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The Role of a Supervisor

Supervisors

It’s 20 years since our readmission to the international community and, South African business has had to face the hard reality of competition – just look at the variety of vehicles on our roads today compared to the 90’s.

Globalisation has meant that quality and price are more important than ever. A business simply cannot afford to send out poor quality or over-priced products, or to provide a shoddy service – consumers won’t stand for it. The South African public has tasted freedom of choice and they will only buy South African products and services if they are perceived to be good value for money.

The reality is that if South African businesses do not put their houses in order and produce quality goods and services at competitive prices, they will not survive. They will also not survive if they are unable to get their unions to support initiatives to increase productivity. And without good labour relations, productivity and good customer service can never be achieved.

This brings us to the role of the supervisor in business. During the 80’s and early 90’s one of the strategies of the liberation movement was to make business ungovernable. Supervisors, being the first point of contact with workers bore the brunt of the conflict. Their authority was constantly undermined in an on-going battle with shop stewards. Not surprisingly, a key responsibility of the supervisor during that time was to ‘control’ his subordinates (not too many female supervisors in those days!).

The supervisor who is a ‘controller’ has to be a disciplinarian. However, the supervisor who is a good disciplinarian from management’s point of view, is seldom popular with employees. This led to situations where certain supervisors were targeted and intimidated with some even losing their lives. Not surprisingly, employees either refused promotion to supervisory positions or, once appointed, simply did not ‘control’ their subordinates.

Even though there is a different political dispensation, the situation with regard to supervisors has not changed all that much. Too many employers still expect supervisors to ‘control’ their subordinates.

The problem with this thinking is that as people become used to democracy, they become more questioning of authority. They want responsibility and respect and are not prepared to have someone ‘watching over their shoulders’. They will resist and one will either have on-going conflict at the workplace or employees will simply do as little as possible to stay out of trouble.

Many supervisors use public transport or live in areas where they are vulnerable to intimidation. They therefore face exactly the same problems that their White predecessors did during the struggle years. It is a lot easier to turn a blind eye than to make oneself unpopular and put oneself at personal risk.

The net result is that we continue to hear management complaining about how ineffective their supervisors are. Supervisory training is often seen as the answer. Training is important yes, but it can only be effective if performance barriers are addressed – a key one being the assumption that employees need to be ‘controlled’.

Before embarking on supervisory training it is important to revisit your HR strategy with a view to developing a working climate wherein employees identify with the vision, mission and values of the organisation and take pride in their work. In this type of environment, integrity, quality and performance are valued highly and employees do not need to be ‘controlled’.

As part of the strategy the role of the supervisor needs to be redefined from that of a ‘controller’ to that of facilitator and co-ordinator. The supervisor’s role is to ensure work teams have the necessary resources and to ‘trouble shoot’ any problems that may occur.

Supervisory training initiatives should be aimed at developing leadership qualities and equipping supervisors to work with employees and shop stewards to solve problems rather than ‘controlling’ them through negative discipline