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The overdependent supervisor.

The overdependent supervisor

Many young adults blame overprotective parents for their inability to assume responsibility. A disturbingly large number of lab supervisors, beset by a similar problem, could point a finger at their surrogate parents--the managers they report to.

These supervisors often prefer structured, risk-free situations. They constantly surrender authority and pass matters upward for a decision. Of course, if you asked them about it, they would deny dependence and try to conceal their anxieties and insecurities.

Beth is a good example. She is meticulous to a fault, a quality that helped her to excel as a technologist. Now that she is a supervisor, however, it has created a barrier between her staff members and herself. They accuse her of always going by the book, and indeed, she is very rigid in interpreting laboratory policies and procedures. Beth regards anything that isn't clearly spelled out as a potential hazard. She also prefers to lean on her own manager for guidance and support.

In Steve's case, we see what happens when an overdependent supervisor gets out of his depth. In his first year as a supervisor, he performed well. Then workload climbed rapidly, propelling his laboratory section into a protracted period of pressure.

Steve panicked. He became increasingly disorganized, and the quantity and quality of the section's output deteriorated. Yet he was reluctant to admit any mistakes and was extremely defensive when criticized.

Finally, there's Melanie, who is easy to work for--too easy. She tends to be overpermissive, particularly with her pet employees. Although she feels she is a good delegator, she has in effect abdicated her authority to staff members. They take all the risk, and she takes all the credit.

As is evident in these three situations, overdependence may be manifested in very different ways. What underlies the varying kinds of behavior is a fundamental fear of risk. All of these supervisors are running scared.

Some of the clues to overdependence are:

Resistance to change. A new instrument or a change in lab procedures is usually received enthusiastically by independent supervisors. To the overdependent supervisor, it represents the untried and unknown--a risk.

Overpermissiveness. The best way to avoid responsibility is never to assume it. The overdependent supervisor gives employees wide latitude. This provides convenient scapegoats if anything goes wrong.

Going by the book. Another way to avoid responsibility and the risk that accompanies it is to interpret policies and procedures literally, or to ask for an official interpretation and lean on a manager for guidance and help.

Tendency to have pet employees. It's desirable for a supervisor to encourage participation in decision making and to delegate responsibilities to employees. But the overdependent supervisor overdoes it, seeking out strong staff members who are willing to take charge. An unwritten psychological contract governs their relationship: "You watch out for my interests as supervisor, and I'll give you preferential treatment.'

Reluctance to admit mistakes. The overdependent supervisor is extremely defensive when criticized. Even when it's obvious that the supervisor has made mistakes, they are denied or explained away with excuses.

Tendency to panic under pressure. When the going gets tough, the overdependent supervisor may become immobilized and disorganized. He or she may become preoccupied with unimportant details and fail to follow through on threatening assignments. Action is postponed, apparently in the belief that the pressure will subside by itself.

Any supervisor who wants to become more independent must make a commitment to a long-term personal development program. At the same time, the supervisor must be prepared to experience a short-term increase in anxieties and insecurities.

With the necessary commitment, these specific suggestions should help rid a supervisor of overdependence:

1. Acknowledge that you have a problem. It is a difficult thing to do; understandably, you may fear that admitting to dependence will cause your manager to lose confidence in you. But if you have exhibited some of the telltale behavior we have just described, the secret is already out. Your manager is likely to appreciate efforts to correct rather than cover up the deficiency.

2. Work with your manager to strengthen the structure of your job. Together you should develop written, detailed performance standards, such as: "To plan and organize at least three training activities annually for each staff member.' The better you understand what is expected of you, the less need there is for continual clarification.

3. Delay calling for rescue when under pressure. It's too tempting to ask for help, particularly when your manager's leadership style is authoritarian. Your own problem-solving ability becomes impaired if you don't develop it through frequent use. To begin helping yourself, you might try positive self-talk: "I can work my way out of this situation all by myself.'

4. Realistically assess the risks. Don't let your emotions blow a situation out of proportion--into a potential catastrophe, say. If you rationally assess the consequences associated with mishandling the situation, you will realize that not as much is at stake as you thought.

5. Don't waste time creating alibis. Your defensiveness will make a critic more determined to prove you wrong. Accept criticism instead, at least temporarily. Listen to all of it, but reserve the right to ask for clarification and to challenge the criticism after you understand it and have had time to evaluate its legitimacy.

6. Delegate, but don't abdicate. By all means, don't try to be a one-person show. Share your responsibilities with staff members. Solicit their advice and help as needed, but remember that as supervisor you cannot give away final responsibility for what happens in your work group.

7. Take the time to plan and think. Even against very tight deadlines, there is usually time to redo anything that wasn't done right initially. The time you spend planning will save you time in the long run and give you more confidence in whatever you ultimately decide to do.

8. Focus on making the best decision, not on the dangers of making the wrong decision. Many supervisors are paralyzed in a highpressure situation because they worry about the consequences of their decisions. They foresee a chain of improbable events: "If I do this, my boss will . . . the laboratory chief will . . . the administrator will . . . the house staff will . . ..' Worrying promotes indecision and post-decision anxiety.

9. Discuss important decisions with others and evaluate their input, but don't dump responsibility for final action in their laps. Remember that the decisions are still yours to make.

10. Don't postpone difficult or threatening assignments. They won't go away. Instead, attack them immediately with your head and not with your emotions.

If, after considering the clues to overdependence, you realize you may have this trait, try out some of these suggestions. It will certainly be worth the effort, since overdependent supervisors are frequently in a state of panic, and their work groups tend to be bedeviled by poor morale, low productivity, inability to meet schedules, and excessive turnover.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Roseman, Ed
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Apr 1, 1986
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