Successful Supervisor 17 – Leader or Manager

March 12, 2017

In my work, I do a lot with the contrast between leaders and managers. The topic takes on a special meaning for supervisors because the vast majority of time they are called upon to be great managers.

In this article I will contrast the difference between a manager and a leader, then I will make a case that supervisors need to be good leaders as well as managers for at least part of the time.

Here is a set of bullets that help describe the pure Manager’s mindset:

• Managers try to be a stabilizing force
• Make sure all rules are followed
• No waste – process perfection
• Minimize conflict
• Try to make people happy/satisfied
• Would like to be popular/liked
• Clone everyone
• Main tools – budget, MBO, accountability, process control, 6 sigma, lean
• Main objective – accomplish the mission
• Focus is on today

The mindset of a pure leader is very different. Here are some bullets on the Leader’s focus:

• Often a destabilizing force
• Are we following our destiny?
• Are people rising to their potential?
• Not afraid to be unpopular
• Get people out of their comfort zone
• Strives to be respected/trusted
• Always looking for potential – what could we become?
• Main tools – benchmarking, next wave, balance sheet, technology, resources
• Main objective – reach the vision
• Focus is on the future

If my contrasts are correct, the world of the pure leader is a very different place from the world of the pure manager. Supervisors naturally gravitate toward the management mindset because of their role.

Supervisors try to maximize the productivity of existing resources most of the time. They want everyone to show up for work on time. They want everyone to follow the rules, so the process runs exactly how it was designed.

Supervisors sweat the details of making sure everyone gets paid on time and that all workers are properly trained on their function. They also think about bench strength and make sure there is an adequate level of cross training.

Supervisors become the mediators when workers quarrel. They do the reinforcing and coaching of workers so they understand when they are doing well or need to pick up the pace.

Supervisors give the performance feedback and help to set organizational goals. All of these functions are management roles.


It would be a mistake for a supervisor to stop at this point, because there is so much more that could be accomplished by the same group of people if some leadership skills were also employed.

Supervisors are not usually tasked with creating a vision for the organization, however they should be driving how the vision applies to the group being supervised.

In other words, the translation of the big picture vision into a vision for the shop floor is incredibly important.

In reality all supervisors take on management roles at certain times and leadership functions at other times. If you picture a scale from one to ten with one being pure manager and ten being pure leader, supervisors will be at three (dealing with a habitual attendance problem) one minute and then bounce all the way over to eight (envisioning a new method of cross training) the next.

It helps to picture this dynamic variety and recognize it when going about daily tasks.

By the nature of her work, a supervisor will spend more time on average doing tasks on the management end of the scale, but there will be ample time to function in the leader role.

Try to pay attention to the roles you play during your average day, and you will be surprised with the variety of tasks you do. It will enrich your job understanding and satisfaction as you do this little visualization exercise.

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 and Micromanagement

November 28, 2015

Few things sap engagement and trust within workers as much as being micromanaged. When you are told what to do and then given explicit details about how to do it, all creativity and enthusiasm are snuffed out.

Furthermore you feel the boss does not trust you to do the job right, which is exactly the signal being sent to you. I learned a way to prevent being micromanaged early in my career.

At one point I was transferred to another division, and was very excited because my new boss was earmarked as a leader with a great deal of potential. I figured he would have good coattails.

He had a great reputation in the organization, but he did have one flaw of which many people complained. This leader was prone to micromanage the people who worked directly for him. The reputation was that he was the king of all micromanagers.

Knowing this, I set out on a course to accomplish two things in my early interfaces with him.

First I tried to anticipate what he was going to ask of me and tried to have an answer ready. For example, if he would say, “Why don’t you increase the temperature on the cooling cycle,” I would reply, “I did an experiment on that two days ago, and it made the product too brittle.”

In order to anticipate what he might suggest, I really had to do a lot of extra thinking about his approach to the process and what he could potentially request.

In doing so, I actually over prepared myself with knowledge about the process, which ultimately impressed him.

I recall at one point inviting him into a conference room on his lunch hour to show him several dozen charts of experiments I had already tried on the process.

He did not share many suggestions after that because he figured I had covered all the bases.

The second thing I did was to over communicate. He never wondered what I was up to and did not have a chance to get to me first because I always beat him to it. For example, I observed that he had a habit of leaving instructions for his staff by voicemail during his lunch hour.

