The Supervisor/Supervisee Relationship

Our relationship with our supervisors is one of the most important relationships that we have in our career, but it times it can also feel the most complicated. As three admissions professionals who have been in the field for a while, here are some things that we have learned over the years that can help you establish a great relationship with your supervisor.

Our Advice:

  • Reflect on what your needs are: This can be tough for younger professionals who may be in their first full-time role, because you might not know what it is that you need from your supervisor. Spend some time thinking about what will help make you feel most supported. Would you prefer a regularly scheduled check-in meeting every week? Would you like that check-in to be virtual, face-to-face, or over the phone? How do you prefer to receive feedback? Engaging in self-reflection is the first step to advocating for your own needs.
  • Advocate for your own needs: Once you’ve reflected and determined what your needs are, make sure to communicate those with your supervisor. I know that I want my supervisor to have good understanding of what I’m working on. To make that happen, I need to have check-in meetings at least every other week. I shared that with my boss, and he has been great about getting those regular check-ins on the calendar. Your supervisor can only give you what you need if you tell them!
  • Recognize their authority: Even if your office has a somewhat “flat” structure, and decisions are largely made by the group as a whole, your supervisor still has authority. It’s important to recognize that authority. Even for folks who have a great relationship with their supervisor, have been in the profession for a long time, or have a ton of autonomy in their role, the supervisor still has the final say. Forgetting that can put you in a tricky situation!
  • Establish trust. The first and easiest way to establish trust with your supervisor is by getting your work done efficiently and effectively. But you can and should go above and beyond that. Anticipate future needs within your office, and work to meet those needs before they come up. Plan ahead and work on projects ahead of time that will benefit your team. Work with your supervisor not only to accomplish your work goals, but to help them in their endeavors. Be someone that they view not only as a direct report or an employee to develop, but as someone that they can turn to as an asset, to assist them in their projects, someone they can depend on and would recommend for special opportunities. Turn in projects early or on time, come to meetings prepared for the conversation ahead and with a list of agenda items to discuss.
  • Communicate well and often: Communicating well also means figuring out what type of communication your supervisor prefers. Do they hate email? If you need to give them a quick message, maybe just send them an IM. This also requires you to know your boundaries. Is your boss okay with you calling and texting their cell phone? Are you okay with them calling or texting yours? By clearly articulating their boundaries and learning what their boundaries are, you’ll avoid any awkward situations. Tell your supervisor your strengths, how you like to be recognized, and how you would like to receive feedback.
  • Do your homework: I recently read a leadership book called How to Lead When You’re Not In Charge, which shared some great advice about learning what works best for your boss, “What is your boss’s personality type? Does your boss think concretely or abstractly? What level of detail does your boss need? How does your boss like to receive information? These are all questions you can ask your boss when emotions are low. Later, in the challenging conversations, if you have done your homework, it will show. The bottom line is that you do some homework and learn the approach that best fits your boss.”
  • Don’t feel bad making requests: Always remember that supervising you is a part of your boss’s job. You have a right to their time. If you have a request to make, or if there is something you need in order to do your job effectively, don’t feel bad for asking!
  • Ask for feedback: This is another element of the supervisory relationship that can be nerve-wracking, especially for younger or newer staff. However, feedback is critically important. By asking your direct supervisor for feedback, you can see what parts of your job you’re doing well, and get ideas on where and how you can improve. It’s good to remember, though, that your boss isn’t the only one that you should ask for feedback. Make sure to ask other colleagues, especially your peers, for feedback as well, so that you can get a fuller picture.
  • Share feedback freely, but respectfully: Feedback goes both ways, and it’s as important for you to give feedback to your supervisor as it is for them to share feedback with you. Performance reviews can be a great time for this. Be sure to share positive feedback, and not just the negative. For example, one of the things I appreciate most about my boss is that he strikes a good balance between knowing what I’m working on but trusting me to do it. I don’t feel micromanaged, but I also don’t feel ignored or totally on my own. Because this is something I really appreciate about our relationship, I make sure to mention it during my performance reviews, because it’s something that I want to see continue in the future. If you have negative feedback to share with your supervisor, be sure to do so in a respectful manner. Be polite but be honest. In some circumstances, your negative feedback might wind up having been based off of a misunderstanding, and addressing it head on can provide some much-needed clarity.
  • Be prepared for meetings: Before every one-on-one with my supervisor, I type up a note on my phone with a list of things that I need to talk to him about. This helps me to not forget about anything important, and also provides a bit of an agenda for our meetings. Our one-on-ones aren’t super structured, but it is always helpful to have a list of topics to cover to ensure that our meetings are productive. When both of us show up to meetings prepared, it’s a sign that we respect each other’s time.
  • Handle conflict respectfully: Another great quote from How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge: “When emotions are low and we’re speaking in hypotheticals, I’ve found it helpful to ask my boss this simple question, ‘Hey, this rarely happens, but I’m sure it will. When I disagree with something I see, what’s the best way to bring that up with you?’ It’s amazing how disarming that question can be. Most people are aware that every human being is going to disagree with something from time to time. This question signals to your boss that you are thinking about those times. When you do have something you would like to challenge, you’ve already asked for permission and agreed upon the best way to handle it.” This is awesome advice! Conflict will happen in every relationship. How do you plan ahead so that you can handle that conflict well when it happens?
  • Share your whole self with your supervisor: You are more than just your job title! You have a full life outside of work that includes personal development, hobbies, health and wellness, a family, maybe kids or pets, and so much more. Don’t be afraid to share some of those things with your supervisor. You never know what you might have in common or what might help you to make a stronger connection. Plus, feeling free to bring your whole self to your relationship with your supervisor may very likely help you feel more comfortable and confident at work.
  • Give the benefit of the doubt: We have to believe our supervisors are trying their hardest. We often do not realize the challenges they face personally and/or professionally. We may not realize how they may protect us from information that may damage our spirit. Give grace. Lacey Patterson says, “Every supervisor is different and not everyone’s method and practices are the same. I feel that lately we place too much blame on others and give little grace to personality. We also have to realize that building a relationship takes time and learning our job takes time. Let the process unfold. Take joy in learning about our profession and helping others.”
  • Find a mentor: Not to quite Mr. Rodgers here but “find the helpers”. Look for mentors. Occasionally your supervisor may also be your mentor, but often you need to have a mentor who is outside of your supervisor/supervisee relationship and that is healthy. Someone you can bounce ideas off of; someone who can help ground you when you are emotional; etc.
  • Take responsibility: To quote Clay Scroggins again, “You are in charge of you. You are in charge of your emotions, your thoughts, your reactions, and your decisions. It’s the law of personal responsibility, because everyone is responsible for leading something, even if that something is just you.” Your relationship with your supervisor is a critical part of your success at work. But don’t forget that regardless of your supervisor, you ultimately control your success.

