The supervisor’s job is performance support
We are all familiar with the Peter Principle where a person is promoted up through the hierarchy of an organization to a level of incompetence. This tends to be true at every level of promotion. Perhaps the biggest leap is for individual contributors who are promoted to Supervisor or Manager.
Two major factors contribute to one’s incompetence: the performance system and the performer’s changed position and new role within that system.
Effective supervisors need to be able to deal with the performance environment and address performance issues as they arise. They set the context, direction and expectations for what gets accomplished. They need to understand how the performance system works. They also need to understand how people work, in both their rational and less rational (emotional) states. The tone supervisors establish for working relationships and how those relationships work influence individual and workgroup performance and productivity. Their expectations of others influences their behavior and can contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy (Livingston, 2003). The supervisor’s awareness and capacity to manage people in their work context includes managing themselves and their own reactions.
Performance system refers to different factors. Some are related to the individual performer, such as individual ability and capacity, skills and knowledge, and motivation. Others are related to the organizational context, such as standards and expectations, feedback and communication, task support and incentives (Gilbert, 2013). The role of the supervisor is to manage the performance system, not just the performers. Every supervisor, good or bad, consciously or unconsciously, has expectations that influence their relationships and actions. Those expectations affect the performance environment as well. The table below shows how the supervisor can affect the performance system.
Role of Supervisor for Performance Improvement
Individual ability and capacity
Select and replace personnel for fit to job and organizational culture, intelligence, emotional intelligence
Skills and knowledge
Provide timely and relevant training and information
Organize work and improve work design; remove barriers to performance
Provide and clarify performance expectations
Improve timeliness and specificity of feedback
Provide and improve tools and resources; remove barriers to performance
Provide meaningful and aligned incentives for performance
There is a second perspective worth noting: the emotional side of performance, both for the supervisor and for those she supervises.
Emotions and reactions are the “fuel” that powers performance. As with any combustible, wise and careful handling can produce desired performance; sloppiness or neglect can provoke explosions or even spell disaster. In order to keep the team on track, the supervisor has to be able to promptly and safely “fuel” the emotional side, and to direct the released energy toward achieving meaningful goals for the organization and the performers.
This can be achieved through the exercise of emotional intelligence competencies (EI; Goleman, 1995; 2011). EI tells us how well we:
- Are aware of our own emotions.
- Manage the impact of those emotions on ourselves, including the ability to motivate ourselves.
- Are sensitive to the emotional state of others.
- Use that social awareness as a basis for building and managing constructive working relationships.
Modern organizations require faster, global and technology-enabled performance systems. The supervisor, in order to get the most out of a performance system, must bring together complementary competencies of systems thinking and emotional intelligence. It is up to the supervisor to integrate, control and positively filter the critical environmental factors that affect the final result. The emotional intelligence competencies, when present in supervisor and team members, work as a lubricant of the high performance system. What’s critical is for the supervisor to:
- Provide clear expectations.
- Give opportunities to perform and be recognized.
- Set a safe, understandable environment of inclusion.
- Offer the chance to develop.
The supervisor sets the direction, focus and standards for desired performance on a daily basis. With that guidance, performers know what to do and to what standard. When you do well, performers are loyal and can produce exceptional results. When you perform poorly, you become the supervisor from hell; the person who makes true the adage that “you join a company because of its reputation and leave it because of your manager.” Furthermore, ‘leaving the company’ may not only happen when a position is vacated but also when a performer decides to do only the bare minimum to avoid your supervisory attention.
We live in an era of unprecedented improvements in business productivity and increasingly sophisticated high-performance systems. There is often an illusion that the work environment is conflict-free and purely rational. Experience consistently indicates the opposite.
Supervisors and managers must learn to quickly understand their performance system while substantially improving their emotional awareness and competence. The supervisor’s role is critical to make the potential of high-performance workplaces and virtual teams a successful and sustainable reality.
Gilbert, T. (2013). Human competence: Engineering worthy performance. (Tribute edition.) San Francisco: Pfeiffer.
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam.
Goleman, D. (2011). Working with emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam.
Livingston, J.S. (2003, January). Pygmalion in management. Harvard Business Review, 81(1), 97-106.
Credits and Links
The full article first appeared as Lazar, J, & Bernardez, M. (2003). The supervisor’s job is performance support. Performance Improvement Global Network, ISPI. [online]. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/254682876_The_supervisor’s_Job_is_Performance_Support
Lazar, J., Bernardez, M. (2019) The supervisor’s job is performance support Being Better Matters 12 June. Available at https://www.beingbettermatters.net/evaluation-why-all-the-attention/ (accessed: date of your access)
John B. Lazar
John has been a performance consultant and coach since 1983, including 23 years as an executive coach to executives and senior managers through his company John B. Lazar & Associates. He works with individual leaders and their teams, altering their perspectives, skill sets, and performance to produce socially and emotionally intelligent leadership and management, breakthrough execution and business results.
John has been a member of ISPI since 1981 and now serves on its board of directors