Every day at about 11 a.m., I would send him a voicemail sharing my plans and ideas I was working on that day. After a few weeks, he basically a left me alone to do my work in my own way, and we got along very well for 25 years while he micromanaged the others.

Leaders who micromanage people are often not even aware they are doing it.

They prefer to call it “coaching,” but the impact can be quite negative on the culture.

Micromanagers are not well liked or well respected because they send signals that the workers are not trusted to do the work correctly without constant intervention. They sap the organization of vital enthusiasm and creativity.

You may be doing a lot more micromanaging than you are aware of. It becomes a habit, and it feels like the right way to get things accomplished. Yet in the end, it undermines the culture of trust and leads to low engagement.

Exercise for you: Today, make a special note of how you coach people to do their work in your organization. Try to be as objective as possible so that you’re not fooling yourself.

Make sure you are viewing your actions from the point of view of the workers rather than through your own filters. Ask yourself what would be the result if you were able to scale back your micromanaging tendencies by about 50%.

Increasing your awareness of the tendency to micromanage is really the best defense against overusing this hurtful practice.

You can improve not only your own productivity but also that of the entire organization by scaling back on your interventions and trusting others more. It is really just a bad habit, so it takes some real effort to change it.

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

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 be Blown Off Course

December 21, 2013

Full Moon SantaEach of us has a vision of how our day will go if things occur “as expected,” but then life happens: There is an accident, illness, phone call, weather related issue, burned food, delivery, robbery, injury, the boss walks in, and on and on.

We are forced to react to these changes and try to juggle the interruption as best we can to still try to accomplish the objectives for our day.

On most days, most professionals have this kind of planning chaos occur. We can mourn the confusion, but it is better to just realize that these interruptions or distractions are what give life its spice.

One idea is to try waking up each morning with excited anticipation. The feeling should be, “OK I have a plan and objectives for my day, yet I know there will be large and small ‘adventures’ that take me off track.

Some of these may actually be fun, but many of them will be things I would rather not do. I look forward to stepping up to the challenge of accomplishing my goals while dealing with the distractions as they come up.”

Give yourself permission to get a bit testy if the interruptions become extreme. It is OK to put barbed wire and flares around your desk when a critical task has to be completed and you cannot be disturbed.

You just need to establish a priority for each task and work your way through the interruptions until you are back on course.

One technique I find helpful is to get up earlier and earlier until I get caught up with the backlog. The hours between 1 am and 7 am are delightfully free from interruptions, so my work time is more productive. Of course, I need to go to bed earlier and earlier to get enough rest, but the habit really does help me from getting buried for long periods of time.

Of course, some people are night people and others prefer the morning.

If you are habitually overloaded such that you never really get caught up, that is a stress problem that may be impacting your health. Depending on your tolerance for work, you may need to readjust your activities to make more time and reduce the amount of activities you are trying to juggle.

Another helpful technique is to use the word “no” more often. If you refuse to be blown off course every day, then you will be able to manage the remaining activities in the time you have.

That is often easier said than done, because sometimes the interruptions cannot be denied. If your child has fallen and has a broken arm, you cannot say, “Well, sorry, I have this report that is due out by tomorrow; we will take care of your needs after I get it done.”

Another technique is to identify how much time you are actually wasting. Sure, we all need to rejuvenate, but often we get involved in some TV program or in reading a book and just spend too much time doing the things we want to do, thus leaving not enough time for the things we have to do. Each of us has to find the right balance.

Ironically there is a practice that takes time away from work that is a real trap for some people. That is the habit of complaining about not enough time to do the work we have.

I once knew a man at work who spent nearly half his time walking around the office complaining to other people how there were simply not enough hours in the day to get his work done.

That activity was not only blowing him off course, but it also tied up the person who was listening to his rant. The idea is to ask yourself seriously if you are truly applying yourself fully to the work. Sometimes you may be actually procrastinating, yet you feel overloaded.

My experience has been that when I truly apply myself, I can get more done than I would have thought possible on most days. What happens when I let the distractions lure me away from what needs to be done is that I fall short of my inherent capacity.

It’s not that I couldn’t get everything done; it’s that I didn’t get everything done. There is a huge difference between those two statements.

