When Galileo introduced his idea of the Solar System (the sun is at the center of the planets not the earth) he was met with fierce resistance from the Catholic Church which eventually landed him in prison. New ideas can often face resistance from those who want or need to hold onto current ideas. The word “supervisor” is a word which continues to have influence over how we think about people and organizations. The word “facilitator” faces resistance.
The derivation of the word “supervise” is to “over” (super) “see” (vis). This suggests that people must be watched carefully to assure quality, proper behavior, effort etc. Is this what we want in our organizations? Is this even possible in today’s fast paced working environments?
We have all had the experience of seeing children running wild at a public place. They are unsupervised. The parents are nearby but they are ignoring the bad behaviors of their children and that is causing distress on us and others. The parents’ indifference to the situation is very frustrating.
My wife and I have three rescue dogs. The law says they must be on leash whenever they are in a public place. I walk them at a park and, since they are very well trained, I can leave them off leash while no one is around. Sometimes people see us from a distance and they walk over and lecture me about the need to have my dogs on leash. I am able to manage my dogs’ behaviors without a leash and the complaining person doesn’t understand this, thus they complain.
Children and animals need to be supervised. They need someone to “over-see” them because they don’t understand, on their own, why their behaviors can be either frustrating or threatening to others. It’s up to the parents (or the owners) to manage the behaviors because they are incapable. Is this how we want to think about our employees? If not, then we need a different thought which means we need a different word. We need a different philosophy because the thought of supervising people is about as outdated in today’s fast paced environment as the earth being the center of the universe. We need the words leader or facilitator.
The Old English derivation of the word leader is “to cause to go with one” (laeden). It is action oriented and suggests influence or control to take action. I prefer the word facilitator the derivation of which is “to make easy” (French, facile). I suggest we use Facilitator in place of Supervisor in order to move away from the idea that people should be treated like children and to move toward the idea that they capable adults who can often need help removing barriers that stand in the way of doing a joyful and quality job for our customers.
The word “supervisor” perpetuates outdated thinking about people and organizations. This industrial age thinking holds dear certain beliefs which create environments which cause unintended consequences. One of those beliefs is people must be watched (over-seen) because they will not work hard or they won’t do the right things the right way unless someone watches. Another is, a manager/supervisor knows more than employees and must therefore make decisions and solve problems. These beliefs hold people back. These beliefs often cause people who are capable of behaving like adults to instead behave like children. We must instead free them up.
If we truly want people to develop we must change our beliefs first. Here are examples. Let’s start with the belief that people can manage themselves. They are capable of behaving like responsible adults. Given the right environment they are capable of making decisions in the moment which are consistent with the aim of the organization and with the delivery of high quality services and products to customers.
People are capable of managing processes if given the tools, the environment, and the knowledge. The leader/facilitators are responsible for creating the context within which people can manage their agreements and their processes. We need to trust them and give them the opportunities to take action, to lead themselves and their processes. This requires barriers to be removed. Those barriers mostly relate to the lack of clarity regarding the vision, purpose, strategy, goals, and processes. These elements create the environment. Clarity of the environment is critical and it is the responsibility of the leader/facilitator. As long as we continue to think people must be supervised we avoid clarifying the factors which enable people to self-manage.
We must change our words to change the results we seek and to better match the economic trends shaping our world. Let’s start using facilitator and stop using supervisor.