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Walking the new-supervisor tightrope.

Walking the new-supervisor tightrope

The technologist promoted to supervisor may move into the job with a confidence based solely on proficiency at the bench--that is, on a mastery of complex tests, an ability to fix and operate all the instruments, and a good understanding of the statistical intricacies of quality control.

That was my reaction. I was thrilled when chosen to lead my department 13 years ago. I was sure no technical situation could catch me unprepared. But soon after I accepted the position, a fear-some feeling took over. What did I know about managing people? How could I get these individuals to pool their skills and talents and do the work needed to keep the department running smoothly?

The answer came after I had made a journey through stages most of us experience on the way to becoming an effective supervisor. Knowing about these demanding and difficult steps in advance--to the extent that is possible--smooths the passage.

At first, the new supervisor believes, "I'm still going to be one of the techs." After years of working at the bench, it's hard to regard oneself as the boss--the person who has to say no to a request for a day off or tell a technologist that a run of cholesterols is not right and has to be redone.

When a supervisor tries to remain a nice guy and continue socializing with the group, some employees may take advantage of this. They may disappear during work hours, call in sick more often than usual, or leave unpleasant tasks undone. To keep the department running, the supervisor has to perform extra technical duties in addition to such adminisrative tasks as preparing staff schedules and ordering supplies.

Being overworked--a partly self-inflicted condition--makes the supervisor feel disgruntled, but upper management is not sympathetic because the problem seems to be an inability to control the staff. For their part, employees perceive inequities. Even those who take advantage may resent others' getting away with more than they do. Morale in the department may sink.

That first stage passes quickly. The supervisor soon realizes the folly of taking on other people's work and thus moves on to the next phase: "If only they knew how much I have to do." Although a great deal of self-pity comes into play here, the basic situation doesn't change much.

The supervisor begins to pay more attention to administrative duties but continues to help get the technical work out. After a while, administrative work backs up, and it's apparent that the department is not functioning efficiently. It finally dawns on the supervisor that only delegating more tasks to technologists will provide enough time for the department to be run properly.

This leads to the third step: "I'm going to reapportion control." Supervisors at this point no longer wish to be overburdened by technical duties. Their main concern is to get their jobs done.

When supervisors get tough suddenly, they may damage new working relationships. (It would have been preferable to start out reasonably firm.) They want to push back, but should remember that they let themselves be pushed in the first place. They should not come out swinging with threats and unwarrnated reprimands.

It is better to lead employees than to push them. A sense of departmental responsibility can develop if employees see that their supervisor is willing to take on some, although not necessarily all, of the unpleasant tasks. For example, a supervisor who participates in the regular rotation at the urinalysis station--not replacing anyone, just taking a turn--will win the staff's esteem.

At the same time, adhering strictly and consistently to a schedule of administrative duties informs the staff that these functions must be performed and are not to be infringed upon. Inspiring the group to function well, both individually and together, creates an incentive for employees to do their jobs expertly and to help their coworkers do the same.

The transition to management orientation ends with step four, "walking the tightrope"--a permanent state for supervisors, who must always tread a fine line. On one side are those who are pleased with the supervisor's actions; on the other, those who are not. All effective supervisors must sometimes make unpopular decisions and give unwelcome assignments.

Thus far, we have seen how the job evolves. The following rules of thumb can make the job easier, as I have learned over the years.

* Lead by example. Supervisors should not ask employees to perform jobs they would be unwilling to do themselves. It's unwise to go on a power trip, especially right away, and assert the privileges of rank by avoiding all tasks that are distasteful. That kind of thinking will alienate the staff.

When a supervisor occasionally carries out unpleasant tasks, technologists perceive aleader who is willing to do whatever it takes to get the department's work done. A side benefit is to help the supervisor remain close to potentially troublesome areas.

* Set schedules equitably. Like anyone else, laboratorians have many interests outside the workplace. Supervisors do not have the right to disrupt their personal time by afflicting them with poorly constructed or unfair schedules or by making last-minute changes.

