Successful Supervisor 27 – Keeping Discipline

May 21, 2017

There is a natural tendency for people to test their supervision. I believe this universal condition stems from people’s desire for maximum comfort and the ability to control how they use their time.

In most, but not all, cases this condition forces the supervisor to maintain discipline within her group. I will deal with an exception at the end of this article.

In order to obtain maximum efficiency, most organizations establish rules that are expected to be followed. For this article, I will use the example of the length of breaks, but the same logic holds for all rules that employees are expected to follow.

Let’s say that in this organization there are two breaks from the work, one about half way between the start of the shift and one midway between the lunch break and quitting time.

The standard break has been set in this organization for 15 minutes. It is up to the supervisor to enforce this rule along with all of the other rules of deportment.

She notices that the time her employees are actually off the job for break time has started to creep higher than 15 minutes because employee need to shut down the process and travel to the break room.

First they go to the bathroom to take care of physical needs and wash up, then they go to the break room, or some of them go outside for a smoke break (more information on smoking later in the article).

The employees sit in the break room chatting and snacking for 15 minutes, but the actual time off the job turns out to be closer to 25 minutes. The supervisor wonders if she should say something because the total lost production time for the break is typically nearly twice what was intended.

The supervisor decides not to be hard-nosed on this point and gives the extra time so employees can have a reasonable break. Then she starts to notice the actual time in the break room starts to lengthen to roughly 20 minutes, making the total production loss more like 30 minutes.

She still wrestles with whether to come down hard on the crews, because she can anticipate they will get even with her in some other form of work slowdown over which she has little control.

This pattern of extending breaks goes on and continues to get worse with time until the supervisor is forced to do something. What she does and how she does it will make the difference between success or failure. It will also determine the level of true respect she receives going forward.

The easiest way to handle this situation is to put a notice on the bulletin board or write an e-mail to all employees that “from this point on we will adhere strictly to the 15 minute break periods.”

That course of action may work in certain cultures, but it will backfire with most groups. What she will get is a kind of scorn that mocks her attempt at discipline.

I recall one manager early in my career tried to enforce quitting time by memo. What happened is that one of the technicians built a “bugle” out of copper tubing, a funnel and a pneumatic fitting.

Every day at precisely quitting time he would blow the bugle to signify time to go home and everybody would stampede to the elevator. Essentially the employees were mocking the manager’s attempt to control the time employees left for the day.

Solutions

1. Discuss in small groups

One way to control the following of rules is to work with people in small groups and discuss the reasons for the rules. The supervisor can be open to suggestions but ultimately has to ask the group if they intend to follow the rules.

If they say “yes” then she should ask them to police themselves in that behavior. If they say “no” then the supervisor might ask what it would take for them to comply. I believe asking questions in these situations is more helpful than citing rules from the book.

2. Identify the informal leader and enroll that person as an ally

In every group there is one or more informal leaders to whom the rest of the people look to for guidance. Usually this person is easy to spot.

The supervisor can confide in the informal leader her dilemma at getting people to keep breaks to a reasonable level. She can ask for the informal leader’s help or suggestions as to how to get people back to a reasonable break length. If the informal leader gets up from the table at roughly the specific time for end of break, then the others will notice and break up their visiting quickly.

3. Join the group but leave at the proper time

The supervisor can actually join the group of workers to have some social time and have a break along with the others. She can then get up from the table at the appropriate time. This action puts everyone on notice through behavior rather than trying to reason with people verbally or by e-mail.

4. Avoid trying to incent people to follow the rules

I knew one supervisor who tried to regain control by offering a pizza party at the end of the week if the crews would only comply with the specified break times. This approach is a kind of slippery slope that will become an albatross down the line. Do not provide additional incentive for people to do what is expected of them. You do not reward a driver because he stops at a red light.

5. Examine the rule to see if it should be altered

If shutting down the process plus a bathroom break take so long that there is no real “break” without stretching things, maybe the rule is too restrictive. The supervisor could lead discussions on how to make up the productivity losses to give employees a sense of ownership.

