Managing Greatly: The Way of the Vulnerable Supervisor

This article was co-authored by Sinclair Ceasar and Lisa Endersby and originally posted on the Student Affairs Collective.

I inherited a staff that didn’t trust me at all. My first day of work was their last day of RA training. They experienced a lot of turnover and at some point ended up with me. We had a really rough start. At some point, a staff member and I got into an argument at a staff meeting in front of everyone. No one ever volunteered to help me clean, put things away, or set things up. Things were toxic and I felt like I failed at creating a safe space. At some point we all knew something had to give.

Sinclair’s story isn’t uncommon. Most likely, you’ve been part of a malfunctioning team. Sometimes the tendency is to work against the group and isolate yourself. Another option is to retreat altogether. Is there value in going back to the drawing board and noticing where trust fell through? How much should you self-disclose your feelings on the team’s situation? We have the opportunity to be bold, and help our team repair by practicing vulnerability in supervision, but this is easier said than done. Fortunately, we have advice from authors and scholars like Simon Sinek and Brene Brown to help us strategically move toward unification and stronger relationships with our teams. Below are lessons and ideas inspired by readings, research, and hard won inspiration drawn from our professional experiences; both the successes and failures.

Simon Sinek writes about a Circle of Safety in his book “Leaders Eat Last.” Assess your staff and establish the members within said circle.

 Safety looks different for different people, and what one person finds ‘easy’; someone else may be absolutely terrified of. Safety also doesn’t mean floodlighting or overwhelming team members with vulnerability and authenticity. Once, I made the mistake of being too open and trying to be everyone’s friend. There is no clear

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direction in a spotlight being shone on me and my, well, everything; only a harsh light where no one can see clearly and most people turn away from. The Circle of Safety, by comparison, is well lit, but not blinding. The Circle of Safety creates an environment in which folks want to support each other rather than compete with them. This environment consists of staff members who don’t fear losing their jobs and aren’t always trying save face because they fear someone else cutting them down. We need to start here, in the circle, before we can create a true space of sharing and vulnerability. I want my staff to feel wanted and feel they work in my office because they have the skills and drive to. With this strong foundation of support, my staff feels a little safer because we’ve established a mutual trust and respect. Moving forward, it’s about taking steps toward more sharing, more transparency, and everyone being on board about what direction we want to take our circle in. At the end of the day, the circle is about being safer with a group of likeminded people rather than being afraid and alone on the outskirts, feeling like you can’t trust your co-workers. If we continue to establish that safety during every 1:1 and staff meeting, eventually we can talk about our sad days and bad days. But if we aren’t there yet, we shouldn’t suddenly and surprisingly create this circle because folks can get hurt. Moreover, we risk floodlighting our employees and giving them more information than they wanted in the first place. I work under the impression that most people want to be heard and have a wide range of emotions even if they say things like, “I’m just here to work.” But here, we get to go a little deeper and create the type of environment in which folks know they can share stories, be upset, and talk about what’s keeping them from completing a project. It doesn’t mean we need a support group type meeting every day and all day, but employees can know that this space is safe enough where if they talk others will listen and care about what they have to say.

Utilize the 1st and mid-year staff retreat to create safe spaces for sharing. Get away from busyness and allow time for vulnerable conversations.

Retreats are great opportunities to get away from the very context and location(s) that can often be creating many of the problems that plague an inauthentic, reactive workplace. One recurring challenge we might face, however, is we often take the new environment for granted and all our good work gets lost when we get back to ‘reality’. It’s important to set up check in days throughout the year and develop small, achievable projects to extend the developed feelings of trust and motivation. It’s important in this case to be very visible in demonstrating how those lessons and ideas are being reflected upon and implemented Employees need to see and feel a part of the process. It’s not enough for them to just be presented with the end result for feedback. At one institution, we realized that everyone was hungry for more professional development opportunities while at our summer retreat. Eventually, we began to have Monday morning leadership meetings twice a month. We met with a senior administrator at some meetings, and at another meeting we discuss a professional development book on leadership that was assigned to us. This gets tricky with job description and union defined roles and responsibilities, but sometimes it’s as simple or as complicated as getting feedback and asking for help along the way, building on and leveraging the employee’s strengths and skills that can complement your own for the greater success of the project or initiative.

Be a hi-touch supervisor. Have frequent and effective check-ins. Express your own struggles and solutions. Be open and visible.

Visibility is key. Share what you’re working on and how it fits with what you’re asking others to do (for you).  Being open and visible, however, means walking the line between check-ins that are ‘high touch’ and feelings-focused without scaring someone off by being overly personal. Providing a space to be a human first and an employee second helps to ensure the “relationship” component of the supervisor relationship remains intact  so good work can continue to be done.

 Identify your team’s dysfunctions. Patrick Lencioni writes about how teams create their own roadblocks to trust in “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” Name the roadblocks.

 To remedy the toxic environment I had apparently walked into, I met with the staff I inherited individually and had them evaluate me. I wanted to discover trends and patterns. The trend was that I didn’t communicate well. They felt like they heard about things at the last minute. They also shared that they didn’t like my sarcasm and felt like I was trying to be their friend. What they wanted and needed was a supervisor whose main goal was to help them grow. While I think they were a bit too serious and pessimistic for my taste, they had a good point. I came in the door wanting everyone to like me and probably tried too hard.

It’s important to note that the roadblocks weren’t any individual person or collection of staff, but rather our fear-based approaches to the conflict. After these difficult yet ultimately insightful conversations, we went back to the drawing board. I started sending them updates about their areas and making the staff meeting agendas more comprehensive to make sure we covered everything they needed to know. I joked less and set expectations before each 1:1 meeting. I asked them what they wanted to get out meetings. I tapped into my strength of individualization to personalize each individual conversation. It worked. We didn’t look like a group of people who loved each other, nor did we necessarily need to be, but the environment was a lot less hostile. I think what these staff members needed most was to be heard and to see their own desires, goals, and ideas put into action. Of course, I had to be careful to still be the supervisor at the end of the day and not have it so that my staff felt entitled to run everything.

In his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey says, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Make a commitment to not only see, but to understand your employees. Acknowledge feelings rather than running from them. Talk less, listen better, and share more.

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