Calling Leaders of Leaders: Dealing With Toxic Supervisors


Over the past week I’ve been talking about the rise of toxic leaders. Of course, the best way to deal with toxic supervisors is to not to hire them in the first place. Your next best option is to move them out of roles responsible for other people ASAP. A great way to do this is to ensure that you have a robust supervisory probation program when you hire new leaders into your organization.

In the federal government we have laws that require supervisory probation for GS employees and then again for the senior executive service. We get two bites at the apple to decide if this the person we want to entrust with the well-being of others.

Info on supervisory probation in the federal government is skimpy and dated, but very consistent. Less than .5% of federal government supervisors are transferred out of or terminated from their supervisory positions. As much as I would like to tell you that’s because we have excellent assessment criteria that helps us selected the very best of the best to be our leaders, that’s not the case. I actually don’t believe it’s indifference either. I think people simply unclear what the problem actually is, don’t know what the options are, and clueless what to do about it.

So here are some things you can do in your organization to ensure that you have the very best leaders of people in your supervisory jobs. You don’t need anyone’s permission to do these things. Abundant law, regulation, and rule have already given you all the authority you need to take the following actions:

  1. Be aware. Track your supervisors from the date they are promoted into their supervisory position and know when their supervisory probationary period ends.
  2. Have a conversation. Make it clear to the new supervisor that they are in a probationary period and you take that very seriously. Be clear on the criteria that you will be assessing the supervisor on during that period. The knowledge, skills, and abilities you used in the vacancy announcement to make your selection are an excellent choice. You are not required to use the performance elements and standards. Probation is an extension of the hiring process. Be sure the new supervisor is clear that leading people is the primary responsibility in his or her new role.
  3. Use your good supervisors. You know who they are. They are the people that if you could take them over to the Xerox machine and copy them, you would. Invite them to serve as mentors for new supervisors. Encourage them to engage in peer-to-peer learning. Set up a monthly brown bag lunch for first-line supervisors to share information and experiences. Ask them to meet without you. The truth of the matter is, the thing they might need to talk about is you.
  4. Assess the new supervisor quarterly. Six months in to the probationary period if you wish you could have a do over, remember, you’ve got one and take it.
  5. Meet with the employees of the work unit. Find out how it’s going. Many, many people are good at managing up. You don’t need to be managed up. You have a supervisor who manages you all day long. You may discover that this new supervisor who seems so fabulous to you, is actually a jerk to their people. Remember, you need those employees positive and productive to get your mission done, so go find out what’s going on.

At the end of the day, if you are a leader of leaders you have a huge responsibility. You need a leadership team that is going to share the load and pull together to get the job done. You need someone you like spending the day with. You need someone who employees respect and follow. Take advantage of all the tools you have in your toolbox to make sure you’ve got the best leadership team you can assemble.Want to read more?

MSPB: A Call to Action: Improving First-Line Supervision in the Federal Government

Jeri Buchholz is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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David Kuehn

It is good to point out that new federal supervisors and executives are probationary. It is hard, however, to identify toxic performance in an initial year. Training and working through likely but uncommon workplace scenarios can help. And people past their probationary period still need to be assessed regularly and frequently not just on short-term accomplishments but also on longer-term organizational development.