Successful Supervisor Part 8 – Satisfying the Top Brass

January 8, 2017

While a great deal of the energy of any supervisor is directed toward the people she leads, the practice of managing the relationships upward and sidewise is always an equally challenging dynamic. In this article we shine a light on some dynamics that help or hinder the relations with superiors and peers of the supervisor. Let’s start with superiors.

Keeping Upper Management Happy

It is universal: the boss is looking for performance without problems. As long as things are humming along and there are no major complaints coming from the area, the supervisor will likely be in the good graces of upper management. If delivery, quality, or cost start to slip below the expected level, then the supervisor will be asked to explain why.

Often the true reason is that the variation in performance is the result of common cause variability, so the correct explanation W. Edwards Deming would urge the supervisor to give is, “Nothing is wrong and stop wasting my time trying to explain common cause variation.”

Of course, while that answer is technically correct, it is a stupid strategy to use. You do not wave a red flag in front of a bull unless you are a professional bull fighter. The supervisor needs to come up with some reasons why performance is lagging and be very politic when giving them to top management.

For example, one typical scenario is that the policies set from on high are killing morale on the shop floor. The supervisor needs to frame up the information using positive suggestions rather than fixing the blame at the managers who came up with the stupid policies in the first place. Let’s compare a right and wrong way to explain why productivity has slipped causing costs to go up.

Right – “People seem to be more upset than usual. It may be due to a combination of things, but I think if we can soften how we explain the new overtime policy they may feel like management understands and is sensitive to their situation. Also, maybe we can phase the new policy in more slowly. That would go over well because people will have time to adjust to the new rules.”

Wrong – “Productivity is in the toilet because of the overtime policy you announced last week. When you abuse people and piss them off, they are bound to get even with you in some way. You throw crap at them, and you are likely to get some of it thrown back at you.”

One of the most difficult situations for any supervisor is when she is ordered to implement a management decision that is bound to make her subordinates angry. In most cases, the supervisor will take the side of the employees, so in meetings where the top brass is describing the new policy, the supervisor is likely to speak out about the negative consequences of following it. To the managers, the supervisor is not being a “team player,” and the more she digs in, the worse it gets for her.

When a supervisor is forced to administer a policy that she thinks is ill advised, it becomes almost like an interpersonal crisis. She knows that pushing back is going to hurt her, yet her sense of rightness has been violated and it becomes like a moral decision. These times can be very challenging for a manager at any level, but they are particularly stressful for the first line supervisor.

At times like this, having a trusted mentor or coach somewhere in the organization is quite helpful. The supervisor needs to take the long view and try to understand the logic of the policy. If she can at least partially support the decision, then things will go a lot better in the implementation.

Trying to explain the policy to her subordinates is another moment of truth. It is wrong to say, “I told them they are crazy to implement this policy and I fought it like crazy all along the way, but, of course, they won.”

A much better way to verbalize the situation is, “This policy is probably not what you were all anxious to hear, so let’s look at the situation as objectively as we can. Recognize that to be successful yourself, the organization you work for must succeed. In addition, what is a good move for some people may not be popular for others, but we are all in the same boat ultimately. We need to be successful as a group before any one of us can be successful individually.”

Hint

When the supervisor has to administer an unpopular policy, it is best to give people time to grieve. If the supervisor tries to convince people that they are really going to like the policy in the long run, they will become angry and hostile. Instead let people feel sad about the perceived loss and deal with their emotions over time. After the shock wears off, then there will be time to bring out some points that provide a more positive light.

Getting along with peers

Supervisors are usually intensely loyal to the people working for them. They work incredibly hard to have their employees respect them. They may also be protective over some of the gems in the bunch so as not to lose them. Peers view what is going on from a different vantage point that is often in some kind of competition for resources.

Many supervisors tend to “circle the wagons for warfare” in a visible way that does damage to peer relationships.

The best approach is to earn a reputation as someone who is willing to help out others outside her own influence. That means being willing to listen to contrary opinions without becoming prickly. It means extending favors where possible to help another supervisor look good. It means being the bigger person and not holding a grudge if something does not go her way.

It also means being willing to share vital resources to enhance the development of the best people. The image I like to encourage is to walk around with a bundle of olive branches every day and see how many you can give away.

