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Positive Leadership: 4 Green Flags to Look for in a Supervisor

Womxn in Student Affairs
January 24, 2024 Leiana Boldon Illinois State University

Think of the best supervisor you’ve ever had. What qualities did you appreciate about them? How did they treat you? 

I am willing to bet that no two people will answer those questions the exact same way, and yet, the saying goes: “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” We all have our own preferences, strengths, and expectations, so why are we treating others how we want to be treated? I am a big advocate for treating others how they want to be treated. By using effective communication, we can eliminate the need to assume or guess how others operate and build stronger relationships with our coworkers.

With that said, there are a few supervisory traits or habits I personally look for and I urge others to look for in a supervisor, as well. If you are beginning a job with a new supervisor, or if you are a supervisor looking to evaluate your current practices, below are four green flags (positive traits or habits) I have observed and I look for in a supervisor while job searching.

1. They show care for you beyond your role in the office.

You may wear several hats and juggle many responsibilities, but you hold many identities other than your job title. It is nice to have a supervisor who acknowledges you have a life outside of the office that impacts your work and overall wellbeing. 

Not all supervisors have the luxury of having weekly 1-on-1 heart-to-heart meetings with each person that reports to them, but showing they care doesn’t have to be a big gesture. Just asking how you are doing and then actually sticking around to hear your answer is a small way to show they care about you as a person and not just an employee. Brownie points if they follow up on something you shared with them previously.

2. They challenge you.

In your role, your responsibilities should align with your strengths and your previous work experience, but there should also be opportunities for growth and learning. Ideally, we should leave each job with more skills and strengths than we began with. While that can be accomplished without the help of a supervisor, having your supervisor challenge you is beneficial. The challenge may be presented in the form of a project requiring skills you want to grow in or even a conversation in which they ask your opinion on a hot topic in the department. In my experience, supervisors who have challenged me have proven to be more invested in my growth and success. In addition to showing care for my professional development, they showed care for my personal growth by encouraging me to step out of my comfort zone and celebrating my victories. 

There is also value in the collaboration that results from your supervisor challenging you. As you collaborate, you may receive feedback or learn new information about your institution that challenges your thinking and prompts you to be more open-minded. As disorienting as it may be at times, being challenged by your supervisor (while still being supported by them) can be incredibly beneficial.

3. They challenge the norm.

Every department has its traditions or typical way of doing things, and oftentimes it can be nerve racking to initiate change. One green flag I truly admire is when my supervisor is not afraid to speak up and propose new ideas. If your supervisor seriously values continuous improvement, then they should be willing to challenge the norm and ask difficult questions. I am not suggesting your supervisor should be stirring the pot and creating drama just for the heck of it. I am saying there is such a thing as good trouble. If there are obvious issues in your office or department such as inefficiency or a lack of equity and inclusion, it is great to have a supervisor who takes action and speaks up about those issues when it is appropriate.

4. They lead by example.

There are few things worse than a hypocrite, especially if that hypocrite is the person who is leading your team or department. One of my old mentors always used to say, “I would never ask you to do anything that I wouldn’t do.” That is an admirable mindset to have! Leading by example shows humility. It shows an awareness that even those in leadership are ultimately still a part of the team, and they are not “above” the work their team does. Ultimately, it’s easier to trust your supervisor and build a healthy relationship with them if they practice what they preach.

To be clear, supervisors who are not doing the things mentioned above are not necessarily bad supervisors. Just like everyone else, your supervisor has their own preferences, annoyances, and expectations. In order for you and your supervisor to treat one another how you each want to be treated, communication is essential. And while your supervisor may not check every box you have, communication between the two of you should at least help you adjust your expectations. Hopefully, learning how to treat others the way they want to be treated will improve communication, trust, and collaboration within the workplace.

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Leiana Boldon (she/her) is a second-year master’s student in Illinois State University’s College Student Personnel Administration program. She serves as a NASPA Graduate Associate and holds several positions in the Bloomington-Normal area. She currently works as an Academic Support Services Graduate Assistant at ISU, serves as the live-in house director for Alpha Omicron Pi – Beta Nu Chapter, and serves as the professional development committee chair for ISU's Student Affairs Graduate Association. Off the clock, she loves to sing, explore new restaurants, and host game nights.