A Dozen Mistakes to Avoid as a Supervisor and What to Do Instead

mistakes to avoid as a supervisor

The following is a guest post by Rita Sever.  Her bio follows.

When I work with supervisors, I am often surprised by the particulars of a situation but I am rarely surprised by the underlying problems or practices. Whether it is because they are new managers and are just doing what has been done to them or because they are established managers who have too much to do and too little time, these are a dozen common mistakes. These actions will cause problems in the long run– and sometimes in the short run too! Here’s a quick reference list of the mistakes – and what to do instead.

  1. Work in a Vacuum

Acting as if all that matters is what is right in front of you.

INSTEAD:  Ensure that every staff member understands how their work supports the bottom-line mission of the organization.

  1. Confuse Friendships for Supervision

This is a trap for many supervisors, especially new ones. A supervisory relationship can get messy quick when you’re friends with your staff, especially if you are friends with only some of your staff.

INSTEAD:  Connections and respect are critical.  Get to know each person as an individual so you know how to help him or her do their best work.  Go with friendly, not friends. If you have a personal relationship with someone on your staff, leave it at the door. Treat everyone the same at work.

  1. Make Vague Assignments

This mistake often comes from a lack of time combined with assumptions that you and your staff are thinking the same thing. These managers give them vague assignments and fuzzy due dates, but then hold them accountable for clear results.

INSTEAD:  Make time to think about what success looks like for each person, each job, each assignment and then share that image with your staff.  Establish clear expectations so each person knows what their job is, how it supports the mission, and how to do the job.

  1. Give No feedback

These supervisors tell their staff members, “If you don’t hear from me, you’re doing fine.” That doesn’t work. This practice reinforces that belief because the only time staff hear from their supervisor is when they’ve messed up.

INSTEAD:  The truth is that most staff want to know how they are doing.  Feedback is simply information and it needs to be handled as such. Give your staff information about what is working as well as what is not working. Give your staff prompt and specific feedback, in a neutral informative tone, on a regular basis.

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  1. Don’t Follow Through

This is the supervisor who overpromises and rarely delivers.  He or she acts like they want to mentor their staff or introduce them to people or help them develop their skills.  In reality, they are too busy and rarely follow through on any of their promises.

INSTEAD:  Make a practice of capturing your promises and following through on them – even if they are quick ideas like “I’ll bring that article in for you.” Do it!

  1. Ignore law and policies

Labor law liability is huge in any organization.  Policies are not made just to keep HR busy. These managers think the rules don’t have anything to do with how the real world works.

INSTEAD: Learn the basics of federal and state labor law just so you know what the danger areas are. HR can be you’re your friend in this area.

  1. Never meet with staff 1:1

These managers meet with their employees one-on-one only when they give them their annual evaluations. They think this will make it seem really special.  In reality, this undermines the relationship with staff and creates gaps in the work and the outcomes.  INSTEAD:  Schedule regular meetings with each staff member to ensure that you and your staff are on the same page in terms of priorities, deadlines and methods.  Invest in regular and frequent one-on-one meetings with those you supervise (at least monthly).

  1. Ignore Problems

Your staff is watching you.  If someone is cheating in some way or not keeping their agreements or doing something else inappropriate and you ignore it, you send a clear message that the rules don’t matter and performance doesn’t matter.  Your problem employees will keep pushing the boundaries and your good employees will wonder why they’re working so hard.

INSTEAD:  Act consistently to hold people accountable for their work and their agreements.

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  1. Act Authoritatively

This is the manager who wants to make sure that no one ever forgets that he/she is the boss. They hold themselves as better than their staff by looking down at them, giving orders, never saying please or thank you, and expecting them to say “How high?” when they’re told to jump.  Staff will feel disrespected and disengaged.  They may stay for their paycheck but when something better comes along, they will be out of there.

INSTEAD:  Work in partnership with your coworkers, including the people you supervise. You have different roles but you are both working for the same goals. Lead with respect and hold your authority as a responsibility.

  1. Don’t bother to listen to your staff.

This is the kind of manager who thinks they know everything there is to know and therefore does not trust their staff or think they have anything of value to contribute.

INSTEAD:  Effective supervisors, listen at least as much as they talk, often more.  They trust that their staff know their jobs and have ideas to contribute.  They know they will need to hear about problems sooner rather than later and that this will only happen when they listen.  These managers make it a habit to listen, in the one to one meetings and in the team meetings.

  1. Don’t have fun at work.

These managers never let the staff see them laugh, play any silly icebreakers, or share any kind of personal stories. They believe that any kind of interaction is a waste of time and will make them seem soft.

INSTEAD:  Take a few minutes to laugh and play with your staff, in a safe and respectful manner. Be real. This will help people enjoy their work and each other.  Studies have shown that short ice-breakers can “get people in the room” quicker than a formalize agenda and brusque start. Laughing together reduces stress and helps people be more innovative.  It also makes you more human. Try it.

  1. Build a culture of overwhelm

This boss expects their staff be available 24/7.  They will send an email at 1:00 in the morning and then another at 6:00 asking why the staff member hasn’t replied.  They act like work is everything. They don’t want to hear about any commitments outside of work and expect their staff to be available at any time.

INSTEAD:  Effective managers attend to sustainability: of themselves, their team, and their organization.  They model a realistic work/life balance.  That doesn’t mean they drop everything and leave at 5:00 every day but they keep work levels realistic and take vacations occasionally. They support their staff to do the same.


Avoid these mistakes and focus on what you can do to be effective as a manager. Work diligently to invest in your employees and the success of the organization.  You can determine what kind of manager you want to be. It’s not an accident whether you are a good or a bad supervisor. What kind of supervisor do you want to be?

Rita Sever

Rita Sever worked as an HR Director for more than 20 years before she started her consulting practice, Supervision Matters. She has an MA in organizational psychology and is a professional coach. She has taught at the University of San Francisco and Sonoma State University in California, and has published a monthly newsletter entitled Matters of Supervision for over ten years. Sever lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Portland, OR. She is the author of Supervision Matters: 100 Bite-Sized Ideas to Transform You and Your Team. Visit her at SupervisionMatters.com.


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Main. Feedback.    Accountability. 

Ms. Career Girl

Ms. Career Girl was started in 2008 to help ambitious young professional women figure out who they are, what they want and how to get it.