A Look at the Supervisor-Employee Relationship

by Michael Shelton

Many factors impact how well an employee performs on the job. However, many professionals believe that the most decisive factor in employee performance is the supervisory relationship.

Researchers in the field of organizational dynamics have discerned that many (if not most) problems with employees stem from the relationship between employee and supervisor. The most distressing aspect of this finding is that many supervisors have little awareness of the effects of the relationship on the success of a subordinate and consequently the camp in its entirety.

Understanding Supervisor-Employee Interactions

If the employee-supervisor relationship is so important to a camp’s success, why do supervisors routinely unconsciously and unintentionally erode these most important involvements? A review of the research in psychology, biology, and organizational dynamics sheds insight into how the brain interprets certain staff traits and behaviors.

Supervisors see mainly what they expect to see
People are constantly bombarded with stimuli from the environment: auditory, tactile, visual, and the reactions and sensations emanating from their own bodies. There are literally hundreds of events occurring at every single moment. Yet the brain is only capable of giving its attention to approximately seven distinct stimuli. Out of the hundreds of stimuli occurring, humans are only consciously able to deal with seven. This conversely means that hundreds of events never even register in awareness.

A supervisor who doubts the performance of an employee quickly utilizes this selective attention to focus only on the poor indicators of ability. The supervisor remains unaware of better performance capabilities. If, for example, a head counselor witnesses a subordinate involved in a harsh disciplinary action with a camper, his or her brain is instantly and without conscious intent primed to focus upon other possible weak spots. Any error — no matter how trivial — is from this point on easily observed by the supervisor. This same selective attention prevents the supervisor from witnessing positive acts by the staff member. The reverse holds true for "good" staff members; supervisors are adept at seeing only the positive aspects of their performance.

The important point here is that the mind censors information perceived by the senses; attention is selective and an individual experiences only the stimuli that the brain believes is pertinent.

Subtle messages influence staff
A consistent finding in research is that subordinates are very skilled at "reading" the cues of their bosses. They quickly learn what the boss likes and dislikes, as well as how their supervisor’s emotional state fluctuates.

Camp supervisors constantly exude subtle messages that are perceived by and influence camp staff. Even supervisors who do their best to refrain from making any verbal statement regarding a weak employee unintentionally exhibit subtle indicators, such as an altered tone of voice, physical gesticulations, and poor eye contact, which staff members quickly become aware of and act upon.

A supervisor’s negative opinion of certain camp staff — and of pleasure with the chosen "good staff" — quickly becomes well known. This not only breeds resentment between the staff but also allows license for harassment of the supposed weaker staff members. The supervisor throughout the process remains completely unaware of his own unintentional culpability in the creation of such warring factions.

Excuses explain unexpected behavior
The mind is a master organizer. Due to the massive amount of information it must constantly process (from both external and internal sources), it has created a system of organization that is both quick and efficient — information is placed into categories that share some similarity. If you are leading a nature hike, for example, and suddenly see a small animal with wings fly out of the brush and into the air, you know that it is a bird even if you have never seen that exact type of bird before. Unfortunately, the trade-off for this efficient categorization is a loss of accuracy; by the process of categorization many of the fine details that stand out to individuate a person, place, or thing are lost so that the mind can quickly and effortlessly fit it into an already existing category. The mind is resistant to altering categories once they have been created.

Research demonstrates that supervisors categorize employees as either strong or weak in just three weeks. Once an employee has been placed in a category, it is likely that he will remain in that category no matter what he does. The brain will resist changes in the category by two methods. The first, as described earlier, is to direct attention to only those characteristics that continue to fit that category (selective attention). The second is to literally fabricate excuses for any perceived discrepancies.

If a supposed weak employee is actually demonstrating excellent performance qualities, the supervisor will explain it away as "that person is having a lucky day." Instead of considering the possibility that there may be some true potential in the seemingly weak employee, the mind dismisses the contradictions. The brain actively challenges any discrepancy in perceptions.

The Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome

Manzoni and Barsoux have described the set-up-to-fail syndrome that is an end result of the supervisor-subordinate relationship. Initially, there is a good working relationship between these two individuals. A minor failure or accident alerts the supervisor to the possibility of the need for increased supervision and at the same time activates the brain mechanisms described earlier. The supervisor then has heightened awareness of every mistake the employee makes even though most have no real significance and are also seen in other employees. The subordinate becomes aware of the lack of full trust and resents the increased supervision. The once pleasant working relationship becomes strained with the end result being an overly harsh or distant supervisor and an employee who is frustrated, dismayed, and considering quitting.

In camp settings, the relationship between supervisor and subordinate is especially challenging due to the often young age of the staff members. Most are barely into young adulthood and have had little experience with conflict management.

When the supervisor-subordinate relationship fails, the effects can be felt throughout camp.

  • It saps energy and time.
  • It overloads good employees with work because the supposed weaker ones cannot be trusted to perform.
  • The supposed weak employees do not accept this treatment silently but do much talking about the supervisor behind his back thus affecting team spirit and morale.
  • An employee who feels mistreated by his supervisor may take it out on those he has power over — often campers.

Steps to Success

There are two major interventions necessary in creating a more productive working relationship. The first is to increase supervisory self-
awareness. Supervisory staff will benefit by questioning their own perceptions and reminding themselves of the quiet but powerful influence of the brain. A question to consider in dealings with a perceived weak employee is, "How am I in part responsible for this situation?"

The second is to establish a better relationship with a weak employee. Discussing openly with an employee the possible unintentional ways that the supervisor may undermine performance is critical. Does the employee believe that he is being treated with respect? Does the employee believe that different standards are accorded to his performance in comparison to the rest of the staff? This dialogue means acceptance on the part of the supervisor of possibly critical — but true — employee feedback.

Ninety percent of supervisors have a chosen group of employees that they are closest to — most often the strongest performers in the staff. How do the employees who are not in this select group feel? Even if it is never spoken aloud, an employee knows his assigned place in the hierarchy of supervisorary considerations. A lack of recognition is particularly discouraging when one knows that he is performing at the best of his ability — sometimes even better than the most-favored staff members. An employee begins to believe that no matter how well he performs, his supervisor just isn’t aware of the effort. And, as mentioned earlier, the supervisor truly often isn’t aware. The result is frustration on the part of both supervisor and subordinate.

There are, of course, employees who really do lack the prerequisite skills and even interest in a camp position. Research clearly demonstrates, however, that the potential of most employees remains untapped often as the result of poor supervision. The supervisor can initiate a process of exploration that may transform a lackluster employee into a true camp star. The first step, though, is the most difficult — to begin to doubt what one sees with one’s own eyes.



Originally published in the 2000 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.