Updated: Dec 15, 2021
If you work in higher education, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to be supervising people. Maybe they’re professional staff. Maybe they’re faculty. Maybe they’re students. When I ask people if they’re supervisors, I often get a response like “well yes and no…they’re just students.” Lol. But when it comes to supervising, there’s really no “just” about it. Supervising people, whoever they are, means managing a team on top of the work you have to get done. When you’re supervising effectively, it isn’t just about making sure things get done, but rather you leading your team to successful outcomes for themselves, their students, and their institutions. It’s about you knowing who you are as an authentic leader who knows how to maximize your team, so engagement, wellbeing, and productivity are high for you and the people you lead.
But how may supervisors do you know that are living that right now? Are you? Most of the supervisors we’ve worked with are stressed and overwhelmed, if not outright burned out. Why? You tell me. Are most of your days filled with back-to-back meetings? Are you frequently interrupted by your team, students, or even your supervisor? Do you spend most of your time putting out fires instead of strategically moving your department forward? Do you feel like you’re never actually going to catch up on the work you need to do? Do you come in early, stay late, or take work home? Do you leave work exhausted? Do you feel like something has to change or you’re going to be burned out? If you’ve answered yes to even a few of these, you’re not alone.
But what if I told you it doesn’t have to be that way? What if you could look forward to going to work again? What if you could lead your team instead of playing catch up and putting out fires? What if you were the one prioritizing your day instead of circumstance? What if you could do less and achieve more? What if you could spend most of your day focused on the things you do best? What if you had hope, not that things might change, but that they WILL change for the better? If that seems too good to be true, it’s not. Normally I do one article each week, but the holidays and winter break are coming soon. So, over the next seven days, I’m going talk to you about what you need to do to start supervising in a way that gives you more confidence, more powered over your day, and reduces your stress.
A common by-product of the current higher ed culture is making supervisors feel less than. Like if you were just better at _____, you wouldn’t be struggling. Or if you just managed your time better, you wouldn’t be so far behind. Why do so many supervisors feel they’re in over their heads? Why is imposter syndrome so rampant amongst supervisors in higher ed? It’s not because you’re not good enough. It’s because you haven’t been given the training and support you need to be successful.
Most supervisors I know, including myself, didn’t get their job because they were good at supervising people. They were good at what they did. During your interview for that first supervisor job, did they ask you hypothetical questions about how you would lead your team, or what your philosophy on supervision was? Me too. But as long as you didn’t say anything awful like “I lead with an iron fist” or “I like to really get in there and micromanage things,” it didn’t seem to matter what you said. And then you got hired. Then I got hired. If you’re like me, once that happened, there was little – if any – training on how to actually supervise. You were expected to hit the ground running and just know how to manage your staff, do your work, and juggle between the two. It was up to us to figure it all out with maybe the advice from our supervisors or colleagues.
Now some of you are first time supervisors, so this all seems very new and you’re trying to feel out the “best” way to lead your team. The rest of you have been supervising for enough years to feel like you’ve at least got some sort of system. But the question is, how effective is your system? Did you know that supervisors who don’t have effective, research-backed systems to lead their team lose one day a week of personal productivity? Likewise, studies have shown that when you don’t have the right systems in place, your team members will only be productive for about 90-minutes a day.
Let me say that again another way. When you don’t know how to effectively manage your team, you’re wasting an entire day of work each week. That’s 52 days a year. And as far as your team members go, if they’re only productive for 90 minutes, that’s 390 minutes they aren’t in an eight-hour day. Now, when you think about how hard you and your team are working and how much “stuff” you’re doing, you may be wondering how you’re not being productive. Yes, you and your team are doing things – a lot of things. But the real question is are they the right things? Warren Bennis, a pioneer of leadership studies, said, “Leaders are people who do the right thing; managers are people who do things right.” No matter how hard you work doing all the things, if they aren’t the right things, you’re going to burn yourself and your team out without ever accomplishing all the aspirational goals you have for yourself, your team, your students, and society.
Now before you start getting down on yourself for once again not living up to some external or internal standard, I want to remind you of what I said earlier. If you haven’t gotten the right training or support to be an effective supervisor, why would you be? Could you have spent all your free time trying to figure it out? I mean I guess, but given how much work has been expected of you and everything else you have going on in your life, that doesn’t really seem feasible, does it? Maybe you wanted to get such training but you couldn’t find it. Or maybe you wanted to get more training but, “sorry, it’s not in the budget.” It’s not your fault you’re not where you need to be as a supervisor, but you’re paying the price with your time, your wellbeing, and most importantly, your energy.
