“You’re Not the Boss of Me”

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Congregations are often confused about the power dynamics of supervision. Supervisors know they are supposed to ensure good performance. At the same time, supervisors want to model compassionate, kind, collaborative behavior. Employees want to know what is expected of them but don’t like being controlled or micromanaged. Congregants don’t want anyone abusing power. It’s tough to put all those expectations together into one supervisory approach.

If we want effective supervision, we must come to terms with authority, control and hierarchy—and not confuse the three. Being a supervisor gives you some authority over the work of others. But authority should not be conflated with control over others or a false sense of hierarchical status or importance.

Getting Our Terms Straight

Let’s start this conversation with a basic premise: Supervision is performance management. Performance management is ongoing communication between a supervisor and an employee in support of accomplishing the objectives of the organization. Performance management includes clarifying expectations, setting goals, providing feedback, and reviewing results.

Good performance management does not require hierarchy or control. It doesn’t involve “bossing” others. It does require aligning authority, responsibility and accountability:

Authority is the legitimate right to do a thing. If you ask me to prepare a budget, to spend money, to hire or fire someone, you must also make sure that I have the right to make decisions about those things. The organization must vest me with the right to act on its behalf. Typically, authority is assigned through things like job descriptions and policy statements.

Responsibility is the duty to perform a task. Teach the class, write the check, provide the directions, recruit the volunteers. Responsibilities are often assigned through policy: “The sexton is responsible for locking and unlocking the building each day.” Responsibility can also be delegated. The youth director bears overall responsibility for a smoothly functioning youth program, but she may delegate some of her responsibilities to other staff or volunteers. She cannot delegate her overall responsibility for the success of the program, and she remains responsible for the performance of those she supervises.

Accountability is account-giving. The individual who was given responsibility to perform a task is held to account for following through. When the outcomes of performance are positive, the individual is recognized for their accomplishment. When outcomes are poor, there are appropriate consequences for the employee’s failure to meet expectations.

Hierarchy is a system in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority. We don’t have to embrace hierarchy in order to be good supervisors.

Setting expectations and providing feedback doesn’t make you more, or less, valuable to the organization than any other employee. The role of supervisor is a set of responsibilities assigned to a role(s)- in service to the mission. The role alone doesn’t grant status.

Likewise, setting expectations and providing feedback isn’t about controlling others. It is up to the employee to bring or learn the skill sets necessary to meet expectations. It is up to the employee to structure their time, energy and motivation. They choose whether to meet the expectations set by their supervisor. Of course, should they be unwilling or unable to meet the expectations set forth by the supervisor, they will experience the logical consequences—which may include termination.

Accountability is Conversation

People mistakenly confuse accountability with reward, punishment and the exercise of power. It is more appropriate to describe accountability as intentional conversation. Over time, the supervisor maintains a commitment to ongoing conversation with each supervisee. These conversations ensure that employees:

  • Know what is expected of them
  • Are granted the authority to do the things that are expected
  • Are given the opportunity to perform well
  • Get consistent feedback on how they are performing compared to expectations
  • Experience the natural benefits of meeting expectations or suffer the natural consequences of failing to meet expectations
  • Are regularly encouraged to develop and grow in their work

Conversation is the most powerful tool available to us for bringing about each of the above conditions. Hierarchy and control have little to do with it.

What About Hierarchy on the Org Chart?

An organizational (org) chart is the graphic representation of a congregation’s structure. Its purpose is to illustrate the authority and accountability relationships within the organization. Most org charts are drawn in a vertical fashion with a head of staff at the top of the page and those being supervised at the bottom of the page.

This practice reinforces notions of hierarchy and status for those at the top of the chart. Much of our language reinforces status as well. We call the person at the top of the chart our “head of staff” and refer to others on the chart as part of the “chain of command.”

We don’t need to be captured by these practices or this language. There are many other ways of drawing an org chart that provide clarity, without reinforcing a command and control culture of supervision. We can turn the chart on its head and place the lead supervisor at the bottom of the church, supporting the work of everyone above her. We can create a circular chart with the lead supervisor at the center of the chart providing oversight to various departments represented as segments of the circle.

Whatever style of org chart we create, it’s important that we create clarity about who is responsible for setting the expectations and who they are ultimately accountable to.

Let’s Not Confuse Role and Style

If a supervisor clearly communicates expectations, provides feedback and follows up with accountability conversations, he or she is a successful performance manager.

Style is separate from role. A supervisor with an authoritarian, command-and-control style of leadership can be an effective performance manager. So can a highly collaborative leader who regularly consults with employees before setting expectations. The style that is right for you and your organization is a function of the supervisor’s personal beliefs, temperament type and the culture of the organization.

When done right, supervision serves the mission of the congregation and helps everyone find their place within that mission. No one needs to feel bullied or controlled along the way. But everyone needs to get on the same page about relationships of authority, responsibility, and accountability.

How to Lead When You Don't Know Where You're Going
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When Moses Met Aaron cover
Susan Beaumont is a consultant, coach and spiritual director. Susan is a practical contemplative. She works at the intersection of organizational health and spiritual guidance. Specializing in the unique dynamics of large congregations, Susan’s work focuses on staff team dynamics, board development and leadership in times of transition. Rev. Beaumont is the author of How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going and Inside the Large Congregation. She is co-author of When Moses Meets Aaron.