Successful Supervisor 18 – Avoid Playing Whack-a-Mole

March 19, 2017

Unfortunately, there is a situation in most organizations where the supervisor is served up a never-ending supply of tasks to do and problems to resolve.

Let’s picture a supervisor named Marcie. She comes to work on a typical day with 2-3 problems left over from the previous night. Her calendar is jammed with discussions and meetings to report on the status of problems or work on emergency situations.

Perhaps there is an immediate need to reorganize her group because of an unexpected order or the absence of some key people.

She faces several new problems or crises every day. Sometimes the problems are waiting for her outside her door when she arrives in the morning. There are certain to be several new ones when she looks at her inbox or her manager shows up unexpectedly.

She instinctively knows the organization could run a lot better, but there is simply no time to even work on a long term plan. So, poor Marcie runs herself ragged and just keeps her head out of the water on most days. She goes home exhausted, yells at her kids, and tries to clear out a few more issues online before going to bed.

I call this condition the “Supervisor Whack-A-Mole” syndrome, after the famous carnival game. Every time a mole comes out of one of the holes you whack it down, but there are others emerging all the time. You can never get them all down at the same time, and they keep coming up faster and faster.

The poor supervisor feels totally overworked and cannot begin to think strategically about how to improve her conditions.

This problem is not universal, but it is far too common in most organizations. There is a way out of the maze, but it requires courage and vision. The way out is to invest time creating an improved culture within her team.

Supervisors need to see one of their key roles as creators of culture, not just problem solvers. Developing an environment of higher trust is an investment that pays off many times over the cost. This shift in mindset has numerous advantages.

First, carving out time where the entire team can work on trust issues will result in less friction between people in the future. Since many of the “problems” have to do with people being unable to work together efficiently, this investment pays off in two ways: Employees work better together with fewer problems, and employee satisfaction improves, resulting in greater productivity.

Second, by focusing on teamwork, the supervisor emphasizes that many employees are capable of solving the inevitable daily problems themselves. The supervisor has many willing hands to lighten the load of problem solving in the future.

The employees feel good about having greater responsibility as well. They become empowered and trusted to handle many situations previously delegated upward to the leader.

Third, the tendency toward burnout is greatly reduced when there is time set aside to work on the culture. Getting temporarily out of the “rat race” every once in a while to think about what is happening and do some planning is cathartic.

People have the opportunity to vent and rebuild relationships in a “safe” atmosphere. In some situations this is best handled with the help of an outside expert schooled in conflict resolution.

Of course, the supervisor needs to be creative and fit the development work into times when the pace of production is not at a peak level. This means she needs to consider how to get snips of time that would otherwise be not fully loaded and use them to figure out how to improve relationships among the team.

In the time crunch on every supervisor, many believe it is impossible to invest a few hours every few weeks to work on the culture. They are too busy solving problems and juggling all the balls on a daily basis. However, those supervisors who are able to carve out some time, find the payoff is far greater than the investment. It leads to a stronger, more productive, and more smoothly running organization. It also leads to fewer health problems due to burnout.


This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on 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, or 585.392.7763

Successful Supervisor Part 1 – The Critical Junction

November 21, 2016

This is the first part of a series of short articles on how to be or create a more successful supervisor. Each part will be posted in this blog.

As of this writing, I cannot tell how many episodes there will be. Readers are encouraged to comment on any of the parts, which may create additional dialog along with more key points.

I believe one of the most challenging jobs in the management ranks is that of first line supervisor. Since different organizations use various terminology for the same function, let me define the role I am discussing in this series.

In every business, there is a junction between the working group of employees and the management levels. In most cases, the junction is between non-exempt and exempt employees.

Individuals in these roles have huge responsibility and are often caught in a kind of squeeze play between management and workers. Think about your own situation, whether you are operating as a supervisor or trying to coach people in that role; this series provides ideas that can help make work life more enjoyable and effective regardless of your position.

The viewpoint from above

There is a whole network of management layers working in a matrix to accomplish organizational goals. The supervisor represents the layer that translates the needs of the organization directly to the people who actually make the product or provide the service.

From this perspective, upper management counts on the supervisor level to keep things running efficiently and provide the motivational impetus to the workers (Note: this is often referred to erroneously as “motivating the troops” as I will describe in a future post.)

The viewpoint from below

There is a two-level system of workers and managers. The supervisor is the person in the organization that is both worker and manager, but really this person represents “management” to the workers.

The supervisor becomes the focal point for everything going on in the organization, whether that is good or bad in the opinion of the workers.

