Losing Control

May 20, 2012

The role of supervisor is one of the most challenging positions in the working world. Reason: Supervisors walk the fine line between losing control of the employees or losing employee motivation by being too strict with rules.

In any organization there are going to be norms or rules that people are supposed to follow. Let me illustrate my point with a specific example. Let’s look at the length of the morning and afternoon breaks. Let’s say the standard break in the organization is 20 minutes. That seems simple enough, everyone in the group is supposed to adhere to the 20 minute break.

What you will see if you actually time the break is that most employees stop work let’s say at exactly 9:30 am. They then go to the bathroom down the hall to wash up before going to the break room. They arrive at the break room at 9:40. They get their coffee or whatever and sit down to chat with friends. Since they arrived at 9:40, they take the full 20 minutes and chat till 10 am. Then they go to the bathroom again to get rid of the coffee they just drank. They loiter in the hall and get back to the workplace at roughly 10:15. So, the standard 20 minute break is now more than double the specified length. The afternoon has the same pattern.

This pattern is typical rather than the exception. The supervisor has a difficult time trying to control this situation without seeming to be an ogre. It can go uncorrected for years, costing the organization a huge penalty in productivity.

Supervisors are continually challenged by people to meet their individual and collective needs, even if it means bending some of the rules. If they let one person come to work a bit late because of a child with special needs, then other people are going to come in late with less valid reasons. First thing you know, nobody is showing up on time. Once people begin to see the supervisor is “reasonable” with exceptions to stated rules, he is on a slippery slope in terms of long term control. Trying to get out of the cycle can be vexing because if the supervisor takes a strong stand on rules, then he becomes despised, and people start finding other ways to cut corners.

Here are seven rules that can prevent the erosion of discipline while, at the same time, showing flexibility and respect for individuals.

1. Be alert to the concept of rules being there for a reason. Know the reasons and communicate them when needed.

2. Let people know what the rules are by well-timed reminders, but avoid getting anal about it.

3. Allow open discussion on how the rules should be applied. This has two benefits 1) it serves to remind people of the specific rules, and 2) it gives people some say and creative input into how the rules should be applied in your area.

4. Be consistent on the application of rules. Do not bend for one person and not another.

5. Allow exceptions only when there is good justification, and explain to people why you decided to bend a rule in this case.

6. Intervene early if there are abuses of the rules. Do not let bad habits continue for months before taking action. Reason: if you wait too long, when you finally do try to enforce the rules, you are subject to ridicule and over reaction.

7. Treat people like adults, and they will act more like adults.

My observation is that the best supervisors are those who really care for people enough to expect them to follow the rules and call them out when they do not. A gentle but firm hand that is applied with kindness will work in most cases. That attitude creates long term respect and trust.

Real Motivation

April 8, 2012

Every manager I have ever met, including myself, would appreciate higher morale and motivation among his or her team. After all, these two attitudes lead directly to productivity and employee satisfaction, which are pivotal in sustaining a healthy business. Many managers have a stated goal to improve morale, motivation, or both. I contend the mindset inherent in setting goals for these items shows a lack of understanding that actually will limit the achievement of both.

The reason is that morale and motivation are not objectives; they are the outcomes of a great or a lousy culture. If you spend your time and energy trying to improve the environment to include higher trust, then higher morale and motivation will happen. If you try to drive morale, it may sound to the employees like the famous saying, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

I have seen a group of people at work with such low motivation, there seemed to be no way to get any work done. If a manager dared try to speak to a group of employees, they would heckle or just pay no attention. Nothing the leader said or did had much impact on the employees, so in desperation, the manager would stoop to threats. This would elicit a half hearted groan and some compliance for a time, but the quality of product would suffer, and the gains would be only temporary.

I have seen that same group of workers six months down the line after putting in a really good leader. The atmosphere was entirely different. The employees showed by their body language that they were eager to do a great job. If there was a dirty or difficult job and the leader asked for volunteers, half a dozen hands would go up immediately. When they were at work, they resembled the seven dwarfs whistling while they worked rather than slaves in the belly of a ship being forced to row.

How was that one leader able to accomplish such a turn-around in just six months? The leader focused on changing the underlying culture to one of high trust rather than just demanding improvement in the performance indicators. The motivation and morale improved by orders of magnitude as a result rather than because they were the objective. Let’s look at some specific steps this manager took early in her term that turned things around quickly:

Built trust – She immediately let people know she was not there to play games with them. She was serious about making improvements in their existence and had that foremost in her mind. She built a real culture where people felt safe to come to her with any issue and know they would not be insulted or punished.

Improved teamwork – She invested in some teamwork training for the entire group, offsite. These workshops made a big difference in breaking down barriers and teaching people how to get along better in the pressure cooker of normal organizational life.

Empowered others – She made sure the expectations of all workers were known to them but did not micromanage the process. She let people figure out how to accomplish tasks and got rid of several arcane and restrictive rules that were holding people back from giving their maximum discretionary effort.

Reinforced progress – The atmosphere became lighter and more fun for the workers as they started to feel more successful and really enjoyed the creative reinforcement activities set up by their leader. She let the workers plan their own celebrations within some reasonable guidelines and participated in the activities herself.

Promoted the good work – the manager held a series of meetings with higher management to showcase the progress in an improved culture. The workers were involved in planning and conducting these meetings, so they got the benefit of the praise directly from top management.

Set tough goals – It is interesting that the manager did not set weak or easy goals. Instead, she set aggressive stretch goals and explained her faith that the team was capable of achieving them. It first, people seemed to gulp at the enormity of her challenges, but that soon gave way to elation as several milestones were reached.

Support – The manager supported people when they had personal needs, and made sure the organization received the funding needed to buy better equipment and tools.

Firm but fair – The manager was consistent in her application of discipline. People respected her for not playing favorites and for making some tough choices that may have been unpopular at the moment but were right in the long run. Her strength was evident in decisions every day, so people grew in their respect for her.

This manager turned a near-hopeless workforce into a cracker-jack team of highly motivated individuals in six months. Morale was incredibly high. Even though improving morale was not her objective, it was the outcome of her actions to improve the culture.

If you want to be one of the elite leaders of our time, regardless of the hand you have been dealt, work on the culture of your organization rather than driving a program to improve morale and motivation. Develop trust and treat people the right way, and you will see a remarkable transformation in an amazingly short period of time.