By Guy Harris

Many things change when you become a supervisor. Your responsibilities, daily routines, role in the organization, and relationships all change – practically overnight. In the middle of all that is changing, it is easy to miss or overlook the things that do not change – even if you would like it if they did. There are many things in your team, organization, and relationships that you inherit with the title and role of supervisor. Organizational and team history lives on independent of who sits in the supervisor chair. For example:

  • Change implementation history
  • Conflicts and disagreements
  • Perceptions of management
  • Perceptions of the team
  • How team members interact with each other
  • Past successes, failures, joys, and frustrations
  • And many other things that live in the memory of the people in your team and larger organization.

All of these things – and more – come with the title of Supervisor. You inherit a whole truckload of issues affecting your effectiveness as a leader that you did not create and might not want. To paraphrase Mark Twain: not only will a cat that has jumped on a hot stove not jump on a hot stove again, it will not jump on a cold one either. In other words, memories of past events – good or bad – affect the decisions people make in new situations that look similar even if the players and specifics are different.

  • If past change efforts were painful and slow, people tend to believe that future change efforts will be painful and slow.
  • If the last supervisor harshly criticized and judged people on your team, people might respond to you expecting you to do the same.
  • If the last supervisor was an amazing people person who took great care of the team, people will expect you to do the same and will likely judge you harshly if you fall short of the mark.

In short, anything bad that happened in the past might fall on you, and all the good from the past can create a level of expectation that might be difficult to meet or satisfy. The behaviors of past leaders in your role will likely follow you into the role until you develop a track record of your own.

Although the start of this post looks like it is heading in a negative direction, the point is not gloom and doom. The point is to help you manage your expectations as you enter the role.

When you step into the role of supervisor, you inherit all of both the positive and negative history of leadership decisions that came before you. That history colors the beliefs and behaviors of people on your team. The longer that history has existed, the longer it will take to see significant changes in response from your team to various situations.

Probably not a big deal if everything in the past was positive. Likely a challenge if you are trying to correct problems from the past.

The path to a changed or improved future typically involves small steps forward, an occasional step back, and then more steps forward in a progressive move to improvement. Some things can change quickly. Some things will not. 

Your job as a leader is to point the team towards a better future and to model the way forward in terms of improved interactions, communication, and results. If you get frustrated and stressed when people lean on the past to explain or justify their actions, you will have a tough time modeling the way forward. If you understand the history of the team, see it for what it is without complaint or lament, and value improvement over perfection, you can stay positive and optimistic about where you are headed even when the pull of the past creates problems in the present.



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