5 Scenarios for "Reading" Your Supervisor

Successful planners know how to “read” their supervisor. By that I mean understanding the circumstances of the department through their supervisor’s eyes.

Although it is challenging to see things from another person’s perspective, planners do this when understanding differing stakeholder points of view on planning issues. The same practice can improve the experience of “being managed.”

Let’s say your supervisor has a friendly, informal management style. The project team has lunch together from time to time and the quality of brainstorming in meetings is good. The supervisor normally doesn’t make a comment if you arrive a bit late, is understanding if you occasionally miss a non-critical deadline, and is forgiving for minor mistakes.

In a formal performance review, the supervisor criticizes your punctuality and the quality of work products. You thought your supervisor was “chill.” What happened?

What happened is that you misread your supervisor. Here are some scenarios that may explain the apparent surprise:

Scenario 1:

It turns out that punctuality and precision were important but your supervisor chose not to make an issue of small problems. Your supervisor wanted to foster a sense of team and overlooked minor issues to avoid a hierarchical management style. Repeated late arrivals have pushed the supervisor into a more formal role because of concern that everyone will assume work hours are not important. Spontaneity, innovation, and sense of team could be lost in this transition.

Scenario 2:

Your supervisor is OK with how things are going, but his or her supervisor is concerned about work hours and work quality standards. Your supervisor is making adjustments to address that concern. For example, your department’s looser style may create jealousies and tensions with other divisions.

Scenario 3:

Your supervisor is conflict averse, or overloaded in dealing with substantive issues, and chooses not to give you feedback along the way. The supervisor views formal evaluations as the place for this type of feedback.

Scenario 4:

Your supervisor is finding his or her way in their management role, trying to determine how to manage the team. This person doesn't have everything figured out and is learning on the fly, so inevitably the approach changes from time to time. You are part of that change.

Scenario 5:

Your supervisor is hard to read. For example, a lighthearted comment about missed due dates may mean little or it may be an indirect way of expressing a serious problem. Or, the supervisor may be strict about some things and lenient about others. The strict/lenient balance can vary widely over punctuality, tolerance for minor mistakes, responsiveness, and many other aspects of work.

Which Scenario Is Unfolding?

So that can a young planner do to understand which scenario applies? The simple answer is to be attentive, ask if you are uncertain, and develop your imaginative capacity to see circumstances and issues through your supervisor’s eyes.

There is another way that a planner could misread their supervisor. If a performance review has some biting criticism, you might think the supervisor is out to get you. Feeling your job at risk, you write a lengthy, defensive rebuttal and do not positively state your intent to correct the issues of concern. It is better to accept the criticism and create an action plan that you and your supervisor agree upon.

If your supervisor is raising valid concerns, defensiveness will undermine work relationships. Most supervisors want you to be successful, either for the sake of the team, and ideally, for your own professional growth. Here are some consequences of taking an adversarial approach to supervisor criticism:

  • Not being trusted
  • Missing out on interesting assignments
  • Slowing or stopping your path to promotion
  • Squandering a reference and potential mentor
  • Having less beneficial impact on communities

I must add this important caveat: You might have a supervisor who is punitive, inappropriate, or out to get you.

You should defend yourself and use the resources of the Human Resources office, government whistleblower protections, and union or legal advice in cases of bias, harassment, discrimination, corruption, and unfair treatment.

Planners normally think of imagination being applied in developing plans, urban design, and solutions to tricky problems. Imagination is also a key to succeeding in an organization.

Imagine how your supervisor sees things, the problems they are facing, and you will be more effective. Do this right and you can help your supervisor “chill.”

Read previous installments of this blog series, "A Guide for the Idealist," here. This blog series is amplified in Richard Willson's book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career. The book includes perspectives, tools, advice, and personal anecdotes. It is available now at Routledge, Amazon, and most retailers.

Top image: Getty Images photo.


About the Author

Richard Willson, FAICP

Richard Willson, FAICP, is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. He has also served as department chair, interim dean, and independent planning consultant. Willson's research addresses planning practice and parking policy. His book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career, amplifies the themes in this blog series. Willson is also the author of Parking Reform Made Easy (Island Press, 2013) and Parking Management for Smart Growth (2015). Willson holds a PhD in urban planning from the University of California, Los Angeles, a Master of Planning from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo.


May 16, 2018

By Richard Willson, FAICP