Often some form of staggering break times is a reasonable solution. That way the process can limp along and never shut down throughout the break period.

Special situations with Smoke Breaks

Smoke breaks are a special condition that can easily get out of hand. The ultimate problem with frequent smoke breaks occurs with fellow employees who have to cover for the person who is outside indulging his habit. This stress can become a real problem for any group. Here are some ideas:

1. Make it illegal

Many organizations have made the entire premises a smoke free zone, and that ends the stress of people taking too many smoke breaks. Supervisors need to be sensitive to people who are truly addicted. Sometimes medical assistance during the transition is helpful.

2. Confine the activity to the standard break time

Some groups allow smoking only during standard break times in an effort to be fair to all employees. In other words, let it be known that a person can smoke on break time but then not be allowed to take an additional 20 minute break for another smoke the very next hour.

3. Have a Wellness Program

Many groups run wellness programs that encourage employees to do a number of things to improve their overall health. Coaching on quitting smoking can be one of the major things a supervisor can employ to help people improve the quality of their lives. This may involve professional help from the outside.

Owning the Rules

At the start of this article I promised to address a different kind of ownership of the rules. Many companies have adopted practices that allow employees to feel true ownership of the business. There are several organizational techniques that can lead to this kind of ownership.

One such arrangement is an ESOP, where the employees are literally the owners of the business. As the business does well financially, the employees are directly compensated for that good performance.

There are several other methods to achieve a similar dynamic, and where it is truly embraced throughout the organization, the need for a supervisor to enforce rules becomes significantly diminished.

If you are a supervisor in a conventional organization, realize that the employees are going to test you in every way imaginable. You must be worthy of the test and maintain good control without becoming like Ebenezer Scrooge.

You also need to determine when it is necessary to bend a rule for a personal emergency situation. These tests will determine your level of effectiveness, because they ultimately define the culture in which your employees work.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on http://www.leadergrow.com/articles/supervision 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 http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763


Successful Supervisor Part 5 – Testing Limits

December 18, 2016

It seems so simple that there is a set number of rules for workers to follow, and they should always follow them. As any supervisor will tell you, getting people to follow the rules is a major part of the job that is both tedious and thankless.

In this article, we dig into the phenomenon of rules: how people test them and how they react to various approaches to enforce the rules. I will suggest some best practices that allow the supervisor to thread the needle of this immense challenge and will discuss some things that should be avoided.

Regardless of how the supervisor was appointed, there is one thing for sure: people are going to test the limits to find out how she reacts in different situations. Now comes the part where most supervisors can struggle for years.

The desire is to have a pleasant work environment where the tasks get done by cheerful people who follow all the rules. In other words, the supervisor would like to be popular, but being a popular leader is a tricky business. As Colin Powell once said, “Sometimes being a leader means pissing people off.”

Constant conundrum

In most organizations, part of the performance and salary system for supervisors includes an evaluation by the people who are being supervised. The new supervisor knows that if she takes a hard line on all the rules, people are going to rate her poorly, and that could easily have an impact on her pay.

She tries to accommodate people as much as possible and does not “put the hammer down” if people take a few extra minutes for breaks. Note: I will use the length of breaks as an example here. The same testing will go on wherever there is a behavioral rule, like attendance, work hours, housekeeping, or other standard measures.

Once people see the supervisor is trying to accommodate the workers, they will up the ante to push the limits. Five extra minutes for a break will stretch to 15 minutes extra or even more. Without some check, the abuse will continue to become more extreme.

Eventually productivity takes such a hit that the supervisor has to clamp down. This is where most inexperienced supervisors make a fundamental mistake. They issue a note via e-mail or text reminding people that the standard break duration is 15 minutes (or whatever the rule is for that unit). Now she will be faced with what I call “The Bugle Effect.”

