Is a “powerless” supervisor “useless”?

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I recently saw this video, Grievances Brought Up with a Powerless Supervisor, on Facebook and found it amusing.  After watching it, I performed a decidedly UNSCIENTIFIC survey of people to learn what makes for a great supervisor.  I learned a couple of things.  First, many people think working for a bad supervisor/manager is just part of the working experience and have resigned themselves to dealing with a boss who does very little in the way of being supportive and providing direction.  To this end, when most people have grown weary enough from tolerating such a person, those who can simply leave the organization.  Apparently, many people fear backlash for speaking up if they want to stay with the organization and also fear being black-listed in their attempts to leave; therefore, we have cauldrons of people going to work every single day who pretend.  No wonder so many of us are stressed out!  Second, I learned that workers perceive that there is such a thing as a useless supervisor and that such a boss is entirely different from a “scary powerful” one.  The former does very little to help, but is rather benign whereas the second one operates in a manner that makes the employee feel threatened.  Employees are threatened because a scary powerful boss takes no responsibility for challeges or problems and facilitates a climate where no one is accountable.   Essentially, employees are afraid that a scary powerful boss is not only incompetent, but creates an environment where they are likely to be tainted and blamed for that person’s failures.  Hopefully, you work for a boss who exercises influence (see third category at the bottom) and works at being a great manager!  Meanwhile, I will grapple with questions about how do we change the culture of work and improve the exercise of authority at the workplace.


A Threat:  can endanger employees’ job performance or longevity with the company.

1.  Supervisors who thrive off of their titles, but not the work that accompanies the title (live off the fumes of hubris).

2.  Supervisors who don’t hold themselves or members of the team accountable.

3.  Supervisors who do not make their own competence a priority.

4.  Supervisors who dont/can’t control their emotions.  Whether it is anger, anxiety, fear or something different, supervisors who fail to control their emotions likely don’t see or understand how unproductive unmanaged emotions can be.

5.  Supervisors who cannot take risks and are beholden to traditions that no longer serve a purpose.

6.  Supervisors who have little interest in developing the members of their team, whether as a function of benign neglect or malice.


Useless:  simply won’t/can’t perform key aspects of their jobs. 

1.  Supervisors who do not manage up and complain down.  This also includes supervisors who refuse to speak up when management’s policies are counterproductive.  Supervisors who don’t support their employees and back-bite management have a place here, too.

2.  Supervisors who give no feedback or only criticism (criticism isn’t designed to help the employee improve).

3.  Supervisors who cannot articulate vision/direction/priorities for the team as a whole, nor for each individual member of the team.

4.  Supervisors whose behavior and personal presentation are so informal and lacking in decorum that they cause the team to feel embarrassed and/or lose confidence in their abilities.

5.  Supervisors who will not intervene to manage conflict that compromises civility and productivity.

6.  Supervisors who are inaccessible either due to being physically unavailable or mentally preoccupied.


Exercise Influence:  employees feel empowered and see management as an ally rather than as an antagonistic relationship to be tolerated.

1.  Supervisors who see managing people issues and relationships as a central part of their jobs despite how many “other” items are on their plates.  Supervisors who intentionally undertake efforts to build multi-dimensional relationships with the individuals they supervise.

2.  Supervisors who are willing to share information and the basis for their decisions.  They don’t see such as a challenge to their authority.

3.  Supervisors who are willing to take risks for the sake of staff growth and development and for the option to see the team/unit prosper.

4. Supervisors who have clear standards and expectations.

5.  Understand their own value and unique contributions to the team which eliminates the need to compete with the individuals on their team.

6.  Supervisors who help employees to understand the organization culture and how it impacts his/her individual role and the team.

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