If you are like most leaders you take your role seriously; you work hard at wanting the best and doing the best for your people. And like most leaders, I am guessing that the chief claim made in this blog will indeed concern you. Some leaders reading this may even react defensively or dismissively. That’s OK. When it comes to leadership, strong and impassioned reactions are great; it usually means we care deeply about what we do and, can suggest that what we are talking about has significant value.

The Claim?

50% of more than 2000 frontline human service workers (mostly from child and youth care, child welfare and youth justice) have reported a subjective experience of supervision that ranges from generally neutral to absolutely negative.

How could this be? Because every supervisor and manager I have interviewed; 100% of more than a thousand have stated in one way or another that they genuinely care for the well being of their people and work hard to develop the overall capacities of their employees.  How can it be possible that 50% of frontline staff are dissatisfied with their supervision experience then?

Houston, we have a problem! A supervision problem

When I stumbled upon this stark reality, I was totally panic stricken and confused. Was this a real dilemma? Did it really warrant such an alarming and dramatic reaction? Should we be so concerned? Absolutely!

There are two serious implications among others that arise when frontline employees are dissatisfied with the direct guidance and supervision they receive.

The first reason has to do with the broader objective of our practice and service delivery efforts; that is client outcomes. Most of us are in human services to enhance the overall wellbeing of children, youth and families. Did you know that poor supervision experiences could actually result in detrimental consequences for clients? Yes. Future blogs will share some of the latest research on the profound impact quality supervision experience has on facilitating the attainment of both ideal staff outcomes and preferred outcomes for clients.

In the simplest sense, staff experiences of the work and how they experience themselves within the work are inextricably linked to two things; practice decisions and client outcomes. When employees are doing well, they make good practice decisions. When they are not doing well, they make less-than-good or poor practice decisions, thereby resulting in less preferred outcomes for clients.

The second major problem resulting from poor quality supervision experiences is that the incredible time, energy and efforts of well-intentioned, knowledgeable and skilled leaders are not being fully realized. In an industry where supervisors and workers experience serious time and fiscal restraints, efficiency and efficacy become extremely important.  Time and money are precious commodities that cannot and should not be wasted.

An interesting aspect of this dilemma is that supervisors and frontline workers desire a positive and productive supervision experience, yet there exists this major disconnect. Future blog posts will elaborate on the various issues and dynamics that lead to many neutral and negative supervision experiences.

For this discussion, however, it is important to keep in mind an important fact; for every 10 supervisees, there may be 10 separate and unique sets of individual needs and goals for and experiences of leadership.  This reality underscores the importance that leaders grasp and maintain an understanding and sensitivity to the diverse supervision needs and goals of frontline staff. It’s not THAT we do supervision, that makes it most effective, but HOW we do supervision and HOW that is experienced that defines the quality of the staff experience.

There are many ways that we can tackle this dilemma in order to enhance the quality of supervision and leadership of all frontline staff. Yes, I said ALL employees. I have seen over and over in my practice, consultations, coaching, seminars and follow-up that, with the right approach and tools we can gain a clear understanding of the unique needs/goals of our employees and develop the capacity to accurately appraise their subjective experience of supervision.

There are many barriers to effectively accomplishing such an endeavor, however, these obstacles and suggested remedies will be covered in the next several Leadership Blogs. Next month’s discussion will reveal the 4 Key Factors which have led to the “Best Leadership Experience Ever” for more than 1000 frontline workers. An interesting fact about these particular interviewees; they are all currently operating in various roles of leadership!  Yes. It is a MUST READ.

For now, however, I am going to suggest 5 steps leader can take to enhance overall quality of the supervision experience for all staff.

These steps are as follows:

  1. Ask your staff
  2. Listen, Listen, Listen
  3. Take what they say seriously
  4. Act on – it and/or follow through
  5. Check-in

1.     Ask your staff

The only way a leader can truly respond to the needs and goals of their employees is to get to know what these are. Without accurate understanding, leaders can only, guess, assume and/or react to their staff. Employees require a responsive approach, not a reactive one.

There are many reasons why some leaders fail to ask their staff about the quality of the supervision experience, including what staff need and want.

Sometimes we are afraid to hear what we don’t want to hear. Not because we don’t care, but because we care so much. It really hurts, when we are trying hard for our staff, to hear that we might not be “doing it right”.  Sometimes we don’t ask because we are so overwhelmed with what is already on our plate, we fear that we may not have the physical, emotional, mental or spiritual capacity for doing anymore. Unfortunately, even when things are going really well, we may want to keep things going steady and not “rock the boat”.  However, just because things look fine, does not mean that they are. If Leaders are going to enhance the quality of their staff’s experience, they MUST know what that experience is. In addition to this, an accurate understanding of this will help accommodate the employees’ needs and goals for better supervision.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Contemplate the use of an external consultant to interview staff and submit anonymous report
  • Encourage staff to complete an anonymous appraisal regarding their experience, including needs and goals for supervision
  • Complete a Personal Supervision Profile with each staff member
  • Implement a Supervisor Appraisal form and process for feedback
  • Ask staff, in a group at a staff meeting or team building, “what makes a great supervision experience?” – Take notes!
  • Ask staff one on one – if directly talking about it is uncomfortable and threatening use indirect questions like, “Tell me a bout a time in your career when supervision was great. What made it so great? “ – Take notes!
  • Ask staff to consider when supervision was better at some point in their career or, how it may be better in the future – Take notes!

