How to tell my supervisor that we need more supervisors?
May 12, 2016 4:03 PM   Subscribe

I love my supervisor: She's attentive, smart, a great advocate, and does not micromanage. She "gets" our work and values us. Butttt....... There's not enough of her to go around. Can I tell her this?

I am part of a small (three person) team that does intensive medical case management. There are three other similar teams under the same supervisor. So she has... 16? direct reports. All of us are doing work that is incredibly emotionally intense, with people who are physically ill and have extremely challenging and complex social needs. Some of us are trainees or very new to this field, so in need of a high level of management. All of us encounter crises periodically throughout the week where we need to consult our boss (ie: Is this a situation where I need to call the police? etc)

As well as managing 16 people who have super intense jobs, she also has to run these 4 connected-but-different projects, think critically about if we are doing the types of interventions we should be, plan for the future, etc.

And of course she's pulled into organizational planning and meetings etc all the time.

In an ideal world, we would probably each meet with a supervisor once every week or two to discuss complex cases. Also, each team would need time with the supervisor to talk about team-stuff. None of this happens. Each team does meet regularly and we make a lot of collective decisions, which is great in many ways, but I've actually decided to hire my own off-site clinical consultant because of an unmet need for advice and I guess mentoring (my boss knows this).

I hate to ask for this because I like my boss so much, but the fact is, I just don't get enough supervision, and I wish I had someone under her, and above me. Or at least that she would hand off some leadership for some of the projects.

The other day, in a meeting with an outside agency, the other agency staff expressed surprise and some alarm that our boss is supervising so many people which is not typical for an intensive model like this I guess.

Is this something I can tactfully say to my boss? Is this something I could work with my colleagues to advocate for? Our organization struggles with money of course.. Also, afraid that my wish may come true and I could end up with a micromanager or someone who doesn't get it. Also, I tend to be the loudmouth at work (and in any given situation) and am trying to work on staying in my lane more (and saving my loudmouthness for when it is most important).

Would love any feedback or suggestions on this.
posted by latkes to Human Relations (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Would there be a way to have one person per team be some sort of "team leader" who takes on some of the day to day, time sensitive questions in exchange for a little less of the overall load? Is there any specific training or certification needed to make this happen? Similarly, is there someone with the skills to help with training new staff? In terms of the financials it may make more sense to give raises and titles to people that are already in the group.

In terms of framing, I think telling your boss that x gets in the way of her world class handling of y is probably appropriate if you can give her some suggestions.
posted by tchemgrrl at 4:29 PM on May 12, 2016

It's all gonna depend on budget and if the higher-ups are willing to hire. That's the response I've gotten about this kind of question. If you have money issues and she has to supervise this many people alone, that kinda indicates how likely it is that they'll have money for more people.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:35 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

16 direct reports *on top of* managing 4 projects is insane. My field (retail/hospitality) is presumably much less complex and consequential than yours, and I am only able to manage 5 - 10 direct reports. I don't know how I would frame the conversation, but I suspect the solution would either look like having a team leader in each group, or having an assistant to help facilitate communication between your boss and her team.
posted by mikek at 5:35 PM on May 12, 2016

When I worked at BigCo, one of the middle management types was always saying "Bring solutions, not problems." Can you find a way to present your request as a solution rather than a problem?

In other words, instead of this long laundry list of complaints, is there some way for you to document issues, provide supporting research and suggest reasonable changes that would improve things? If you can frame it that way, it would be a lot easier to get at least partial acceptance.

So, instead of "I am overwhelmed." you go "Industry standard is x. We are doing y. Our (problem occurrence data) is z. Research suggests that if we move closer to the industry standard, error rates (or whatever) should go down by foo%. Although it may sound like we cannot afford it because of $expense, the cost savings from Thing should be more than the expense."
posted by Michele in California at 5:36 PM on May 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

In my field, the conversation would start in a solicitous way: "you seem so busy; is there a way for us to somehow help more? For example, could some people reduce their case load in exchange for taking on some management of the caseworker teams?"

Then, if she denied needing help, it would move to examples, perhaps of your own desire for more face time with her (unless you think she'd consider that a personal failing, in which case I'd be more general).

Good luck! And yeah, I think it's less likely that you'll be able to hire in a whole set of new managers than promote / restructure current staff.
posted by salvia at 6:44 PM on May 12, 2016

She probably doesn't get a choice. Ideally, a supervisor should have no more than 8 direct reports. However, in some fields (especially anything semi-academic for whatever reason) supervision isn't seen as a real task, and they tend to structure things in this way.

Even if she agrees with you, there will need to be a business case, and if money is tight there may well be no support for hiring more heads.

One thing you might try is to look and see how much money is being spent on consultants (as per your example) which would not need to be spent if there was more internal support. You might be able to find the case for the heads that way. You will also need to find concrete examples of how this is hurting the business: mistakes with patients, burned out team members, big cost which could have been avoided, etc.

In the meantime, you can propose an interim solution-- break down your boss' tasks and see if any of them can be lifted out and shared among the 16 teams-- support with police issues, emergency room on call duty? (I'm making things up, but hopefully you get the idea.)

Finally, I would raise it with her. But I would keep it kind, crisp and factual and I would avoid a closed conversation. Discuss the problem in objective terms, but don't provide her the answer.

"hey Alice, we need to chat. Given that we have so many new team members who need a lot of support we have had x mistakes with y consequences in the past few months. There are quite a few questions which have to be escalated to you, but it isn't possible for you to be everywhere. I am concerned that if we don't address this, we will end up spending a lot more money on external consultants because we aren't able to reach you and in the mean time I'm worried about the teams. What do you think we should do? I know we can't put more pressure on you directly."
posted by frumiousb at 7:13 PM on May 12, 2016

I'm not a supervisor in business, but I am a supervisor in academia (who often feels stretched thin and struggles with some of the same general issues).

