Confessions of a Bad Supervisor


As the baby boom began to trail off, in the late summer of 1959 there was a Friday night in New Orleans that seemed to be like many others. It was steamy in the hours after the sun disappeared on the west bank of the Mississippi River. Revelers in the French Quarter paraded down Bourbon Street and across St. Peter, striving to capture their moment in time in the city that Tennessee Williams described as ‘the last outpost of Bohemia. The green and red-painted streetcars continued to clack back and forth on St. Charles Avenue through the Garden District while buzzed tourists, wearing off-season Mardi Gras beads hung out the windows, gawking at the massive, columned mansions along the way.

Just off St. Charles, on Washington Avenue, the New Orleans ‘Old Money’ gathered at Commander’s Palace and slurped oysters on the half-shell with horseradish and Tabasco Sauce, washing it all down with Jax beer in massive, moisture-laden schooners. A few more blocks down Washington, towards Tchoupitoulas, as the neighborhood got more residential, and more quiet, there was a non-descript red brick building that shone a single light on in an upstairs room. I was born there, at seven minutes til 10 o’clock.

Louis Armstrong went on stage in the Quarter at the top of the hour.

Should you care about any of this? No, unless you want to spend some of your tourist dollars in New Orleans next summer. I offer the narrative only to paint the picture of the many of us born of that era, now in our 50s, who grew up in a time of relative middle-class prosperity, didn’t want for much, went to high school in the 70s and hit the workforce in the early age of MTV (back when they actually played music).

Somehow, this confluence of circumstances combined to influence my evolution into becoming a bad supervisor. And, I feel pretty certain that many of you share that burden. If you’re heartless and calculating, congratulations, you need read no further. But, if this sounds familiar, let me explain. My apologies if this sounds self-indulgent, but I’m painting this picture as exposition for my point. Bear with me.

Part of my background in poor supervision was the poverty level income I started with, fresh out of college, journalism degree in hand. I made $100 a week to work 60 hours for a fifth-rate weekly newspaper in a tiny east Texas town that the Interstate forgot. A couple of papers later, I was all the way up to $15,000 a year and happy to have it. What it gave me was an appreciation of people that would do good work for meager money because I was surrounded by them. Still, I wanted more. And, after I got married, I needed more.

Then, I found government communications. Overall, things worked out incredibly well, considering the fantastically poor career planning in which I engaged. Fast forward. Now, it’s 27 years later and only in the latter half of that span have I had the opportunity to supervise anyone. Here’s the crux of the matter, and let me know if you identify with this:

  1. I was accustomed to long hours and, basically, doing it all myself.
  2. I found it difficult to delegate.
  3. I’m also cursed with a degree of perfectionism, which means others aren’t going to quite do it right (see #2).
  4. As much as you’d like to presume all people have good intentions, some don’t.
  5. I’m a nice guy. This made it very easy to prey on my good nature, for those that would presume to do so (you know who you are).

Sound familiar?

My advice to anyone still on the uphill climb of the career ladder, viewing this situation with the 20/20 benefit of hindsight, is simply this:

  1. Before you become a supervisor, pay close attention to good ones in your workplace. Learn from them.
  2. Seek out supervisory roles when the time is right, and seek a mentor, either in your organization or preferably in another, but similar, one.
  3. Be approachable, but be careful before becoming “friends” with anyone that reports to you. I’m not saying “don’t do it,” just be careful.
  4. Don’t soft-pedal performance evaluations just because you don’t want to be critical. That’s not good for anyone – them or you.
  5. Learn from your mistakes.

My own inability to control certain problem children in the past has, directly or indirectly, led to my own staff being reduced from seven (full and part-time) to one (plus contractors). And, that’s OK. Perhaps that’s a bad thing or perhaps that has led to finding the workflow “sweet spot” for my department’s activity. That’s a judgment for people smarter than I am.

One thing I do know – I’m a much better supervisor today of the one person that reports to me. She may or may not think so, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Tom Bryson 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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Carol Schachtner

I agree with what you have stated. It’s hard to be a ‘good guy’ supervisor and know who and how far to take the ‘friendly’ part. We grew up being told to ‘be nice’ to everyone-from the woman’s viewpoint- and the balance is difficult. Women don’t support women yet in the workforce-truly on a regular basis-to promote themselves and someone ahead of them- into management. They’re too busy backstabbing the nice hard working people including their managers, to get ahead. Luckily reputations and actions get out, and we hope the good managers find out. If the ‘bad’ personnel think they are getting ahead by lying, cheating, and talking smack about others, why is it you are still in the same position and no one is calling you to come work for them? It is true, your reputation will precede you to other sections/departments/parts of the organization without anyone you know saying anything to them. You may be ahead now, but what about your future? Thank you Tom for your statements, they are very true. being a recent victim of poor managers I can see it from both sides, but they picked on the little people instead of supporting them and helping them to be successful.

Tom Bryson

Thanks, Carol. I think, perhaps, its some of the wisdom that comes with age (or hindsight, I’m not sure there’s much of a difference), but youngsters in the workforce should pay attention to people who are doing it right. Then, do everything they can to emulate those good (best) practices.

Thanks, I’m glad it struck a chord.