These two distinct perspectives result in a kind of inter-organizational tension that the supervisor is supposed to resolve in both directions simultaneously. It is incredibly challenging because a statement that might be viewed as positive to the employees, might have the wrong spin from the management perspective, and vice versa.

Recognize that the supervisor role is often a thankless task that is poorly understood from both directions. If you are a management person who is blessed with individuals who are excellent at the supervisor role, consider yourself very lucky and cherish these people for the work they do.

If you have people who are not well suited for this role, consider whether you should get them some training or perhaps find them a different role where they, and the organization, are simultaneously better off.

If you are or have been in a supervisor role yourself, I hope these articles provide some support and ideas to lighten your load. You have an incredibly important role to play, and often are not given the tools you need to do it well.

I will offer many ideas and resources you can use to make your work experience more enjoyable and successful. Here is a partial list of the topics we will be discussing over the next several weeks:

• How to improve the initial success when a new supervisor is named
• How supervisors can maintain control without coming across as a tyrant
• The methods by which supervisors can build and maintain trust
• How to reduce the tendency to use rank as leverage
• How to employ peer pressure without the danger of backlash
• Techniques to please both the top brass as well as the workers simultaneously
• The secret to inspiring motivation, and the mistakes to avoid in doing so
• How body language is the most valuable communication tool that is often overlooked or misunderstood
• How to see what is really going on and not be fooled by the appearance of things
• Employing superior listening techniques to get to a full understanding
• Why Emotional Intelligence is the key leadership skill and how to harness it
• How to give more effective employee reviews that drive true motivation
• The steps to create a great culture where everyone is fully engaged

Whether you are a new supervisor, an incumbent supervisor, or a manager who is coaching supervisors, this series of articles will provide accessible education and insight at no cost.

The segments are laid out in small chunks of pragmatic and tested advice that will provide the basis for continuous improvement and excellence in supervisory skills.

Please join us for this series by clicking on the “Sign me up” button on the right side of your screen. You will receive an e-mail every time a new episode is posted (usually once a week).

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on 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, or 585.392.7763

Trust Leads to Engagement

September 19, 2015

Wedding RingsOver the past couple years I have read numerous studies that indicate the average organization has only about 1/3 of employees engaged in the work.

There is some variation from one study to another, but the general trend is clear. For example, the Dale Carnegie Organization came up with 29% engaged, 45% not engaged and 26% actively not engaged.

Said another way, if you are the CEO of an average company, you have as many employees pulling against your vision as you have pulling for it and the rest of the people are not pulling much at all.

The result of this condition is a gaping hole in financial viability of many organizations bigger than the hole that sunk the Titanic. Improving the level of trust between layers in the organization is the best way to plug the hole and right the ship.

Of course, some organizations beat this trend with much higher engagement, still others are even worse off than the average statistics. A common denominator of the groups that are doing well is that they have built a culture of trust.

It turns out that trust shows a very high correlation with having engaged workers. It is not a chicken or egg question here, the trust comes first.

After studying trust in organizations for over 30 years, I believe that improving the trust level by just 2 percentage points will translate into productivity improvements between 10-20%. The reason is that engagement in the work increases dramatically when leaders change their behaviors to increase the trust level.

The change must be sustained or the gains will quickly fade, but if leaders are sincerely trying to improve trust, employees will recognize and appreciate the effort and put more effort in their jobs.

The most important trust-building behavior for leaders is to create an environment of low fear where people know it is safe to voice their concerns and not have to worry about retribution.

Exercise for you: Try to guess what percentage of your team members are truly engaged in their work. Listen to what they say; if it is positive and about the goals of the organization, they are engaged; if it is negative and griping about conditions, they are likely not engaged.

If employee engagement is above 50%, you are beating the odds: keep up the good work and expand it to others! If it is below 50%, you have a lot to be gained by improving the level of trust.

Engagement of the workforce does not happen by default or because people need a paycheck to survive. It does not kindle with empowerment seminars or employee satisfaction surveys.

The surest way to obtain the productivity that comes from high employee engagement is for leaders to learn and practice the behaviors that foster a culture of high trust.

The preceding was derived from an episode in “Building Trust,” a 30 part video series by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.” To view three short (3 minutes each) examples at no cost go to

Don’t Eat Dessert First

July 19, 2014

Cheesecake with fresh strawberries on white plate closeupAs a leader, how many times a week do you say, “We’ve got to motivate our people?” When you do, you make a mistake that often leads to lower rather than higher motivation.

Seeking to motivate employees is the most common thought pattern leaders use every day, so what’s wrong with it?

Trying to motivate workers shows a lack of understanding about what motivation is and how it is achieved.

Leaders who think this way want to eat the dessert before the entrée. While the temptation for the tasty stuff may seem irresistible, it is not a wise strategy because after dessert, the main course is less appealing.

