Category : PROspective
These PROspective columns are meant to help RSPH EPI students to be more influential public health practitioners, especially after they graduate and join the public health workforce. Our department works hard to assure that students’ learning experiences prepare them with the knowledge, skills, and philosophy to be influential, but career skills are often as important in determining influence and success once graduated. This week’s PROspective takes on the difficult topic of how to succeed when your workplace supervisor stands in the way.
Supervising in Epidemiology
Poor supervisory skills can emanate from many sources, as described in this article from Harvard Business Review. One possibility, especially in some pubic health workplaces, is that the supervisors have never had any help preparing to manage. They may have risen to their position because of the skills in epidemiology, which typically provide little foundation for managing others well.
So how do you cope in this circumstance? I have written in a previous PROspective column about how to disagree, and many of those same skills may apply here. But beyond disagreeing about work products or workplace priorities, poor supervision often emanates from failure on the supervisor’s part to set clear expectations.
Expectations are the sets of goals and standards that your supervisor expects you to achieve, with some understanding of which are most important and should receive most of our effort. Failure to set and enforce standards and expectations is one of the most common management failures. If you are working without a clear understanding of what is expected, then it will be difficult for you to feel satisfied with your work.
Fortunately, failure of your supervisor to set expectations is something that you can help to address. If your supervisor has not set the expectations, you can take the initiative and suggest them. You can write out short and long-term goals and deadlines and ask for your supervisor’s feedback. Be sure that these pertain to the organization’s goals and priorities, and not to your own career aspirations. It’s a good idea to write these down also, and maybe to share them with your supervisor, but that’s a separate task. Hopefully the two will align.
Failure to provide constructive feedback is a second common failure associated with poor management. Again, it is something that you can help to address. When you reach a milestone, or complete one of the short or long-term goals on the list described in the previous paragraph, you can ask for feedback. Be sure to ask more than “Was my report okay?” You will probably only get back “Yes, it was good.” That’s not feedback that will help you to improve. Ask a question that requires a longer answer, such as “How can I do this task differently next time so that it will be even better?” Importantly, do not tie these requests for feedback to requests for additional compensation or leave time.
Last, if your workplace dissatisfaction continues, it might be worth a self-check about whether your values align with the values of your supervisor or organization. If your values differ from theirs, it will be hard to ever feel satisfied with your work; a change may be needed.
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