Paul Butler | Why We All Need Supervision

Paul Butler: Going the Extra Mile

Each week during the summer months Gaynor and I take Mondays off and head to a beach we’ve never visited before. We title our travels, “Summer Loving,” and we’ve really enjoyed losing the Monday morning feeling most people have.  

This week we didn’t like the look of the beach we’d planned to visit from the moment we walked the tunnel to the sand — the walls were splattered with graffiti and some rather unpleasant aromas were emanating from the brickwork. We looked at each other and decided to do a sharp turnaround, heading to a familiar beach just moments away. 

The beach we knew also had a tunnel to the sand, but the neighbors around this one had put up a couple of neatly positioned signs. With a please and thank you in advance, the signage asked people not to graffiti the walls or use the tunnel as a toilet. Remarkably, the tunnel to this second beach was spotless and pungent-free. It left me thinking about the differential. 

At the second beach there was obviously a degree of supervision albeit from the neighbors. Both beach tunnels were the property of the county but clearly the latter was under more local control. 

This set me thinking about the need for supervision in the workplace. It seems such an archaic word: supervision. What makes someone else’s vision superior to another? Why, as humans, do we need someone to watch over our work? Can’t we just be left alone to produce products and supply services without someone else monitoring and measuring all we do? 

I do find it fascinating that regardless of the industry and without concern to which part of the world the work gets done, as employees we seem unable to self-govern. Subordinates have supervisors. Managers are led by leaders. Senior executives have chiefs. Even those with a “C” at the start of their job title answer to a board of directors who in turn are governed by legislative codes of behavior. 

With all these layers of supervision, I wonder why we still metaphorically see some graffiti at work and occasionally suffer with walls that stink?  

Why are some teams highly effective when others aren’t? Why do some organizations have significant problems with theft at work but others, not so much? Why do some companies see an executive fall from grace and sometimes see a once-great charismatic champion end up behind locked bars but others seem to be a moral compass for the corporation?  

I believe wholeheartedly the difference is no different than the two tunnel signs — first had no rules, no expectation about what was deemed acceptable. The second clearly and simply stated that which was neither appreciated nor tolerated. The second tunnel was supervised by neighbors who actually care. 

William Golding’s book, “Lord of the Flies,” poignantly points to the principle that without supervision and left to our own devices, our attempts to self-govern are sadly and catastrophically disastrous. It seems that regardless of our technological advances and where in the world we are, we do need the civilization of supervision, management, leadership and governance to keep us, well — civil. Without this, we tend to make a mess.  

Regardless of position within the hierarchy, someone who oversees the work of others must themselves be someone worth looking up to — that’s a universal principle. It’s said that children learn best by three things — example, example, example. I find this also to be reliably true in the workplace. Direct reports are much more likely to follow positive characteristics and admirable competencies when they are seen within the person who has been called to lead them. 

In summary, supervision may not have created the tunnel to the beach — meaning they may not have built the business to begin with, but they stand by the signage and encourage others to do the same. Supervisors know that without policies and procedures, some employees will make a mess and just like Golding reminded us of in his 1954 Nobel Prize-winning classic, there’s a god of pride and warfare deep down within each of us that needs to be tamed and silenced, less chaos ensues.  

Paul Butler is a Santa Clarita resident and a client partner with Newleaf Training and Development of Valencia ( For questions or comments, email Butler at [email protected]. 

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