The Bugle Effect

When I was a young engineer, I worked in a bullpen area with few partitions. The group was rather lax about quitting time, because people wanted to avoid the rush hour traffic. The published quitting time was 4:40 PM, but if you actually left at that time it would take you an extra 30 minutes to get home. Discipline had been lost over the years, and most people checked out around 4 PM. The supervisor finally had enough and wrote a letter reminding people that the quitting time of 4:40 PM needed to be honored.

One of the technicians in the area made a “bugle” out of some copper tubing, a pneumatic fitting, and a large tin funnel. Every day all the technical staff would be at their desks working away until the clock reached 4:40, then the technician would pull out the bugle and blow it, and everybody would clamor to be the first one on the elevator.

In essence, the population was mocking the supervisor for trying to hold the line on quitting time. They thought she was being petty, and so they developed bad attitudes about the hours of work. Her method of trying to enforce the rules had backfired.

Some possible solutions

I offer a few solutions below, but it is important to judge the group’s personality and operating norms before applying any specific method. I learned that lesson the hard way when I was a new supervisor. I called a special meeting and marched the entire group into a conference room to go over my expectations.

The body language of the participants was terrible, and I lost a lot of ground that day. Think through the possible options and select one that is right for your situation.

An overarching consideration is to avoid being manipulative with people. Rather, seek to influence behavior with the truth served up in ways they can appreciate and always treat them as adults. Work to establish a sense of rightness and fairness that is built on the culture of trust developed within the group.

The symptom of pushing limits is rooted in motivation. I cover the topic of motivation in a later article, but for this article, I will suggest that a best practice is to investigate the alignment and culture within the team. Asking questions rather than making statements is an effective approach.

1. Here are some questions worth exploring with the group:

a) To what extent do all people on the team recognize their contribution to the total effort?
b) How do people feel about the culture and trust level within the team?
c) What are some things the team can do to be more cohesive and more effective?
d) How strongly do people realize that without some controls, we cannot accomplish our tasks well and be fair to everyone?
e) How well do people in this operation understand the rules?
f) Is it in the best interest of the entire group to follow the rules, except in situations of a rare personal emergency?
g) How much better off would we be if we were not trying to figure out who are the worst abusers of the rules?
h) What are some of the advantages of having discipline within our unit?
i) To what extent do people feel reinforced or punished when they bring up things they do not agree with?
j) If we truly respect each other, how can we all abide by the rules without relying on some kind of policeman to enforce them?

2. Another approach would be to put the onus on group norms of behavior to achieve better control.

The central theme is that, as adults, the group owns the process and has the ability to choose the best route to maintain order. The supervisor might lead a discussion as follows:

a) Mention at a staff meeting that she has observed that not everyone is following the stated rules for leaving time.
b) Discuss the reason for having a standard leaving time in the first place. Get the individuals involved in the discussion if possible. How would they like to control the situation?
c) Ask if it is appropriate to have a team behavior that our intention is to follow the published rules unless there is an unusual situation or emergency.
d) If the rule appears to be unfair or arbitrary, she might ask for creative suggestions for how to accomplish the required hours on the job in a different way, such as some form of flex time where people are allowed to leave a bit early provided they started early or took a shortened lunch break.
e) Ask the group whether they understand the need to be more rigorous at following the rules because they are there for a reason (here the trick is to ask the group a question rather than make a demand.)

3. A third approach is for the supervisor to seek out an informal leader of the team and ask that person to help her out with the others.

She might suggest that if the informal leader acts closer to the expected behavior the others may eventually follow. I will discuss the informal leader and several other types of individuals and give some suggestions in a future article.

These approaches might not work in all cases; it depends on the maturity of the group and the individuals in it. The supervisor has to sometimes try different approaches to keep a reasonable discipline.

The magic here is to refrain from continually hounding people and insisting on compliance. When a supervisor demands compliance, it usually results in some form of “The Bugle Effect.” By exploring the out-of-control situation openly and asking questions, the supervisor can regain control while simultaneously gaining more respect with the group members.

