Boss 2.0

Redefining the role of supervisors in today's work environment

Posted: Sunday, December 03, 2006

Today's supervisors are more than just bosses. Many play the role of team builder, counselor or even cheerleader. This is especially true if the supervisor cares about the wellbeing of his or her employees and believes that minimizing stressors in workers' lives can result in increased production.

With that said, barely-there bosses who seem distant even when they're in the office certainly still exist in today's work environment. There's no doubt that most workers have, or have had, experiences with such guilty parties. But, the truth of the matter is, as the workforce evolves, the roles of supervisors do as well.

"I think this trend reflects a variety of factors," explains Dean McFarlin, chair of the marketing and management department and professor of global leadership development at the University of Dayton in Ohio. "Leaner and flatter organizations require supervisors to cover more ground and reduce status differences and barriers, hence more informality. There's also been decades worth of emphasis on participative, bottoms-up approaches to management, 'servant' leadership, and the like."

Do it all

Now more than ever, supervisors are asked to wear many hats, he adds. But some experts believe this is not because the company requires them to, rather the employees need them to.

"The truth is that people have always worked for people rather than for companies," says Russell Rueff, Jr., CEO of Snocap, Inc., a digital music distribution company based in San Francisco. "We join and stay in companies because of the people who we most closely work with. Many people who don't work in great companies are still there because their manager gives them the development, latitude and freedom to grow and operate within the company."

Rueff, who is also co-author of "Talent Force: A New Manifesto for the Human Side of Business" (Prentice Hall, $24.99) says that this trend can be accredited to increased competition among supervisors to be the best they can possibly be. While some supervisors may value a balance between work and personal life more than others, the trend certainly is moving in that direction.

"[There is] no better way to help someone manage their work-life balance than knowing more about their dreams, responsibilities, and challenges on the work and home front," says Rueff. "Technology has taken much of the formality from business today. Where once the role of the supervisor might have been to edit and revise a memo before it would be sent forward, today, the manager may only be copied on an e-mail that has gone to many layers more senior in the organization."

Close contact

It's true that technology has affected all aspects of work - even the way bosses communicate with their employees. In many ways, e-mail allows for a closer connection between colleagues.

Cornell University and the Gevity Institute did a study that focused on the impact of management style on a company's performance. Creating a familylike environment resulted in 22 percent revenue growth, 23 percent profit growth and a whopping 66 percent less turnover. This is a prime example of how a supervisor can set the tone for the entire department.

"We now have democratization of information thanks to the Internet," explains Vicki Kunkel, CEO of Leader Brand Strategists in Chicago. "Because employees are so accustomed to being hands on and espousing their opinions on everything from politics to pop culture on blogs, uploaded videos and message boards on their off hours, they expect to be just as involved at work and to have their opinions count just as much. The idea that 'what the boss says goes' doesn't apply so much anymore."

Emerging workforce

The growing number of young adults entering the workforce, coupled with the changing demographic of Generation Xers in a managerial position, also contribute to the rise of a less rigid style of managing workers. Kunkel believes this is because younger workers respond better to this style of management.

"Gen Xers are taking over the workforce, and they are all about teamwork," she continues. "They've played on tons of soccer, football and tennis teams growing up; their parents didn't treat them like children, but rather like little adults from the day they were born and included them in every household decision. Because Gen Xers grew up in a home environment where mom and dad were seen less as authoritative figures and more as friends and team mentors, this group simply can't see the rationale behind a top-down authoritarian style at work."

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