To be fair, we all need a down day every once in a while where we just choose to goof off. The problem is that some people tend to have a percentage of goofing off as part of each day. That means when they get blown off course, there is no reserve time to flex to the situation. That creates frustration.

If you compartmentalize your tasks and keep pursuing your original list of things to do with excellent application, you can usually survive the winds that would blow you off course for the day.

A Mirror for Leaders

June 1, 2013

MirrorOne of the most pervasive and vexing problems in organizations is that most leaders do not realize the damage they are doing on a daily basis. When leaders are blind to the trust withdrawals they make, there is little opportunity to create an environment of high trust. I believe trust is the most critical element for any group, so this problem of leadership blindness holds back many organizations. Is there a way out of this conundrum? I think there is.

What we need is a kind of “mirror” for leaders so they can see their own contribution to the problems that they desperately want to solve. If such a mirror existed, how would we get a leader to use it daily? Brilliant leaders have already found the ability to see their own contribution to lower trust, and they are able to change things themselves. Unfortunately, the world is not full of brilliant leaders, so the average ones, and especially the poor ones, need some assistance.

We have ruled out the individual leader as the person who has the ability to see his or her contribution to a poor culture, so it must fall to some other person or force to do it. In the mind of most leaders, things would be vastly improved if only “they” (other people) would be more dedicated, smart, open, cooperative, cheerful, willing, trustworthy, and a thousand other things. If we asked a random person from the organization to step up and be a sounding board for the leader, it would not work. That person is part of the problem, in the leader’s opinion, so the information brought by the individual would fall on deaf and annoyed ears.

A better approach would be to identify a “Mirror Coach.” This is an individual whom this leader really does trust (there is always someone). This person is the key to having the leader begin to see that she is frequently operating at cross purposes to her intent. In most cases leaders want higher productivity, greater teamwork, people showing initiative, good attitudes, a pleasant place to work, etc., but on a daily basis they do things that take the organization 180 degrees in the wrong direction. Once a leader begins to understand this paradox and is willing to ask, “What do I need to change in my own behaviors to have the kind of results I want from my team?” the door is open to better leadership.

There are four steps to create an effective Mirror Coach for leaders:

1. Identifying the right person

We must identify an individual who has enough purchasing power with the leader to allow a series of frank conversations. This person must not be perceived by the leader as a primary source of the problem. It might be a kindred spirit within the organization to whom the leader has confided in the past. It could be the leader’s own manager, if that person is not also clueless. It could be a coach or outside mentor who is brought in to help clarify improvement opportunities. It really does not matter where this person comes from, as long as he or she has the ear of the leader to discuss some uncomfortable topics without getting thrown out of the office. A trained coach is often the best solution here.

2. Getting the person to agree

The appointed individual needs to understand the assignment is fraught with peril. There is already some rapport established with the leader, and the education process requires some frank discussions that are not comfortable. Change is difficult. The Mirror Coach must honestly believe that he or she is there to provide a crucial service to help the leader grow. Sure, there are going to be some tense moments, but if a stronger and more healthy organization is the result, the Mirror Coach can visualize the role as vital to the future of the organization as well as to the leader. It is an ultimate challenge.

3. Getting the leader ready to listen

This step is the hardest part of the process. The leader has been convinced for a long time that the problems reside with “them” not “me,” so focusing energy on how “I can change my own behaviors” will feel like it is misdirected. It is an act of faith to take the first step.
One way to enable helpful dialog is to have the leader verbalize that things could be better for the organization. Bring in a coach who can work with the senior team (not just the boss) in a series of “lunch and learn” sessions. Eventually, the coach will earn the trust of the boss and gain the purchasing power to have some constructive, albeit difficult, conversations.

Once a leader is willing to get help in the form of a Mirror Coach, something magical happens. The stark realization of the unsuccessful nature of what has been done up to now is a good place to start. Also, the leader may have associates or mentors outside the organization who can advocate that a different approach is worth a shot. All that is required is for the leader to be willing to examine his own contributions to his problems and be willing to explore possible alternatives.

4. Reinforcing the leader for making behavior changes

By taking some baby steps in the direction of modifying behaviors, the leader will be showing a different side, and the people in the organization will react very positively to it. They have been living in a kind of tyranny for so long, any movement in a positive direction will produce endorphins of positive energy that will be obvious to the leader, especially if the actions are encouraged by the coach. Continual reinforcement of the small behavioral changes will persuade the leader to keep the momentum going.

