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Play 1 - Understand the power differential when becoming a supervisor

When you became a supervisor, you immediately took on a position of greater power and influence with formal authority. This is true of a front-line supervisory role all the way to a senior executive overseeing a whole department, organization, or agency. Furthermore, you also made a shift from doing the work itself to managing the work and guiding others doing the work.

Your additional responsibilities may include approving timecards, conducting performance evaluations, and hiring and letting folks go, amongst other items. Now that this shift has occurred, recognize the power you now have. You are no longer solely responsible for your individual contribution to the team; you are responsible for the team itself.

Now that you have more formal authority, there is a direct responsibility and weight to carry the success and well-being of a program/product/project. Be cognizant that your words, presence, and actions carry a lot more weight and have more visibility than when you were an individual contributor. In fact, there is a shift in how you are now perceived and regarded within the organization. You no longer represent just a voice of expertise; you have more power and represent the organization.

This new power carries many nuances with it. For example, you may find resistance from others on your team who may have applied to the role and didn’t get selected and/or you may find resistance from team members who are no longer your peers and are now your direct reports.

Furthermore, you will also start finding yourself in different conversations that make you privy to more sensitive information that cannot just be shared out as is. You will have to make the determination of what is appropriate to filter out and share depending on the audience (e.g., your peers, your team members, external parties, etc.). This can be daunting at first, and early on it may be helpful to explicitly ask your supervisor or work with them to understand what is appropriate to disseminate to others and what is to be kept confidential. Some of these new conversations might also not add value to your team by sharing with them. It’s helpful to check with your audience to know what does and does not feel useful to share.

To balance this new power, it is important to focus on your soft skills. No longer is your technical or subject matter expertise the most important skill you have - it’s the soft skills that make the difference, and you’ll need to rely on and refine these soft skills over time to minimize power struggles and conflict. Strong communication; coaching and mentoring others; holding others accountable while remaining empathetic; becoming a champion and advocate for those that report to you; and being fair and equitable, among other things, are the critical skills that will help you succeed in the role. Remember, your primary focus is now on building a team, cultivating a healthy team and work culture, and ensuring that the team achieves its goals!

Action Items

  • Upon starting your new role, stop doing your old job:

    • Work with your supervisor to come up with a transition plan to account for anything that is currently ongoing or needs to be picked up by someone else
    • You may very well be tasked with helping backfill your previous role; work with your supervisor to do this, especially if you’re new to things like hiring and interviewing
  • Becoming a supervisor for the first time is a career change; work with your supervisor to develop a professional growth plan to build and refine soft skills and emotional intelligence in this new role

  • Manage your own emotions and reactions: stop and think before engaging with others in any communication medium to consider both the intent of what you’re about to put in the world and how it may be received and perceived

    • Ask yourself questions such as “what is my intent here?” or “how might others perceive or interpret this?” to help determine what is best

Play 1 Reflection Questions

  • Do you think the balance of power has shifted between supervisors and employees now that most organizations have shifted to a remote workforce? In what way(s) does power shape an inclusive workplace?
  • Often, even the most resistant teams will begin to adopt and emulate the practices they witness. What will you do to ensure that the work gets completed satisfactorily while ensuring that your team’s needs are met? What do you want your team to adopt and emulate from you?

Play 1 Case Studies

  • Most of the people on the team you now supervise have been with the organization for at least 10 years or more and have established great rapport with your boss. Although you have shared with them on a number of occasions that you are now their first line of contact, they still continue to go to your boss with concerns. How can you establish a good relationship with them without misusing or abusing your power? How will you help them create a healthy level of respect for you?
  • You send an instant message to one of your team members asking them if they have a minute to talk. There is no additional context given in your message. That team member responds immediately and questions what the conversation is about and what they have done wrong. How does your message trigger a flight/fright/fight response? Do you think this type of messaging disrupts their flow? Why or why not? What will you do to ensure the communication you provide does not leave the employee with a barrage of scenarios in their head, wondering if they have done something wrong?
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