How to Assert Yourself Without Being Assertive, and Other Lessons I Was Told to Learn: What the Experts Say

Over the last two decades, I have been given advice on how to better work on a team by stifling my voice. This will be a blog series on how to unlearn these lessons. In this post, I will explore what experts say about poor supervision and leadership within an office environment.

How to Assert Yourself Without Being Assertive, and Other Lessons I Was Told to Learn: What the Experts Say - Poor Supervision

In a previous post, How to Assert Yourself Without Being Assertive, and Other Lessons I Was Told to Learn, I began to document some of the pivotal experiences that happened to me professionally. Each of the experiences impacted me profoundly and, years later, I find myself reflecting on how and why they did so. In retrospect, I believe the supervisors who were part of these experiences were trying to change my impact on the team through what I now believe was negative behavior modification. And for my own part, I was incredibly receptive to this type of supervision.

Before writing about these incidents in one place, I never made the connection about their cumulative impact. I also never thought of their leadership as poor, as I was craving their positive feedback. I plan to explore these experiences in a series of blogs. In this blog post, I’ll share the impact of bad supervisors in the workplace.

One Thing To Note

In a previous post, I wrote about receiving difficult and challenging feedback about my impact on others on staff teams. I wanted to make it clear that being told I was contributing to a hostile environment was necessary. Both for me to improve my own performance and for the climate of the organization. I am grateful for this type of grace to improve my impact in the world and applaud those who give this type of professional feedback to their peers.

However, the feedback I spoke about in the first How to Assert Yourself series created a hostile environment for me, calling out my behavior but not calling it out similarly for others in the office. Looking back now, with nothing to lose by calling out this behavior, I can see more clearly what the hostile environment looked like for me. I also recognize that it was more than poor supervision that impacted me; I was subject to discriminatory practices that should have been reported to a civil rights office for their patterns and negative impact on my career.

Back To The Poor Supervision

One of the challenges of revisiting the memories recounted in the first blog is that, for the most part, I had mostly positive experiences working with these supervisors. I definitely had issues with some of the workplace politics and specific supervisors and tried to remember the positive aspects of our time together. But I don’t believe these memories excuse poor supervision when it does happen. In order to make sense of these experiences, I decided to see what others have written about this topic.

In ‘Poor supervision in a business can be surprisingly harmful‘ the author shared that over-supervising can be as harmful as being left to one’s own devices. This type of supervision can leave you distrusting the organization and your own competency. It can also make you feel a lack of respect from your supervisor and the leadership team. I can say that I have felt both of these feelings – lack of trust and lack of respect – from supervisions before.

“If a supervisor is not present enough, or is too overbearing, then the reaction from employees will only be fear, resentment, and displeasure in their work.  The productivity will not be as good, and the employee turnover will increase.”

Poor Supervision in a Business Can be Surprisingly Harmful:

I believe the intent of the supervisory feedback I received was grounded in “good intentions” each supervisor had at the moment. Perhaps they wanted to create a sense of equality. Bridge different work backgrounds. Create collaborative relationships. All wonderful intentions I am certain.

However, the impact filled me with shame, doubt, and uncertainty among the lack of trust and respect. And it was hard to stay in an office environment that made you feel these emotions.

The Long Term Effects of Poor Supervision

Nearly all of the times I began to feel the weighty impact of poor supervision, I knew it was time to move on. The impact either came directly from a supervisor or from the division leadership. In interviews, I used to share how most job moves were my own decision. I’ve since decided to name the real reason: lack of support from leadership. It might not work in my favor but I have already found that my interviews feel more authentic naming the culprit.

Since the last college closed, I have had a great deal of time to reflect on my professional skills. With decades of experience, I thought it would be easy to move on working for myself. I thought I had the kind of confidence that would help me in the long-term.

I was wrong.

One of the harder things I had to do was learn how to begin to see myself independent from my supervisors. Nearly every professional decision I made in the last twenty years was one worked on with others, either by committee or consensus. Even what and where I could buy supplies was pre-determined and approved through several layers of administration. Until recently, I felt the need to talk through nearly every decision I made with anyone. And that made me feel very unsettled.

It unsettled me because I teach students how to become confident leaders, making confident choices. I don’t recall when this lack of confidence began. I know how it had been reinforced in the multiple offices where I worked. Samuel Bacharach from Cornell University calls it the drip-drip-drip effect.

The Drip-Drip-Drip Effect

Dr. Bacharach named the drip-drip-drip effect after the undermining behavior that supervisors can do to keep their staff from thriving. Regardless of the positive intentions, the impact hurts the individual. Even writing about this undermining behavior reminds me of two specific people I have worked for. And why I no longer work for them.

“Everyone has had experience with an unpleasant or mean supervisor. It could be a one-time thing, if the supervisor were having a very bad day and just couldn’t help but snap when someone asked an innocent or mundane question.

Or the bad boss experience could be the culmination of the daily drip-drip-drip of supervisor sneers and sarcasm that can make life miserable for everyone. This drip-drip-drip is what researchers call “supervisor undermining.” Some may say that it is abusive supervision, but undermining captures the little things that supervisors and others in charge do that prevent their team members or employees from truly thriving.”

The Five Drips of Negative Supervision:

Re-looking at some of the challenging work environments where I worked, it was sometimes hard to find support among my peers. Since the feedback I received was directed at me and no one else, all I could find were apologists. I can only hope none of them experienced what I did and had its long-lasting effects like I have.

What Is Next and What I Have Learned

Spending the last couple of weeks sitting in these memories has taught me a great deal. It showed me what I have left to learn and what I hope to teach others as a supervisor. It has also reinforced my role in interrupting the poor supervision lessons I have learned.

I plan to explore these topics in the next blog post. And I hope that if you are experiencing anything similar to my own experiences that you find the support to change your situation. I see you and want to hear from you.

Career Coaching for the Mid-Level Career Professional

I have worked with entry-level and mid-level career professionals, and those supervising professional staff, for nearly ten years, helping them reconsider their strengths and ways to learn new skills. Let me know if there is anything I can do to support you as you develop this new skill.

Schedule an introductory meeting so we can discuss a plan that works best for you.

Useful Links

When Bad Supervisors Happen to Good People: The Price of Poor Supervision:

Poor Supervision in a Business Can be Surprisingly Harmful:

The Five Drips of Negative Supervision:

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