Now, the supervisor can suggest that it is the group’s responsibility to reinforce their own behavior and recognize there may be certain circumstances where a person might have to leave early for personal reasons, but most people will stay until at least quitting time because they understand the logic. Most likely you will see several people working well past quitting time, because they are aware the boss notices these things.

An approach that will likely backfire

Some supervisors try to offer an incentive or reward for following the rules. The supervisor might say, “If the group takes breaks according to the standard all week, we can have a pizza party on Friday.” This usually backfires because the rules are in place and are expected to be followed.

A special reward of any kind for compliance may modify behavior for a while but will hurt morale in the end and will definitely lead to loss of cooperation.

You do not reward a driver for stopping at a stop sign. It is expected behavior.

The attitude of the supervisor should be firm but reasonable. The idea is to gain and maintain trust and respect rather than try to trick or force people into compliance. The best approach is to be strong and unbending on matters of principle but approachable and flexible when dealing with individual situations.

It is important to realize that different people react differently to discipline, and you must flex your style appropriately to be most effective. One precaution on flexing is that the standards of deportment must be the same for everyone.

If you let one individual get away with more lax rules because he is a bully or one of your favorite people, then you are in for trouble all along the line. Flex on style and approach to people but remain firm on the standards that apply in the area out of a sense of fairness.

Treating first line employees like adults and being sensitive to their needs is usually superior to the militant approach of barking out orders then trying to enforce them every day.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on http://www.leadergrow.com/articles/supervision 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 http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763


Improving Teamwork

May 30, 2015

Colorful fun

We have all heard the phrase, “All I need to know I learned in Kindergarten.” It came from an article written by Robert Fulgham in 1993 that later became a series of books and tapes. His five key points bear repeating when we think about teamwork. They are:

• Share everything,
• Play Fair,
• Don’t hit people,
• Say you’re sorry when you hurt someone, and
• Take a break in the afternoon for cookies.

Doing what is simple and right is a prerequisite for getting along in this world. Let’s examine this primitive, but profound wisdom as it relates to teams.

Share Everything

Teams exist to accomplish some kind of a goal. Whether it is winning a football game, writing a budget, or gaining a new client, there is always an objective. If you are on a team that has no reason to exist, resign. You are wasting your precious time.

Once everyone on the team understands the vision, the path is clear to figure out how to do it. For that, you need the participation of everyone, not just the leader or a few aggressive members.

The magic of a team is the diverse ideas in the heads of all members. People who keep their ideas to themselves out of embarrassment or other issues, rob the team of the creative juices necessary for outstanding results.

Share your ideas and thoughts on how the team can work well. Be an active member of the team. Don’t assume that, because you are in the same room (or virtual environment) with the rest of the team you are doing your share. As an wise old English teacher of mine used to day, “Put on a suit, and get in the game.”

Play Fair

Duh ?- – – this seems so obvious as to be trivial, but it actually is often a huge roadblock in effective team dynamics. How can this be? It is because what seems fair to me, may not seem fair to you. I had a student tell me once, “I am the kind of person who does what he thinks is right.” Well….duh..again.

Can you imagine someone going around doing what he/she thinks is wrong? I can’t. It is practically impossible to do what you think is wrong unless you are trying to break a bad habit and can’t. Even then, you rationalize, with, “I just needed that piece of chocolate cake today for my sanity. I’ll make up for it tomorrow.” You would need to be a psychopath to do something you honestly believe is the wrong thing to do.

So, all of us, most of the time “play fair” according to our own set of beliefs, values, and circumstances. We may not turn in a team assignment when we agreed to, but that is because we had a terrible day at work. When we got home, the basement was flooded and we had to call the fire department to pump it out. Or, the power was out for two hours which was the time we set aside for this. Or, something happened to our computer, etc. etc.

Don’t get me wrong, these kind of emergencies do come up and cause people to miss responsibilities. That’s life. Other team members will excuse an occasional lapse due to problems beyond control. However, I have witnessed employees who have some kind of “natural disaster” happen to them every week.