By the way, once you ask, stay calm and, be prepared that you may not like what you hear. That’s OK. You need to hear it, so that you may respond appropriately and the most effectively. Do not react!

2.     Listen Listen Listen

This step is so crucial, it is repeated 3 times.  Most communication is non-verbal and, great leaders are great communicators; consistently listening more than talking.  It is critical that leaders listen when requesting  input from staff. One of the greatest complaints from frontline workers is that they do not feel heard of listened to when it comes to their participation and input on the structure, process and/or focus of supervision.

Unfortunately, many supervisors respond reactively, in a defenive or dismissive manner when receiving feedback that they do not like or feel is relevant. It is all relevant; at least to the employee. It is their experience. Defensive and Dismissive responses are major barriers to communication and often lead staff to avoid opportunities to provide important input and feedback on their needs and goals for quality supervision.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Make sure you have time, or make the time
(However, if you do run out of time despite efforts then say, “I would like to hear more about this later….”)
  • Stay calm
  • Do not speak while they are sharing
  • Do not defend what they are saying or what they have written
  • Do not dismiss or minimize their experience
  • Save your comments or questions for when they are done
  • Active listen or paraphrase to convey that you are listening
(you reflect or state back what your staff is saying or has written so that they know for sure you have heard them)
  • Try to hear them out (if you have to engage, use statements like, “Can you tell me more about that?” or “What is that like for you?”) – this will help with a greater understanding of the meaning of their input/feedback

3.     Take what they say seriously

This does not mean that everything they say is absolutely true. However, there is something in what they are saying or trying to communicate that is important to them. No matter what it is, there is some element of truth – we need to pay attention to that, or find out what that is. If it weren’t important they wouldn’t be saying it. Remember, THEIR story is coming from THEIR perception; THEIR experience. It is not necessarily “wrong” or “right”.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Stay calm
  • Try to take their position or their perspective
  • Suspend your assumptions and judgment
  • Do not defend what is being said
  • Do not dismiss what is being said
  • Ask yourself this important question, “Is this the first time I am hearing this?” If not, you better pay REAL attention to this particular piece of information
  • Do not debate or argue
  • Be open to the fact that they may have something to teach YOU
  • Check the feedback with other staff and/or a trusted colleague and friend

4.     Act on it – Follow through

Acting on it can mean anything from listening to actually doing something about it. It is important to note that if you have made it this far in the proposed process you have been acting on it! Listening is Acting on it. Some employees just want to be heard and/or validated. They may not even want anything different. However, you can take the guesswork out by asking them if they would like anything more or different from you. This is another way of acting on it.

It is important that if you ask what they need, that you make an effort to follow through (to the extent possible). For example, if a staff reports that they would prefer less disruptions during supervision and suggest that the phone be off or a do not disturb sign be placed on the door, you may want to do this, if possible. It demonstrates that you are taking what they are saying seriously and willing to work at it.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Listen intently to what they have to say
  • Ask them if there is anything else
  • Ask how you could be helpful, if possible
  • Ask them if they would like to help out, in some way, or make suggestions
  • DO IT – follow through (if you can do something for them AND they have enlisted your help)
  • Remember that if you indicate you would help or support them in something and you don’t, this could be very damaging to the relationship and increase the chance that they may not share again in the future


There are some things that you may not be able to change. Many employees want to know that their leader has taken what they had to say seriously and has done what s/he can to understand and, to the extent possible, accommodate specific needs and goals.

5.     Check In

Checking in basically gets you back to Step #1. However, it is critical to check-in on staff after they share something important with us. It is more important if they share something with us that requires some sort of action or follow-up. Checking-in demonstrates that you have not forgotten what they shared and that it remains important. If you were involved in some manner of action as a follow-up, checking in allows your employee to know what was done and whether something was followed through. Not knowing may cause stress, confusion or anxiety and contribute to a reluctance to engage or share important issues again in the future.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Be sure you have completed your task if you had one
  • Make time to check-in
  • Ask about them and how they are doing since the last meeting
  • Take the time to listen
  • Go back to step 2 and proceed through to step 5 – checking in gets you back to asking


These 5 steps will help foster a greater awareness of your employee’s needs and goals as they relate to supervision. An accurate understanding of your staff’s overall experience will increase the likelihood of a responsive vs. reactive leadership approach and lead without doubt to a more meaningful and effective supervision experience.


Feel free to join me here; hold me accountable; give me feedback; make suggestions; ask questions and; provide input.

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