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Does Supervision by its very nature imply a lack of trust?

Achieving High Performance without Supervision

From the Genuine Contact Newsletter Archives

This is a brief and possibly controversial article, intended to stimulate thoughts, conversation, and hopefully reader response. It focuses on the topic of supervision and challenges whether supervision in organizations of all types is now an outdated task. In conversations with CEOs, leaders and managers, the topic of 'lack of trust' comes up as one of the key problems in organizational effectiveness. Thus, I have explored whether the embedded concepts associated with the role of supervision imply a lack of trust in the workers. In my research, in 100% of situations of high trust of the employer by the workers, the trust creation depended on the employer demonstrating trust in the workers first.

Additional questions worthy of exploring are:

  • Is supervision appropriate for organizations made up of knowledge workers, service workers and technology workers?
  • Is there a return on investment of supervising workers?
  • Is supervision of workers a cost only with minimal benefit?
  • Is supervision a task that is appropriate for organizations that are positioning themselves to thrive in this conceptual age?
  • If you are in a position of supervising others, have you given consideration to whether this supervision is necessary?
  • What does supervision mean to you and how do you justify this against the premise that people cannot be managed? (Stephen Covey, The 8th Habit, 2004).

According to WordNet® 2.0 © 2003 Princeton University, the definition of 'supervision' clearly related the act of supervision to being about the management of people. n: management by overseeing the performance or operation of a person or group [syn: supervising, superintendence, oversight]

In issues 18 and 19 of the newsletter, I provided an orientation to the differences between leader development, leadership development, manager development, and management development. Within that context, I suggested that people in organizations have a discussion about supervision as an important topic of conversation to be wrestled with. What is supervision? Is supervision necessary? If it is true that leaders lead people and managers don't 'manage' people, what is the role of supervision? If you haven't done so yet, you might wish to note that this is a topic worthy of discussing, rather than taking for granted that supervision is necessary.

If you removed the act of supervision from your organization, what would happen? Might it be possible that productivity, quality service, and other desirable outputs would go up?

Yes, it is possible. In order to achieve high performance without supervision, four prerequisites need to be established.

  1. Organizational 'givens' or non-negotiables need to be identified and clearly articulated. The givens create the container within which there is freedom to make decisions and to take action. Clear articulation of the givens throughout the organization increase consciousness regarding authentic permission in which there is freedom make decisions and freedom to take action.

  2. Expectations for every position need to be established by the leader with the incumbent of the position. With expectations, as Yoda of Star Wars says, 'there is no try. There is only do or don't do'. Expectations are different from a job description and different from goal setting. Clearly articulated and agreed upon expectations set a higher bar. I have rarely seen a job description that is clear about expectations. Expectations are more often implied than explicit. They need to be made explicit. In goal setting, a person can achieve part of the journey to the goal and still be considered successful. An expectation is intended to be achieved. A person either meets or does not meet the expectations.

  3. A mentoring relationship or mentoring circle needs to be in place to enhance the learning of the employee so that the employee can make better and better decisions. All humans are life long learners, just as all organizations are learning organizations. The challenge is to ensure that the learning creates positive generative patterns rather than debilitating patterns. Mentoring relationships and mentoring circles assist the learner to be conscious of what is being learned and what patterns are developing as a result of the learning.

  4. Accountability needs to be shifted away from a hierarchical accountability to accountability to the others in the organization. Accountability to a circle of peers is very effective and assists the whole group of workers in understanding the implications high performance and poor performance, in a way that does not happen when accountability is up through a hierarchy.

As organizations struggle with trust issues that are linked to effective performance, this topic of supervision is an essential one to explore. Is it true that supervision is needed? How do you know it is true? Might there be a better way?

By Birgitt Williams, Senior Consultant of Dalar International Consultancy, Inc., internationally acclaimed specialist in leadership development, consultant development, and strategies for organizational solutions. Visit for more information.

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