Lacey’s Story: The very best advice I received was from my first Director of Admissions. He was one of the most kind and genuine people I have ever met. Our relationship developed when I first toured the University of Montana and met with him, and years later, he actually presided over my wedding. Upon graduation he asked me if I was interested in working in Admissions. Thank goodness I said yes because 20 years later, here I still am.

My first 6 months I was hired as a temporary admissions counselor because there was not a full-time position available. Soon after, I was able to apply for a full-time position. Frank sat me down in his office and said (I am paraphrasing), “I believe that communication is the most important part of this job. You will have autonomy and be on your own most of the time. I hired you because I trust you and believe in you. I ask in return that you are honest. That you communicate. That you try your hardest. I will always be your champion; but I need to know what you need. I empower you to ask for help when you need help. As a director, supervising is just one of my responsibilities, so I need you to partner with me.”

One of my first recruitment trips happened right before 9/11. I was out in Eastern Montana with limited resources, no cell phone, a calling card, and very few gas stations. I called into the office that morning scared and unsure what was happening. I just remember Frank telling me everything would be okay, just keep aware, communicate to the office as much as you can and ask for help if you need it. Everything for me was ok, I completed my work trip and made it home.

During my M.Ed. in Education Leadership, I also spent extensive time learning about Leadership in Higher Education and the theories by Parker Palmer & Arthur Zajonc in “The Heart of Higher Education” and then by Glickman, Gordon, and Ross-Gordon in “Supervision and Instructional Leadership”. Both approaches lend themselves to a developmental approach to leadership and an integrated approach to educating and developing the whole person.

Susan’s Story: I had my first job when I was fifteen. In that role, I didn’t think much at all about my relationship with my boss. I came in to work, she gave me a list of things that needed to get done that day, and if I had questions, I asked her. That was about it. However, as I’ve grown as a professional, I’ve realized how important my relationship with my supervisor can be, and how it can really set the tone for how I feel about my work overall. I’ve been lucky to have some really phenomenal supervisors throughout my career so far (shout-out to Jen Hacke Sass at Iowa State!), and I have learned a lot from all of them. One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced was being willing to tell my supervisor that I was struggling with something or needed help. I always wanted to come across as competent and professional, and thought that meant that I couldn’t ask for help. Turns out, if you are honest with your supervisor about things that you are struggling with, it helps the relationship and enhances your supervisor’s confidence in you!

In addition to building a strong relationship with your supervisor, I’ve found that it’s especially important to find mentors, both within my office and outside of it. Some of my most cherished mentorships and professional relationships have come through Iowa ACAC!

Hopefully some of our advice is helpful to you as you build a strong and effective relationship with your supervisor. A great relationship with your boss can help you feel confident in your work and can be transformative for your career. It can also make your day-to-day work better and help you feel happier and more fulfilled in your role. We wish you all the best!

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