Leaders do not make the necessary mind shift to do the things that actually do improve motivation. So, what is the dessert and what is the entrée?

The entrée is the culture of the organization that either enables or extinguishes motivation. The dessert is how satisfied people feel at any particular moment.

Why do many leaders try to reverse the conventional order; try to motivate people by making them feel good?

1. Poor understanding of motivation

The notion that by adding perks to the workplace we somehow make people more motivated is flawed. Over 50 years ago, Frederick Herzberg taught us that increasing the so-called “hygiene factors” is a good way to sweeten things (reduce dissatisfaction in the workplace), but a poor way to increase motivation.

Why? – because goodies like picnics, pizza parties, hat days, bonuses, new furniture, etc. often help people become happier at work, but they do little to impact the reasons they are motivated to do their best work.

2. Taking the easy way out –

Many leaders believe that by heaping nice things on top of people it will feel like a better culture.

The only way to improve the culture is to build trust.

By focusing on a better environment, managers enable people to motivate themselves.

3. Using the wrong approach –

It is difficult to motivate another person. You can scare a person into compliance, but that’s not motivation, it is fear.

You can bribe a person into feeling happy, but that’s not motivation it is temporary euphoria that is quickly replaced by a “what have you done for me lately” mentality.

4. Focusing on perks –

Individuals will gladly accept any kind of tasty dessert the boss is willing to dish up, but the reason they go the extra mile is a personal choice based on the level of motivational factors, not the size of the cheese cake.

Putting the entrée before the dessert means working on the culture to build trust first.

Improving the motivating factors, such as authority, reinforcement, growth, and responsibility creates the right environment. Motivation within people will happen. Then, when dessert is added, it is much sweeter.

Why do I make this distinction? I believe motivation comes from within each of us.

As a manager or leader, I do not believe you or anyone else can motivate other people. What you can do is create a process or culture whereby employees will decide to become motivated to perform at peak levels.

An example is when you set a vision and goals then allow people to use their initiative to get the job done as they see fit.

How can we tell when a leader has the wrong understanding about motivation? A clear signal is when the word “motivate” is used as a verb – for example, “Let’s see if we can motivate the team by offering a bonus.”

If we seek to change other people’s attitude about work with perks, we are going to be disappointed frequently.

Using the word “motivation” as a noun usually shows a better understanding – “Let’s increase the motivation in our workforce by giving the team the ability to choose their own methods to achieve goals.”

An organization where all people are pursuing a common vision in a healthy environment has a sustainable competitive advantage due to high employee motivation.

The way to create this is to build a culture of TRUST and affection within the organization.

You accomplish this through consistency and by letting people know it is safe to voice their opinion without fear of reprisal.

You work to inspire people with a vision of a better existence for them and by really hearing their input. Doing this helps employees become motivated because:

• They feel a part of a winning team and do not want to let the team down. Being a winner is fun.
• They feel both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards when they are doing their best work and that is what drives their behaviors.
• They appreciate their co-workers and seek ways to help them physically and emotionally.
• They understand the goals of the organization and are personally committed to help as much as they can in the pursuit of the goals.
• They truly enjoy the social interactions with peers. They feel that going to work is a little like going bowling, except they are distributing computers instead of rolling a ball at wooden pins.
• They deeply respect their leaders and want them to be successful.
• They feel like they are part owners of the company and want it to succeed. By doing so, they bring success to themselves and their friends at work.
• They feel recognized for their many contributions and feel wonderful about that. If there is a picnic or a cash bonus, that is just the icing on the cake: not the full meal.

For an organization, “culture” means how people interact, what they believe, and how they create.

If you could peel off the roof of an organization, you would see the manifestations of the culture in the physical world. The actual culture is more esoteric because it resides in the hearts and minds of the society. It is the impetus for observable behaviors.

Achieving a state where all people are fully engaged is a large undertaking. It requires tremendous focus and leadership to achieve.

It cannot be something you do on Tuesday afternoons or when you have special meetings. Describe it as a new way of life rather than a program. You should see evidence of this in every nook and cranny of the organization.

Do not skip directly to dessert by attempting to motivate people with special events or gifts.

Instead, dine with your people on motivating factors and build the meal around a culture of trust.

The end result is that many people will choose to be highly motivated, and the organization will prosper. Then, if you give some tangible perks for reinforcements, they will be like a wonderful dessert that is more meaningful and longer lasting.