In the daily chaos of conflicting needs up, down, and sideways, the supervisor needs to be a cheerful and calming influence who is viewed by her workers as a strong advocate and enthusiastic cheer leader who is fair. She must simultaneously be a diplomat with her peers and upper management to influence decisions and create sound policies.

The most successful supervisors have the knack of operating seamlessly in these three modes while maintaining poise at all times. That is a very tall order.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on http://www.leadergrow.com/articles/supervision or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763


Five C’s of Accountability

October 27, 2013

Letter "C" - See all letters in my PortfolioAccountability is a very popular word these days. In my consulting practice, the word comes up on a daily basis. I have written articles on various aspects of accountability, from the attitudes that make it more constructive (not always negative) to how leaders should feel more accountable for their own actions before blaming others.

This article outlines five principles of accountability that can help any leader do a better job in this critical area of performance management.

The five principles are 1) Clarify Expectations, 2) My Contribution, 3) Care, 4) Comprehensive and Balanced, and 5) Collective Responsibility. Putting these five practices in play on a daily basis will improve the performance of any organization. Let’s see why that is:

Clarify Expectations

People must understand expectations to have any shot at meeting them. In some complex situations, a written document is required, but most of the time it is a matter of spelling out what the requirements are and gaining a verification that the employee has truly internalized them.

Often a failure to perform at the prescribed level can be traced to a misunderstanding between the supervisor and employee.

Supervisors sometimes make the mistake of assuming the employee understands what is required because he or she has heard the instructions. To verify understanding it is critical to have the employee state in his or her own words the specific requirement.

It needs to be framed up in terms of the specific action to be done by a specific time and with certain level of quality level. The employee can decide how to accomplish the task, but the deliverable must be crystal clear to avoid ambiguity.

Having the employee parrot back the expectation has the additional benefit in the event the deliverable is fuzzy. The supervisor can take the time to reiterate the specific deliverable before the employee attempts to do it. This saves time, money and reduces frustration.

My Contribution

Often the supervisor will attempt to hold an employee or group accountable when the reason for the shortfall was a blockage caused by the supervisor rather than the workers. Most people will do a good job if the culture and environment set up by management are conducive to working well.

When supervisors micromanage or otherwise destroy positive attitudes of the workers, they are contributing substantially to the shortfall they see within the workforce. They are quite often the root cause of the problem, yet they find it convenient to blame the workers for not toeing the line.

I recall one VP who lamented that “all my people are lazy.” As I dug into the situation, it was evident that the bully attitudes of the VP had caused people to become apathetic and perform only when beaten.

The VP blamed the workers, but he was clearly the source of the problem. He could not understand this connection of cause and effect. If this VP was replaced by an empowering leader, those “lazy” workers would quickly become productive and show high initiative.

Care

When giving feedback on performance, especially if performance is not at the level expected, be sure to treat the employee the way you would want to be treated if the situation was reversed.

The Golden Rule provides excellent guidance in most cases.

There are some exceptions where the Golden Rule breaks down (suppose I enjoy being yelled at and confronted), but they are rare. If the manager demonstrates real care for the individual, even when the feedback is not positive, the employee will usually respond well to the input.

Comprehensive and Balanced

This principle means that the leader must take the big picture of what is going on into account when deciding if an individual is meeting what is expected. There may be a specific reason for not living up to the agreed performance that is totally out of the control of the employee.

If a dog is left locked up in the house all day, it is entirely possible you will find a mess on the floor, even if the dog would have loved to have been let out.

Make sure that the feedback is balanced such that you account for the good things they do as well as for times they fall short. Since most people do things right far more than they fail, your holding people accountable should normally be a positive discussion.

Rapport and trust are destroyed when employees only hear from management when they are having problems.

Collective Responsibility

If the accountability discussion has the flavor of everyone, including the manager, being responsible, then that feeling of a family working together will permeate the discussions, and they will be more fruitful.

When the manager points the finger at a specific worker and fails to involve the other people who also make up the system, the employee feels picked on. This results in hard feelings and creates more problems than it solves.

These five C’s will help you create an environment where holding people accountable is more productive and effective. Try to remember these principles when you are dealing with the people in your life.