After some initial cautious steps, the leader will become more bold about changing his own behaviors to create the kind of environment where his goals are easily met. The process becomes self-sustaining rather quickly. There is one caution during this transformation.

The behavioral changes needed to sustain a culture of higher trust are not the natural style for the leader, at least in the beginning. There are going to be some relapses and false steps along the way. Both the general population and the Mirror Coach must not lose faith when the leader hits a speed bump. It is important to put any missteps into the perspective of what has already been gained in order to recapture forward momentum.

Progress in the leader’s ability to see the trust problems as rooted in his own behaviors defuses the culture of blame. No longer does the leader see workers as the primary source of problems. While this may be unsettling at first, it is really liberating for the organization because significant progress toward a higher trust environment is apparent every day, and productivity will skyrocket.

Having a Mirror Coach help the leader shift focus from blame to one of behavior modification creates more objectivity because the emphasis will be on understanding cause and effect rather than witch hunting. The new habits will allow more heart-based communications to occur in contrast to the prior one-way directional communications. The leader will learn to relax and have more fun at work while still getting much more accomplished. The source of a poor environment is always a mutual problem for everyone in the organization.

Everyone in the organization stands to benefit from a better environment, so everyone needs to be a part of the solution. With care and patience, the entire team can create a culture where behaviors support the values and vision, so it becomes a win, win, win. The organization wins due to better performance, the workers win due to fewer conflicts, and finally the leader wins because he or she reaches the challenging goals quicker and with less turmoil.

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.

Stretched Too Thin?

July 22, 2012

We hear that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. If you are a manager, one sure thing is that people will tell you there are not enough employees to do the job. I have yet to find an organization where the workers do not feel stretched beyond their ability.

Productivity makes an interesting study, because most behavioral scientists agree that in any organization the actual productivity is a small fraction of the capability inherent in the people. Research reported by the Gallup Organization in 2010 indicates that for average organizations, only 33% of the workers are engaged, 49% of them are not engaged, and 18% are actively disengaged. This low productivity is usually not the fault of the workers, but the result of a poor culture established by top leaders.

The paradox here is that while there is a perpetual outcry for more people in most organizations, the human resources that are available are grossly underutilized. By establishing a culture of higher trust, managers can change the equation dramatically.

We do not need more people; we need better utilization of the people we already have. How do we solve the age-old mystery of getting higher levels of effort and engagement on the part of people? The irony is that when managers look to improve productivity, they often focus on numerous other things and forget that true productivity lies with the motivation of people.

For example, I read an interesting article on productivity in the Encyclopedia of Management 2006, which gives 17 ways to improve productivity in an organization. They are:

1. capital investments in production
2. capital investments in technology
3. capital investments in equipment
4. capital investments in facilities
5. economies of scale
6. workforce training and experience
7. technological changes
8. work methods
9. procedures
10. systems
11. quality of products
12. quality of processes
13. quality of management
14. legislative and regulatory environment
15. general levels of education
16. social environment
17. geographic factors

Notice the amazing lack of motivational aspects in this list. The only factor in the whole list that has much to do with motivation is item 13, quality of management. True, we can improve productivity with capital investments or systems, but the real gold is changing the morale of the people doing the work. That takes an investment of a different kind. My thesis is that the missing ingredient in productivity is trust.

The Trust Across America Organization has gathered some compelling data over the past decade that shows corporations with high trust achieve 500-600% greater returns than the S&P 500. So productivity, and the resulting profits, are available if we can only educate leaders on how to build and maintain higher trust. That revelation means we can stop whining about not enough people and start focusing more effort on the skills needed to grow trust.

Improving the level of trust in an organization starts at the very top. The most senior managers must recognize it is their behaviors and the signals they send that set the tone for everything that happens in their organization. There are several groups and consultants, including myself, who specialize in helping organizations understand the pathways to higher trust.

I recommend that all top managers have a key thrust to change their behavior patterns so that trust begins to grow from the highest levels. Once started, the improvement in trust will naturally flow down through the entire organization, and the first thing you know, the outcry for more people will become muted. The employees are there just waiting to put their shoulder into the work once they are treated the right way.