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.

Rumors and Gossip – 7 Tips

May 15, 2011

Rumors and gossip can be debilitating for any organization. They create a kind of parallel universe that siphons vital energy away from important work. They cause a need for leaders to do the same damage control they would do if the rumors were actually true. Reason: What people believe is reality to them. If many people in an organization believe there is going to be a cut in salary, even if that is not the case, the leader must do the damage control as if it was actually going to happen. In the hyper-competitive global marketplace, organizations cannot afford to cope with distracting ghosts born through the rumor mill.

Let’s explore several thoughts about the impact of rumors and how to prevent them from starting in the first place.

Trust is an antidote

Trust and rumors are mostly incompatible. If there is low trust, it is easy for someone to project something negative for the future. When trust is low, these sparks create a roaring blaze like tinder in a sun-parched and wind-swept desert. If trust is high, the spark may still be there, but it will have trouble catching on and growing. This is because people will just check with the boss about the validity of the rumor.

When trust is high, the communication process is efficient, as leaders freely share valuable insights about business conditions and strategy. In low trust organizations, rumors and gossip zap around the organization like laser beams in a hall of mirrors. Before long, leaders are blinded with problems coming from every direction. Trying to control the rumors takes energy away from the mission and strategy. Building high trust is not the subject of this article. I have written extensively on how to build trust elsewhere, and there are numerous other authors who write about it.

Rumors generate spontaneously

Just as a fire can be kindled spontaneously, so rumors and gossip can develop without any apparent external influence. I believe it is part of the human condition to speculate on what might happen. This tendency is greatly enhanced in a culture of low respect. Often it is a void of timely communication that causes a rumor to start.

Nature hates a vacuum. If you have a bare spot in the lawn, nature will fill it in quickly, usually with weeds. If you take a pail of water out of a pond, nature will fill it in immediately so no “hole” exists in the surface. We can hear the sound of air rushing into a coffee can when the opener first compromises the vacuum. So it is also with people. When there is a vacuum of credible information, people fill in the situation with information of their own invention – usually “weeds.”

Rumors wick energy away from critical work

Dealing with the reality and consequences of gossip is a significant tax that is paid by organizations that have a culture which breeds false information. My swimming pool is cloudy now because I did not maintain an environment inhospitable to algae. Now I must invest in pounds of expensive chemicals and do extra work that would not have been necessary if I had exercised the right ounces of prevention a few weeks ago.

Seven tips for leaders to reduce the impact of rumors:

1. Intervene quickly when there is a rumor and provide solid, believable information about what is really going to happen. It is best to have this intervention before the rumor even starts, but it is essential to nip the problem as soon as it is detected.

2. Coach the worst offenders to stop. Usually it is not hard to tell the 2-3 people in a group who like to stir up trouble. They are easy to spot in the break room. Take these people aside and ask them to tone down the speculation. One interesting way to mitigate a group of gossipers is to go and sit at the lunch table with them. This may feel uncomfortable at first, but it can be very helpful at detecting rumors early. Just as in fighting a disease, the sooner some treatment can be applied, the easier the problem is to control.

3. Double the communication in times of uncertainty. There are times when the genesis of a rumor is easy to predict. Suppose all the top managers have a long closed-door meeting with the shades pulled. People are going to wonder what is being discussed. Suppose the financial performance indicates that continuing on the present path is impossible. What if there are strange people walking around the shop floor with tape measures? There could be a consultant going around asking all kinds of probing questions. All these things, and numerous others, are bound to have people start speculating. When this happens, smart leaders get out on the shop floor to interface more with the people. Unfortunately, when there are unusual circumstances, most managers like to hide in their offices or in meetings to avoid having to deal with pointed questions. That is exactly the opposite of the most helpful suggestion.

4. Find multiple ways to communicate the truth. People need to hear something more than once to start believing it. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer for 2011, nearly 60% of people indicate they need to hear organizational news (good or bad) at least three to five times before they believe it.

5. Reinforce open dialog. If people are praised rather than punished for speaking out when there is a disconnect, they will do more of it. That mechanism is a short circuit to the rumor mill. It also helps build the trust level, which is the best way to subdue the rumor agents.

6. Model a no-gossip policy. People pick up on the tactics of a leader and mimic them on the shop floor. If the leader is prone to sending out juicy bits of unsubstantiated speculation, then others in the organization will be encouraged to do the same thing. Conversely, if a leader refuses to discuss information that is potentially incorrect, then it models the kind of self control that will be picked up by at least some people.

