Supervisors, What’s In Your Tool Bag?

Recently I read a  report from an employee who gave a description of his workplace.  He works at a facility for a chain that routinely gets negative media attention.  The only difference was this employee talked about how much he liked working there.  The employee said it wasn’t so much about the workplace as it was his supervisor.  He said he had a great supervisor and he believed good and bad workplaces are created by a person’s supervisor. I’ve heard something similar from others about their supervisors and workplaces.  Do supervisors have the sole responsibility of creating a good or bad workplace?

Supervisors have a difficult job.  They’re the shock absorber between employees and upper management but they’re also the initial or the only contact or representative of the organization employees may have which means there is some opportunity to shape the workplace environment.

What can a supervisor do to create a positive environment that will help to retain employees and also make the workplace productive?  The Society of Human Resources (SHRM) has done employee job satisfaction surveys for several years.  In the 2017 report, respondents said they were more satisfied at work when they were respected.  Supervisors can have a direct impact on that.   In fact, according to the survey, respect was more important than pay.

It may not only be about showing respect.  It can also be about creating an environment of respect for all employees and the supervisor.  It still relies, though, on the supervisor to make sure that happens.  People need to feel free from retribution if they disagree even if that includes talking with their peers.

When supervisors create an environment that is open to new ideas and risk-taking it can show people they are respected for who they are and what they think.  It becomes the model for positive workplace behavior.  Everybody brings a different perspective to the workplace whether it be a supervisor or employee.  That’s very important for survival so the competitive edge is maintained which also leads to another satisfaction factor in the survey, job security.

When we provide supervisory training or teambuilding training, we show how to encourage ideas and risk-taking so people will feel comfortable.  We tell people there may be some conflict but that’s okay It’s how it is managed  is the issue and that goes back to creating an environment of respect.

SHRM’s survey also mentioned other traits such as communication and trust that can build relationships and also build strong workplace foundations that create environments where employees will want to stay.  Those, too, are other things supervisors can encourage to help make a positive environment.

Communication, trust and respect go hand-in-hand.  It’s something like a chicken and egg theory as to which comes first.  Does good communication between supervisor and employee help to create respect or is it first developing respect and trust for good communication? When an employee feels they’re respected, do they feel more comfortable communicating to their supervisor which also leads to trust?  They all are intertwined.

While teamwork was listed near the bottom, building a team within the work area can be a great way to develop a positive work climate but even that takes some skill and probably some team training.  Putting people together doesn’t necessarily make them a team but if supervisors start by providing and demonstrating strong communication skills, showing respect for employees even when they disagree, and developing an overall positive interaction that’s a great foundation for teambuilding and creating employee engagement.  Listening to employees’ suggestions, working with them on their ideas AND acting upon those suggestions and ideas will also go a long way.  That helps to build respect in  both directions.

In supervisory training, we tell supervisors they need to act like a coach.  A coach doesn’t tell people how to do something.  They let people figure it out for themselves.  The coach provides the support, the mechanism and the tools to get the job done.  We put up a message  that says, “No one individual is as smart as all of us” which says it takes a team but it also takes a coach to make sure everyone is part of the team and each person is needed for their abilities and skills.

On the other hand, it may not be fair to lay the entire responsibility of creating the work environment on one supervisor.  Employees can  change departments in a single organization and their supervisors may have different styles.  As SHRM points out, another problem is respect can sometimes be difficult to define especially when it pertains to the whole organization and certain behaviors or styles that don’t represent respect can sometimes be directed from above.

At one organization I worked at, supervisors were directed to be firm.  Employee empathy was downplayed.  A top-down structure was definitely emphasized.  Supervisors were the only ones who could  make decisions.  Unfortunately, there are also other examples.

Several years ago, there was a management style pushed by some people called “management by intimidation.”  It was supposed to get more productivity.  A recent article that talks about workplace bullying, says some workplaces still prefer that method.  We once worked with  a manufacturing facility where the supervisor said his management style was to make life miserable for employees. Maybe those styles get results, we don’t know.  They may for some.  There has been legislation passed in some states that condones workplace bullying or management by intimidation but legislation can only do so much.

In the end, everybody wants the same things including respect.   It doesn’t matter if it’s a union employee, a non-union employee or a supervisor.  I’ve been hearing a lot of good stories about supervisors lately so I hope the bullying and intimidation tactics are being used less.  Creating a workplace environment that encourages behaviors that bring people together to talk about workplace issues and that value each person’s individuality makes a great workplace and a thriving one! A lot of good supervisors have their own set of techniques and tools ready in their tool bag so they can be prepared  for any incident, good or bad.  That leads me to ask:  what’s in  your tool bag?

About CALMC Blog

Columbus Area Labor-Management Committee is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to involving employers and employees to preserve jobs, resolve workplace issues, and promote labor-management cooperation. Visit our website at
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