Taking Over For an Awful Leader

August 17, 2013

Hasty ExitSuppose you were just called into the Vice President’s office and were told that you are being promoted to be the manager of a department of over 200 people. This is the break you have been working toward your whole career. You are delighted to accept the position. When you are informed which department you will be leading, your heart sinks. Oh no! This is the group that has been reporting to Ralph Clueless. He was just fired for stealing company property and then lying about it.

You have been aware that Ralph was a disaster as a leader. He would abuse people and call them names in front of their peers. He would say whatever lie seemed expedient at the time to get him out of a tight spot. He freely took credit for things that others did, and often blamed the workers for having “bad attitudes.” There was one striking female employee whom Ralph favored, and his unwanted advances were obvious and totally out of line. People hated working for Ralph, and until he was removed for cause, they just were putting in their time and not even caring about doing a decent job.

All of a sudden, you are going to be inheriting these jaded workers. You would love to be the manager of a department, but this assignment is going to be a killer. The group is ready to turn any manager into mincemeat. Is the situation hopeless for you? I believe the answer is “no.” Reason: My observation is that groups of people can be turned around from a lynch mob into a productive and positive group of workers under the right kind of leader. Is it going to be easy? Heck no! It will be the ultimate challenge to turn the group of angry and skeptical workers into a compliant, enthusiastic and productive workforce.

Here are eight actions you can take to move rapidly toward success?

1. Recognize the opportunity you have – Ralph was such an extreme loser as a manager, you will look good by almost every comparison, once people shed the “I hate all managers” gut reaction.

2. Acknowledge people have been abused – Since Ralph is gone, and you do not need to defend what he has done, you have the opportunity to start by saying “The Ralph Era is over, and we are turning a corner to a whole new culture based on higher trust.” Do not expect people to believe you the first time you say that, but as it is repeated and especially reinforced through your actions, people will turn quickly in your direction.

3. Get to know people individually – The first few minutes, hours, and days are the most critical for your tenure. Make sure to spend maximum time out on the shop floor shaking hands and asking people about their interests and family. When a new manager takes over a department, it is tempting to spend several days cloistered with the supervisors developing a strategy. Put off the conference room work until later. Put a higher priority on mingling with people in their work space. If they need to vent about the past, let them do so.

4. Avoid a lynch mob opportunity – My style would be to delay having a town meeting format where people can ask questions. Wait until some rapport has been developed. Reason: upon your arrival, people will be out for blood. They will take over the floor and shout out any attempt for you to be sincere and talk about a bright future. Let your actions do the talking, and meet people individually or in small informal groups.

5. Figuratively and literally feed the workers – Make good wholesome food available as a gesture of good will. When people are munching on good food, it goes a long way toward calming them down. For sure, this is something Ralph would never have done. Feed them as well with your vision of what the group can become by working together toward a common goal. Let your values be known, first by words, but more importantly by your deeds.

6. Begin to build a culture of reinforcement – Ask everyone to send you a text or e-mail when they see something done by another person that is helpful. Get back to both the person being praised and the person doing the praising saying that we are working on a new culture where people honestly care about each other. Let the love and feeling evolve naturally. It will do so quickly under the proper leadership.

7. Give rather than take credit – Simply acknowledge every good deed with a sincere “thank you” that is given face to face. Avoid a program where people are given trinkets (buttons, stickers, pencils, etc.) or points toward some gift (like a shirt or jacket). Instead, foster the spirit of sincere gratitude. It is OK to give some tangible reinforcement, but make it meaningful and special (rare) rather than trivial and overdone.

8. Build Trust – The most important ingredient to the new culture is trust. Create an environment where people feel it is safe to tell you when something you did or said does not feel right to them. Reward people openly when they challenge you. They are giving information that took courage to share, and you would not know the information unless they shared it.

I have witnessed and coached several leaders to do the above things in creating a whole new culture. What is so amazing is how quickly people are able to put “The Ralph Era” behind them and rally around the new leader. I have observed this kind of metamorphosis happen in a matter of a few months under a great leader. Just imagine the power of taking a Hell-hole culture and turning it into a brilliant example of empowered and engaged workers. It can be done quickly if you follow the eight steps above.

Do Not Mix Empowerment and Morale

May 11, 2013

Girl with thumbs upMost of the time morale and empowerment are linked, but they do not always have to be. When we think of empowered people, we imagine individuals who are allowed to figure out how to do their work the best way they know how. When we think of people with high morale, we envision individuals who feel really good about what they are doing for some reason.

I can imagine a situation where my morale would be high but I am not empowered very much. Suppose I am stuffing envelopes at the United Way Office. I have very little freedom to put creativity into the job. It needs to be done just exactly the prescribed way each time. I have very low empowerment and a huge stack of routine work, yet I have a feeling that I am making a contribution to a good cause, so my morale is very high. As a result of my work, many families will be receiving the services they need. My heart is light as I am doing banal work that is incredibly tedious.