8 “Be-Attitudes” of Holding People Accountable

June 12, 2011

A frequent refrain of top managers is that “we need to do a better job of holding people accountable.” Accountability seems to be the mantra for organizational get well programs these days. I can agree with this in part, and yet there is an aspect of accountability that feels to me like a cop out.

The key to leadership is to create an environment whereby people do the best they can because they want to do it. When employees know it is clearly in their best interest to give their maximum discretionary effort to the organization, managers don’t have to crack the whip as often. Imagine working in an environment where people do the right things not because they are expected, but because it is in their best interest. In that atmosphere, holding people accountable would nearly always be a positive occurrence rather than negative. How refreshing!

It is the actions, attitudes, and intentions of leaders, not the rank and file, that make the environment of either reinforcement or punishment the habitual medication for individual performance issues. Let’s examine 8 attitudes or behaviors of leaders that can foster a culture where holding people accountable is a precursor to a feeling of celebration instead of a sentence to the dungeon.

Be clear about your expectations – It happens every day. The boss says, “You did not file the documents correctly by client; you totally messed up.” Then, the assistant says, “You never told me to file them by client, so I used my initiative and filed them by date because that is what they taught us in Record Retention.” Holding people accountable when the instructions are vague is like beating an untethered horse for wandering off the path to eat grass.

Be sure of your facts – I learned a painful lesson about this early in my career. I gave my administrative assistant a letter to type for a customer. When I got it back, the letter was full of obvious errors. I immediately held her accountable for the sloppy work and called her into a small conference room to let her know of my disappointment. When I told her about the errors, she said, “Well if you had taken the time to notice the initials on the bottom of the letter, you would have seen that I farmed that work out to Alice because I was busy with other things. I did not type that letter.” Gulp. I tried to cover with, “I am glad, because your work is usually higher quality than that,” but the irrevocable damage had been done. If you are going to accuse someone of sloppy work, make sure it was done by that person.

Be timely – If there is an issue with performance versus stated expectations, bring the matter up immediately. If you wait for a couple days before trying to bring up the issue, it just tends to cloud and confuse the person who did not meet expectations. If a boss says, “You did not answer the phone in the proper way last week,” how is the employee supposed to even remember the incident?

Be Kind – Always apply the Golden Rule liberally. If you had a lapse in performance, justified or not, how would you want to get the information? Keep in mind that some people are more defensive than others, so if you like your feedback “straight from the shoulder,” tone it down when dealing with a particularly sensitive individual.

Be Consistent – If you are a stickler for certain behaviors, make sure you apply the discipline consistently. Coming down hard on Mike for being late for work can seem unfair if you habitually let Mary waltz in 45 minutes after the start of the shift. Always avoid the appearance of playing favorites. Recognize that, as a human being, you do have differences in your attitudes toward people, but when holding people accountable, you must apply the same standards across the board.

Be Discrete – Embarrassing a person in public will create a black mark that will live for a long time. If there is an issue of performance, share the matter with the individual privately and in a way that upholds the dignity of the person. This issue also refers to the Golden Rule.

Be Gracious – Forgiving a person who has failed to deliver on expectations is sometimes a way to set up better performance in the future. Get help for individuals who need training or behavior modification. A leader needs to be mindful of his or her personal contribution to the problem through past actions, like not dealing with a problem when it is small. If the current infraction is a habitual problem or one born out of laziness, greed, or revenge, then stronger measures are needed. People cannot be allowed to continually fail to meet expectations. The corrective measures will be based on the severity and longevity of the problem. One caveat: gracious behavior cannot be faked, so be sure you are calm and have dealt with your own emotions before speaking to the employee.

Be Balanced – This is an incredibly important concept. There is nothing written on a stone tablet that says all forms of accountability must be negative. In fact, I love it when someone holds me accountable for all the wonderful things I have done along the way. If we view accountability as both a positive and a corrective concept, then we can remove much of the stigma associated with the word. When I hear a top manager say, “We need to hold our people accountable,” I assure you that it means negative feedback in most cases. This is an easy thing to change by simply modifying our pattern of feedback.

Holding people accountable is a great concept if it is used in a consistent, kind, and thoughtful way. Try changing the notion of accountability in your work area to incorporate the 8 “Be-Attitudes” above, and you will have a significant improvement in your culture.