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.”


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 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

Open Door Caveats

February 14, 2015

Listening 3If you are like most professionals, your company has an “open door” policy. This is one of the most commonly employed HR strategies to ensure individuals are not trapped under an ogre of a supervisor with no way to communicate their frustration.

Unfortunately, the strategy is often dysfunctional, and it can actually do more harm than good. Let’s put the “open door” policy under the microscope and see what makes it dangerous, then suggest an antidote that can help.

The Open door policy sounds so inherently right, few employees question it until they are embroiled in a problem and have to try to get the intended benefits.

It reminds me of an insurance policy. You think you are protected until you have a claim, then you find out what the fine print was all about.

Likewise many managers hide behind the open door as a kind of cure-all for organizational low trust. Both symptoms mask an underlying malaise that must be rooted out and destroyed.

On the surface, the open door leads to greater transparency and fairness, but in the real world there are several reasons it does not work that way.

1. The “Open Door” policy can be a sham – If an employee wants to use the open door policy it is usually because of some kind of rift with his or her immediate supervisor. There is something bad going on according to the employee’s interpretation, and the supervisor is unwilling or incapable of dealing with the situation.

During these times, trust between the individual and level-one supervision is at an all time low. Since talking it out with level one will only bring additional grief, the employee uses the open door and tries to clear the air by talking to level-two.

The level-two manager is not fully familiar with the issue, so the only recourse is to listen politely to the employee and then have a chat with the level-one supervisor.

In the process, the level-one supervisor immediately becomes aware that he or she has been “blown in” to the boss. Regardless of how professional both leaders are, this series of discussions usually results in a further reduction of trust between the three levels and the individuals involved.

Since trust was compromised to begin with, the poor employee is now under an even more ominous cloud.

2. The “Open Door” leads to games – I recall a discussion with my boss. He wanted to use the open door policy correctly and not jeopardize the employee, who was working for me.

So my boss told me one of my employees had complained that I was not treating the person fairly (he was careful to keep the discussion gender neutral to make it harder for me to guess who might have the issue).

I had taken over a new area, and the trust in me had not yet been fully established. My boss would not tell me who the individual was, or the specific area involved. He would only tell me that there was someone out there that did not trust me to treat him or her fairly.

He would not share the specific area of concern nor give me enough data to have a clue for how to fix it. This discussion served to put me on notice, but it caused me to start second guessing every interface or action attempting to uncover the problem.

In the end, I never did figure out who the person was or what the issue was. For months I went around like Sherlock Holmes trying to figure out what incorrect signals this one individual had been getting.

Meanwhile, the rest of the population, who were not concerned with my fairness, thought I was acting a little weird.

3. “Open Door” has a bad reputation on the shop floor – In many organizations employees are fully aware that the open door policy is something that makes management feel good and looks good in the employee handbook, but it is a poor vehicle to use if there is an actual issue on the shop floor.

If the symptom leading to the need for an open door conversation is low trust, then how can escalating the issue to the next higher level be helpful?

There are also folk tails of the poor soul who got so upset with a situation that he actually did use the open door and lived to regret it every day thereafter until he finally quit the organization.

Far better to suffer the current injustice than call in the big guns and ensure more pain.

4. “Open Door” failures lead to Ombudsmen – When the open door gets a reputation for causing additional grief and not resolving problems, organizations often resort to a third party grievance resolution mechanism called an Ombudsman.

Again, from an HR or legal perspective this practice seems reasonable and fair. It really can resolve some issues, but it is also fraught with cloak and dagger nonsense that usually further undermines trust as the clueless Ombudsman seeks to understand what is really going on without upsetting people.

Meanwhile the employee is on tenterhooks hoping the desperate action to call in a third party will not backfire.

Once again, since the root cause of the problem can be traced to a lack of trust, the Ombudsman approach is at best a last resort effort to save utter collapse.

5. What if the level-two manager is a jerk too? – If an employee has a problem with the integrity of the level-one supervisor, then the level-two supervisor is often in question as well.

From a shop floor perspective, all management is painted with the same brush.

Actually, there are situations where there is a bad apple in the middle and employees really do trust the second level more than the first level.

More often, all management is suspect if there are weak links. After all, if the big boss tolerates a bully in the supervisory ranks, then that manager is not doing his or her job either.

Why would employees feel high trust for that person? They more likely picture the big boss as a well intended but clueless manager who has no idea how miserable things are two levels below.

These are five very real symptoms of problems with the open door policy.

I am not saying it is a bad thing to have or that it never works. What I am suggesting is that there is a better way.

What if we taught managers at all levels to reinforce candor? Employees would learn that is not a career threatening opportunity to bring an issue to the immediate boss.

In fact, when they bring up scary stuff or perceived inequities, they are rewarded in some way. This would be regardless of the level. It would mean that the need for escalation would be significantly reduced in the first place, and for those few situations where a higher level discussion would be useful, then the employee is still reinforced.

Imagine the poor Ombudsman with less work than the Maytag Repairman.

Imagine an entire workforce concentrating on the mission of and vision of the organization instead of constantly negotiating their way through minefields of bureaucratic protectionism.

Imagine running an organization based on trust instead of fear. It is possible if we simply teach leaders to reinforce candor.

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.