity, knowledge workers, global information sharing-and-snaring, and flattening organisational structures. As such, the role of the modern-day supervisor has never been more important or more challenging. Team leaders and supervisors represent a vital link between operational staff and management; if this link is missing, valuable information is lost, potential is left unrealised, and organisations remain managerial pyramids – built and maintained by an archaic system of command and control.

It has been estimated that supervisors spend over 75% of their time engaged in interpersonal interactions with others; therefore, success as a supervisor relies first and foremost on the ability to effectively communicate. Whether it is delegating tasks, conducting performance reviews, negotiating with management, training and coaching frontline staff, facilitating a meeting, or just having informal chats with colleagues, all workplace interactions are bolstered by a supervisor’s aptitude for assertive communication and active listening. As organisations realise the value of diversity, workplaces are fast becoming eclectic mixes of culture, age, race and gender, and supervisors must adapt their interactions and management styles accordingly.

Here’s an example: the career choices of Generation Y (also known as the “Millennial Generation,” with birthdates ranging from the early ‘80s to 2000) tend to be driven largely by a quest for personal growth and advanced learning. Socially conscious and self-confident, “Gen Y-ers” seek meaningful and challenging roles in organisations where the culture aligns with their own beliefs and values. In this sense, it is imperative that companies who promote themselves as being socially responsible utilize these core principles at the frontline.

Supervisors need to recognise and advocate ethical action. Research has found that socially responsible supervisors and managers are more effective and highly regarded among their colleagues than those who show little consideration for “the bigger picture.”

For supervisors, ethical communication translates as setting both high personal and public standards of performance/behaviour for themselves and others… and taking quick, firm action when these standards are violated. It means communicating with candour and establishing a review process that is consistent and proactive.

Revisiting the Generation Y example, Gen Y-ers tend to ask a lot of questions and seek frequent, thorough feedback; furthermore, whilst they value their autonomy (as Gen Xer’s do), they desire greater recognition, reinforcements, and incentives. Ambitious financial and personal goals mean Gen Y-ers are prepared to work hard and fast, but in doing so, they seek flexibility in terms of job schedules, descriptions, and locations.

Often described as restless, Gen Y-ers demonstrate a more transient commitment to jobs they perceive as unfulfilling, and longevity-based promotion/reward systems may seem less inspiring than more spontaneous forms of recognition (e.g. a supervisor may recognise the outstanding performance of an employee by giving them the day off or taking them out for lunch). Conversely, Generation X (AKA: the Baby Boomer generation) tends to place greater emphasis on job stability, so provisions for long-term promotion may prove more motivating.

The dichotomy of the two generations’ priorities means that modern-day supervisors must be able to manage and coach staff effectively. A supervisor who can tailor his or her communication style to engage individual team members will be more successful at building personal rapport, and thus more successful at ensuring employee dedication. Remember: being an effective communicator not only requires an awareness of others, but also a deep understanding of self.

The connection between emotionally intelligent supervisors and their team’s performance has been well documented. Conflict resolution, instigating change initiatives, self-regulating disruptive emotions, sensing the developmental needs of staff, influencing and leading others, and nurturing instrumental relationships are all competencies that embody emotional intelligence (E.I.).

Organisations often use 360˚ Feedback Surveys as a means of determining the relationship dynamics between supervisors and their teams, peers, superiors, and (where relevant) clients. For supervisors, this form of feedback provides an opportunity for self-evaluation: their colleagues and clients appraise their leadership and management performance, identifying key strengths and weaknesses

Understanding the discrepancy between a supervisor’s self-perception and how he or she is viewed by others enhances self-awareness and encourages personal development. On a macro-level, organisations that utilise these types of E.I. tools on a continual basis report greater team cohesion and task ownership, as well as a higher job satisfaction rate, improved productivity, and an overall competitive advantage.

Today’s supervisors need to demonstrate a high degree of self-awareness in order to manage the diversity that characterises the contemporary workplace. Understanding generational differences and adapting communication styles accordingly is just one challenge that confronts supervisors and team leaders.

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