Why is energy so important? Because it is your most valuable resource. It’s not your team. It’s not your budget. It’s not time. Your most valuable resource is your energy. Think about a time you looked at your schedule and saw an afternoon or even a whole day with nothing on it. You quickly block out the day and think about how much work you’re going to get caught up on. When that day comes, how much did you get done? For most of us, not much. Why? Not because you lacked the time, but because you lacked the energy. You were too exhausted. When you’re not focusing your energy on the right things, it spills out everywhere leaving you little left for the most important things at work and at home.
Whenever you don’t know how to do something effectively as a supervisor, what happens? You spend way too much of your energy thinking about how to handle _____. You spend your energy running around asking this person or that person their thoughts on the situation. Oh, and hot tip – even though other people are happy to give you their thoughts and opinions, most of them don’t know effective ways of dealing with the situation either. Even when you’re trying to do other things, your mind keeps going back to Bill and how he _____ and you need to do something about it. Then of course you start using more energy feeling crappy about yourself and how you haven’t done something about it. All of which leaves you feeling drained and still not quite sure what to do.
During my career, I had a similar problem pop up, one I think is pretty common for people - what do you do about that underperforming staff member. I’m talking about someone who technically is doing their job, but not in a way that shows much passion, growth, or effort. There were several folks over the years that I just didn’t know how to motivate and wanted them to either step up or move on. I spent so much energy each time this happened, because I assumed the problem was them. I thought about it. Tried to motivate them. Talked to my supervisor, HR, trusted colleagues, but at the end of the day I didn’t have a solid plan – aka system – for dealing with that employee. Each time it happened I thought it was unique situation, so I’d go through this over an over. It never occurred to me that the problem was I didn’t have an effective performance management system. And why would it? No one had ever even said those words to me before! I was a supervisor for 20 years and no one ever talked to me about how to manage the performance of my team. Everyone involved just acted like it was perfectly normal to go through this over and over again when someone else didn’t do what I thought they should be doing. I wasted so much energy on these folks because I didn’t have the knowledge and skills I needed to be effective. What’s worse, is no one ever helped me identify what my real problem was.
When you have the right training – one that gives you the knowledge you need, helps you develop the right skills, and supports you as you set up effective systems to make sure your knowledge and skills are put into action, you conserve all that energy. When Bill does _____ again, you don’t need to waste your valuable energy figuring out what to do, because you’ll know what to do. You can skip all the drama and confusion and move directly into solving the problem. Even better, these systems can prevent problems from happening in the first place.
Now in my next article, I’m going to go into more depth about exactly why your systems are so important and how they’re connected to your energy. But for now, what I want you to do, is start thinking about – and even better writing down how your energy is showing up for you throughout the day. You can focus on work or your entire day, but either way I want you to note the following.
1. Write a few notes about what you’re doing. Is it a meeting? If so, about what and with whom? Is it a project or task? Are you doing strategic planning for something or working on getting details finished?
2. Jot down the time of day. We all have different times of the day where we naturally have more energy and feel more lethargic. That can be helpful to know later when you’re using this information to better plan your day.
3. How is that activity impacting your energy? Do you feel energized or drained? Certain activities and people are going to give you energy. Others might seem to suck the energy right out of you. And others might not have much of an impact, so think neutral. We’ll talk more about this in another article, but there’s a connection between your energy and your talents, habits, and systems, which we’ll get into tomorrow.
4. If you have taken the CliftonStrengths talent assessment, or if you have a good grasp on some of your talents, add some information about which talent you’re using for the activity and how that’s impacting your energy. If you haven’t taken CliftonStrengths, and aren’t really sure what your talents are, no worries. Just looking at the activities and how they impact your energy is absolutely beneficial.
By taking a few minutes each day to reflect on how your energy is showing up for you, you’ll be able to better understand where you’re using your energy most effectively and where there are energy leaks – aka wasted energy. You don’t have to make a thorough list; you just need to get into the habit – even two minutes a day can get you started seeing these important patterns.
This is an important first step to becoming a more effective and less-stressed supervisor. Until you start to realize where your energy is going, you’re not going know where you’re wasting it. You’re already overwhelmed trying to juggle the work on your plate, plus all the fires you have to put out. You can’t afford to waste your energy on things that aren’t making an impact, or because of systems that don’t align with your goals. Remember, supervisors who aren’t being effective waste one day or productivity each week. This is how you start getting that day back.
In my next article, we’re going to look more deeply into how this idea of energy connects to your habits, talents, and systems. This includes looking at how our brains actually work, so we’ll get into some “light” neuroscience that will really help you tie all of this together.
In the meantime, please write any comments or questions you have below. And if you know any other stressed-out supervisors, please share this article.