Selecting Supervisors

Published June 2011

Hiring the right people is among the biggest challenges facing any organization. The quality of an organization simply cannot exceed the quality of its people. Finding capable folks whose personal values are aligned with those of the business is absolutely critical.

There’s at least one activity, however, that is even more vital to success than choosing the right employees – and that’s selecting the right supervisors.

Research by Frederick Herzberg during the 1980s determined that job dissatisfaction is not merely the absence of job satisfaction. This is similar to personal relationships whereby hate is not the absence of love; apathy is.

Herzberg found that job factors contributing to job satisfaction are therefore quite different than those which lead to job dissatisfaction. For example, great working conditions (a beautiful, environmentally controlled office or factory) don’t greatly influence satisfaction. Poor working conditions, however, such as a dirty, noisy or uncomfortable workplace drive dissatisfaction. Likewise, while personal responsibility is a major contributor to job satisfaction, lack of responsibility is not a main driver of worker dissatisfaction.

Herzberg’s study showed that a bad supervisor and a poor relationship with a supervisor where the second and third largest factors driving dissatisfaction. Only poor company policies and administration ranked higher. So choosing the wrong supervisor can undo all that hard work spent hiring the right people. They’ll be poorly influenced by their supervisor and may become so disenchanted that they’ll leave.

The ideal supervisor candidate possesses both strong process skills and people skills. That is, they must be recognized both for what they know (Intelligence Quotient or IQ) as well as how they work with others (Emotional Quotient or EQ). That’s because leading organizations recognize that the supervisor’s primary role is to develop people that can solve problems and improve their portion of the business. This results in utilizing the collective brain power of all employees rather than a small subset designated as management.

Supervisor candidates therefore must be capable teachers. They should be skilled in the work performed but even more so as a problem solver. Like all great teachers, great supervisors possess the seemingly contradictory traits of confidence within their subject matter and yet the humility to admit that there’s always more to learn, often from the very people they’re teaching. Finally, strong teachers possess the perception and patience to allow others to meaningfully learn with the methods and at the pace that works best for them.

Strong supervisor candidates must also demonstrate courage, willing to risk episodes of interpersonal discomfort when fairness to the group dictates the need for coaching a wayward employee. They won’t hide behind company policies and they understand that fair is not the same as equal.

Personal time demands increase dramatically as one assumes responsibility for a group of people. So does the number of activities to be monitored. Choosing individuals who have demonstrated that they are inherently organized and masters of their own time is critical.

Finally, the right individual possesses a clear understanding of the business and an appreciation for how their area of responsibility fits into the big picture. They understand the importance of teamwork and realize that the No. 1 team is the overall organization rather than their specific area of responsibility.

That’s a pretty tall order. Odds are slim that you’ll be lucky enough to identify an individual that currently meets all of the needs. If not, distinguish between “Must” requirements that are values-driven (e.g., other-centered, courageous) and the “Want” requirements that can be learned (e.g., subject matter experience, problem-solving skills). Don’t compromise on the “Musts.”

If all else is equal, by all means promote from within and treat experience as an asset. This sends a strong message to all employees that they are valued.

Never select a current employee who isn’t highly respected among their peers, no matter how experienced. This likewise sends a strong message, but not the one intended. It’s much better to hire a person from outside the organization who possesses the skills noted above. The right person will quickly overcome the initial cynicism by demonstrating the needed qualities.

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