In our hospital, all technologists rotate every other weekend on duty, so we have to schedule days off during the week. We try to make sure every technologist gets a three-day weekend at least once every six weeks and that no one works longer than seven consecutive days.

Schedules can be shuffled to accommodate requests for time off, but changes and trades should have the consent of all employees concerned. Supervisors must deal with employees compassionately when emergencies crop up. If a sense of teamwork runs through the department, technologists will try hard to alter their own plans in order to help one another.

Schedules should be made out as far in advance as possible. This works to the supervisor's advantage by permitting employees to arrange personal plans for the convenience of the department.

* Make decisions quickly. Supervisors should respond to technical questions right away. Any delay may hold up a technologist's work and increase test result turnaround time. 2f the literature or a manual needs to be consulted, do it promptly.

The same practice applies to administrative decisions, particularly requests for time off. The longer a decision is put off, the more likely a technologist is to doubt that the matter will ever be dealt with.

* Make administrative decisions fairly. Distribute good and bad assignments evenly within the department. Rotate popular and unpopular assignments. If staff members tend to prefer certain workstations--in our laboratory, the profile analyzer was in demand--give all the technologists a turn at them.

* Admit errors. Since supervisors are human, they make their share of mistakes. Learn from each error and go on. Part of the job is to find out what went wrong, why it happened, how to correct it, and how to prevent it from happening again. Instill the same attitude in your staff. Little goofs can grow into large problems if technologists are afraid to report mistakes.

* Represent administration to the staff. Supervisors serve as major links inthe administrative chain. They have the ears of their staff members and should also command their respect. If a supervisor constantly criticizes administrative actions, employees will adopt the same negative attitude.

&resent and explain new administrative policies and decisions to employees without adding any personal views about whether they are right or wrong. If employees challenge a policy, your duty is to defend it.

That's not to say one or more supervisors can't go down the hall to the laboratory director's office, shut the door, and disagree with the policy--in private. But in the presence of the staff, they must be prepared to support management.

* Represent the staff to administration. Administrators rightfully expect supervisors to keep them informed about technologists' concerns regarding major policy decisions. Technologists, in turn, are entitled to expect supervisors to share their thoughts with administration. Supervisors have the additional challenge of dealin face to face with employees who feel they have been wronged in some way.

* Stay alert. Develop a sixth sense that tells you when something is not right in your department. Supervisors who stay in tune with their operations know instinctively when a complaint has merit, whether friction has developed between employees, and when an instrument is not working properly. They listen to the banter and bickering commonly exchanged between coworkers, and they know when (and when not) to step in. At times, a supervisor may have to separate two people or reassign them to widely spaced workstations.

* Weigh alternatives. Take the time to think over your choices when formulating a new policy of preparing to attack an unusual situation and compare the benefits of each approach. consider how a change in circumstances might affect the entire laboratory. For instance, if the department is to be staffed with a certain number of employees per day, each working at a preassigned workstation, what will have to be done if one of them is out sick or on vacation? What happens if two or more employees are out unexpectedly? Could a cross-trained technologist be borrowed fromt another section of the lab? Develop contingency plans long before any crises have the chance to occur.

* Don't be fearful. Supervisors who are afraid everyone is determined to undermine them are not able to function effectively. Be confident and strive to do the best job you can. Secure supervisors do not keep part of their work secret just to make themselves seem irreplaceable. The best departments can function just as well in their absence as in their presence.

* An update. In the five years since this article was first written, hospitals have begun to pay attention to the personnel management aspect of front-line supervising. Many instituitions now hold regular seminars to instruct supervisors in the fine art of making employees perform productively.

Also in those intervening years, I rearranged mu priorities. By choice, I work the nigh shift, alone, so that I can be an active full-time parent during the day. If and when I return to a supervisory role, the lessons I learned early will continue to serve me well.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Tabor, John L.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Feb 1, 1991
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