To the extent this is caused by budget issues or things largely outside of her control, you're probably not going to get very far unless you come up with some ideas. If a student came to me and said basically what you said, I'd feel awful and guilty but nothing would change because I'm already doing all I can. (As your supervisor sounds like she is).

If, however, you came and said something like what you said but also gave a few ideas[*] yourself, that would be probably very much appreciated. She sounds like she is overwhelmed but very caring which means she would value ideas along these lines.

[*]Possible ideas that occur to me, assuming there is no room in the budget to hire someone else: (1) setting up a mentoring scheme where the more experienced of the 16 of you take on more of the day-to-day mentoring roles for the really new ones, thus freeing up more of her time for the more difficult issues / situations; (2) a different allocation of time, maybe more joint meetings, so that you get more face time even though less of it is individual - or vice versa; (3) maybe some use of technology and quick check ins could help? I'm not saying any of these things would be appropriate for your situation, but my point is that if you don't come to her with some possibly workable ideas given her resource constraints then all you'll do is make her feel guilty, because she's probably doing her best already.
posted by forza at 8:07 PM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

we need to consult our boss (ie: Is this a situation where I need to call the police? etc)

the other agency staff expressed surprise and some alarm that our boss is supervising so many people which is not typical for an intensive model like this I guess.

Do you feel these patients' actual safety or health might be at risk? Are you worried you're at risk, of not meeting your professional duty of care (or burnout)?

I've actually decided to hire my own off-site clinical consultant because of an unmet need for advice and I guess mentoring (my boss knows this).

Sounds like yes... If you can't make a business case, there's probably a case to be made around liability (yours, and the organization's). I don't know a smooth way to do this in your situation, but I think you should find a way talk to her honestly, so that it rises above the noise - maybe talk to her about some outcomes you've worried over? (Could you or others help with grantwriting/fundraising to pay for adequate supervision?)
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:04 PM on May 12, 2016

She may already know it is too much, and already have asked to have more senior people/less direct reports to no avail. My partner was in a similar position - overloaded for about two years with too many direct reports. He told his supervisor several times, and stated frequently at meetings that he was overloaded but it wasn't until he moved on and a new person took over the position and said the same thing that a second supervisory position was created. Raise the issue with her. If she has already asked for further support, and been denied, maybe talking to her would provide her with some extra evidence that she can use in meetings to justify her case for more senior people/less direct reports.
posted by Nilehorse at 1:35 AM on May 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

Do you really think she doesn't know? If you feel stressed about the situation, think about how she must feel. She must be pretty gifted for you to admire her skills and experience and to keep all those balls in the air. Also, it's not like this is HER choice, it's a function of the Powers that Be where you work.

That said, rather than tell her something she already knows, ask her for what you want. Put a weekly meeting on her calendar, or arrange a team meeting for your team. Even if she doesn't show up, perhaps you can run a meeting with your teammates to discuss common issues and brainstorm for ideas.

Look for ways to lighten her load, and in doing so YOU might be the second supervisor!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:15 AM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Are all 16 of you (or a big chunk of you) at the same place at the same time? Are you doing close-enough to the same type of work that you could provide support and resources for each other? If so, could you suggest a weekly ninety-minute or two-hour supervision group? It likely would not solve the problem, but it might help alleviate it a bit -- and it might also be a place where the 16 of you could come up (explicitly or implicitly) with other ideas for helping each other or getting more supervision.

I'm in a very similar position. Our supervisor manages two different, geographically-distant-ish teams of 14 people total, with our "head office" where most of her meetings are being in yet a different town, and we're doing outpatient psychiatry and case-management with high-risk clients, so "emergencies" are often real emergencies, plus we've had a bunch of employee turnover, so the lack of consistent on-site supervision has become a bigger issue than it was a few years ago. It sounds like my supervisor started getting pressure from her supervisor about getting more help, but I think what finally started pushing the issue was when our entire team sat down for a slightly-unrelated meeting and everyone gave the same feedback -- that we need more training and supervision, and that it's hurting client care, as well as employee morale. We're finally slooooooooowly (government agency, so everything's slow!) trying to get that position created and filled.

Maybe even if you just sat down with your teammates and/or her other reports and brainstormed ways of getting more supervision/training, or of streamlining processes? (Do you really need supervisor approval to call the police? Is that because of protocol (in which case, does it really need to be?), or because of lack of training of what situations require police intervention? Or lack of training on de-escalation? Etc.) Having a list of "here's some stuff we've been thinking might be helpful" and asking if she or y'all can implement any of the ideas might at least jumpstart her brain (and yours!) into ways of solving the problem.

If it's a position you're interested in and have whatever credentials might be required, you might also look into getting further training yourself to take on some of the supervisory tasks, even if it's unofficial for a while. If you're not interested, is there someone on your team who's doing it unofficially already? The "team leaders" idea is a good one, and pushing your supervisor to give you or a teammate more responsibility for that might help.
posted by lazuli at 6:39 AM on May 13, 2016

Also, for my hands-off supervisor, she seems to prefer the idea of promoting someone she already knows, I think because she doesn't want someone to come in and try to rein her in -- she likes her hands-off approach because she likes employees who don't think they have to consult her on minor things (to be fair, she's very responsive when consulted on major things) -- and it sounds like she had bad experiences in the past with feeling scolded for not being more hands-on. If that sounds like it might apply to your supervisor at all, it may help to frame any changes as ways of making y'all more self-sufficient, or at least less in need of her immediate intervention on non-emergency stuff.
posted by lazuli at 6:51 AM on May 13, 2016

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