On the flip side, imagine I am given an assignment to run the weekly parts inventory as a substitute for the regular technician. I am given the freedom to organize the job and get it done any way I wish. I can come in during evening hours or on the weekend when things are quiet if I like. I am not bound to do the job a specific way as long as I get the job done in a responsible way. My empowerment is pretty high. Unfortunately, I am not a numbers person, and I hate doing inventory. I think it is boring, and it feels like a prison sentence until the job is done. As I launch into the work, my morale is very low. I do not want to do it, yet I am empowered to make all kinds of decisions about how it will be done. In this case, we see high empowerment coupled with low morale.

Most of the time morale and empowerment occur at the same time, but it is a mistake to think this is always the case. The two concepts are different and are impacted differently based on what is going on in a particular case.

Engagement and Empowerment

November 25, 2012

Engagement and empowerment are two words that get tossed around organizations and OD circles. These words are often confused. I have heard the terms used interchangeably, which is a mistake. The best way to demonstrate the difference between these words is to contrast two scenarios. I will focus on a specific job (customer service representative) for the description, but you can easily extrapolate the concepts to any job once the distinction is clear.

Engaged but not Empowered

Here the customer service person is fully on board with the goals of the organization. She knows her job and wants to help the customer. Unfortunately, she is constrained by numerous rules that tie her hands from fully providing service. For example, she may not be able to issue a refund until the incorrect merchandise has been returned and verified to be in good shape. She may have to get “approval” from a superior to authorize a shipping waiver. There can be numerous administrative hurdles that keep this engaged customer service employee from having the power to execute her job to the satisfaction of her customer. If she is talking to a customer with a faulty chain saw, she might say, “That is a shame you are having a problem with your chain saw. I need you to take the saw in to one of our service centers in your area to verify this is not an operator type of problem before I can have you send it to me and get you a replacement saw.”

Empowered but not Engaged

In this case, the customer service rep has the power to do anything she thinks is useful, but this particular person is not connected well to the business goals. She really does not care if the organization does well; all she wants to do is make the customer feel great. In this case, when a customer complains about his chain saw not working properly, she might say, “Oh I am sorry you have had that problem. Let me send you a full replacement chain saw, and I will also include a carrying case (valued at $60) and some coupons for 6 free chains (valued at $80 total).”

It is obvious that neither of these conditions is the best situation for the employee and the organization. We need to have employees who are fully engaged in the business and fully empowered to accomplish their tasks.

Let us take a look at the impact of these two words on the viability of an organization.


In “Smart Trust,” Stephen M.R. Covey reported on some research showing that in the average company there are only two engaged employees for every one disengaged employee. In this case, much of the inherent power of the individuals is leaking out and not available to the organization. Contrast that situation with world class organizations where there are nine engaged employees for every one disengaged employee. You can see the huge difference, and that difference goes quickly to the bottom line.

Having people engaged in the business means having them truly understand the vision for the organization and fully comprehend their role in making that happen. Beyond understanding, to be fully engaged, a worker needs to be fully committed to accomplishing her role, not just involved in the work. Someone once said that the difference between involvement and commitment is like the difference between eggs and bacon. In the case of the eggs, the chicken was involved; in the case of the bacon, the pig was committed!


Empowerment is more closely related to trust. Employees bring their own internal level of empowerment and confidence in their abilities to do their jobs. Managers can increase empowerment through clear communication and a trust-building management style. Unfortunately, managers can decrease an employee’s empowerment and confidence level through negative communication or too many restrictions.

The extent to which people engage their personal power for the benefit of the organization, and the level of freedom they are given to do things right, will determine the level of empowerment experienced by the organization. In OD circles, we use the term “maximum discretionary effort.” The goal of empowerment activities is to solicit maximum discretionary effort from all people. How can we accomplish that in the real world?

First, it is important to realize that what empowers me is probably somewhat different from what empowers you. For an organization to obtain the highest level of empowerment, there needs to be a matching effort between each individual and the conditions that will create a culture that extracts maximum discretionary effort for that person. It sounds complicated, but it is really a process of knowing the people who work for you.

The secret sauce to create a culture of higher empowerment is trust. As trust increases, people naturally feel more empowered because they are allowed to make decisions based on a firm understanding of the goals, but they can accomplish those goals in their own unique way.

Try to avoid mixing the concepts of empowerment and engagement. They are two very different concepts, although they sound almost the same. Seek to obtain both of them through the liberal application of trusting behaviors, and you will experience the best effort that people have to offer.