7. Extinguish gossip behavior. This may mean breaking up a clique of busy-bodies or at least adding some new objective blood into the mix. It might mean having a “no BS” policy for the entire team.

In today’s climate, it is essential to mitigate if not eliminate the impact of rumors and gossip in the workplace. It takes a strong and vigilant leader to do this well, but it has potentially huge benefits to the organization.

Stop Enabling Problem Employees

November 7, 2010

In any organization, there are situations where supervisors accommodate problem employees rather than confront them. Ignoring wrong actions models a laissez faire attitude on problem solving and enforcing rules. It also enables the perpetrator to continue the wrong behavior. In a typical scenario, the problem festers under the surface for months, even years. Ultimately escalation of the issue reaches a tipping point when something simply must be done. By this time, the problems are so horrendous they are many times more difficult to tackle.

A common example is when workers stretch break times from the standard 20 minutes to more than 30 minutes actually sitting in the break room. The total duration is more like 45 minutes from the time work stops until it resumes. The supervisor does not want to appear to be a “by the book” manager, so the problem is ignored every day. When things get too far out of control, the unfortunate supervisor is forced to play the bad guy, and everyone suffers a major loss in morale.

I once worked in a unit where one person suffered from acute alcoholism. His abusive behavior was enabled because his supervisor did not dare confront him. Finally the situation became intolerable. When they called him in to confront the facts, he had been out of control for 15 years. His reaction to the manager was, “What took you guys so long?” Following months of treatment, he became sober and was able to go on with his life as a positive contributor. Unfortunately, he was old enough by that time to retire; the organization had acted too late to gain much benefit from his recovery. The problem was clear, yet for years nothing was done.

In every organization, there are situations like this (not just health issues – tardiness, too many smoke breaks, or abusing the internet are typical examples). Leaders often ignore the problem, hoping it will go away. The advice here is to remember the comment made by my friend, “What took you guys so long?” and intervene when the problems are less acute and the damage is minor. In his case, that would have been a blessing; the man died a few months after retiring.

Taking strong action requires courage that many leaders simply do not have. They rationalize the situation with logic like:

• Maybe the problem will correct itself if I just leave it alone.
• Perhaps I will be moved sometime soon, and the next person can deal with this.
• Confronting the issue would be so traumatic that it would do more harm than good.
• We have already found viable workaround measures, so why rock the boat now?
• We have bigger problems than this. Exposing this situation would be a distraction from our critical work.

The real dilemma is knowing the exact moment to intervene and how to do it in a way that preserves trust with the individual and the group. Once you let someone get away with a violation, it becomes harder to enforce a rule the next time. The art of supervision is knowing how to make judgments that people interpret as fair, equitable, and sensitive. The best time to intervene is when the issue first arises. As a supervisor, you need to make the rules known and follow them yourself with few and only well-justified exceptions. It is not possible to treat everyone always the same, but you must enforce the rules consistently in a way that people recognize is both appropriate and disciplined.

Be alert for the following symptoms in your area of control. If you observe these, chances are you are enabling problem employees.

• Recognition that you are working around a “problem”
• Accusations that you are “playing favorites”
• Individuals claiming they do not understand documented policies
• Backroom discussions of how to handle a person who is out of control
• Denial or downplaying an issue that is well known in the area
• Fear of retaliation or sabotage if rules are enforced
• Cliques forming to protect certain individuals
• Pranks or horseplay perpetrated on some individuals

These are just a few signals that someone is being enabled and that you need to step up to the responsibility of being the enforcer.

Sometimes supervisors inherit an undisciplined situation from a previous weak leader. It can be a challenge to get people to follow rules they have habitually ignored. One idea is to get the group together and review company policy or simply ask what the rules are in this organization. Often people do not know the policies, or pretend they do not know, because the application of rules has been eclectic. This void gives you a perfect opportunity to restate or recast the rules to start fresh. It can be done as a group exercise to improve buy-in. When people have a hand in creating the rules, they tend to remember and follow them better. If you are not a new leader but are in a situation where abuse has crept in, using this technique and taking responsible action can help you regain control and credibility.

The reward for making the tough calls is that people throughout the organization will respect you. Problems will be handled early when they are easier to correct. The downside of procrastinating on enforcement is that you appear weak, and people will continually push the boundaries.