After a while, you get the feeling they either are under a “black cloud,” or they are finding reasons to not perform. The interesting point is that they truly believe it is physically impossible to meet commitments. In other words, they are completely justified in their own mind and “playing fair.” Others may not share that opinion, so this leads to conflict.

This exact dynamic is going on to varying degrees all the time between team members. In most cases people put up with the vagaries of the other team members because they don’t want to cause trouble.

However, many times the “disconnects” between people become large enough that the small issues become huge issues in the mind of one person. Then you have open conflict that must be resolved.

Don’t Hit People

When we get frustrated enough, we tend to lose perspective. I don’t know why this happens, but it is part of the human condition. When a team member is far enough out of line, other members begin to take it personally and “attack” the problem person.

Naturally, since this person was “playing fair” according to his/her perspective, he/she becomes angry and defensive. I battle emerges because each party honestly believes the other person is acting irrationally.

This is easy to recognize. One person will throw an “e-grenade” at the other person who says, ” Ouch ! not only did that hurt, but it was unfair. He needs to realize he can’t treat people that way, and I am just the one to do it.” Back comes a bigger “e-grenade” into the computer of the first person, who says, “Well that proves it, he is a real jerk who needs to be put in his place once and for all. Not only is he impolite, he isn’t even quoting me right.”

Back comes a huge “e-bomb” that really blasts the other party. The whole thing has degenerated into the kind of food fight you see in kindergarten. After a while the issue at hand becomes irrelevant and it is more of a personal vendetta between individuals.

There is a 100% cure for this problem. Remember the old adage, “It takes two to tango.” If the recipient of the first “e-grenade” doesn’t take the bait, the issue does not escalate. That is tough to do when you are the recipient of a hurtful comment.

Good teamwork requires the ability to take a shot and not hit back. One easy way to accomplish this is to change the venue. If an attack comes in an e-mail, don’t respond in kind. Pick up the phone or go visit the other person to resolve the issue.

Say You’re Sorry when you Hurt Someone

Sincere humility is the balm that heals up team wounds. Recognize that, in the heat of battle, things may become overheated. You will know this when it happens to you. An echo will bounce back from a note you sent that has a bad taste. You immediately know that you have angered a team member or, at least confused him/her. This is the time to send a humble apology. You can restate the goal and reiterate your commitment to the team as well. This must be followed by a change in action, or it will not work.

Imagine a Greg on the playground who shoves a Mike over something unimportant. Mike says, “Hey whata’ya want to go and do that for?” Greg replies, “Yeah, you’re right, I’m sorry,” but the minute Mike turns his back Greg spits at him. Well, the teacher better get out his whistle, because there is going to be a fight.

Take a break in the afternoon for cookies

Working in teams is actually hard work. Not only must you do the assigned task, you need to keep people from getting on each other’s nerves. That means the stress level is sometimes high for two reasons. It is important to take a break and have some “cookies” from time to time.

Realize most of the “problems” that are driving you crazy today will be unimportant to you in a week or so. When you take the time to celebrate the small wins along the way, it rejuvenates the team for the next round.

Be lavish (but sincere) with your praise and thanks to other team members and they will appreciate it. Every “thank you” is a chocolate chip in the cookie of life.


Please No Bologna

October 18, 2014

garlic bolognaI advocate that each group of managers and leaders establish a list of behaviors that they intend to follow as a group. Reason: when expected behaviors are vaporware or wishy-washy concepts that are not specific, it is impossible for the team to hold each other accountable for abiding by the rules.

It is a mistake to have a long shopping list of 20-30 rules because it becomes too complicated to remember them all or convey them to each other. I think 5-7 behavioral rules work well for a management team.

One rule I wish every group would adopt is the “No Bologna” rule.

This idea is that we are all on the same team here, and we are not here to play games with each other. Trying to impress the other team members by pulling rank or outsmarting or embarrassing each other are common tactics of low performing management groups. If someone on the team wants to be disruptive, then the opportunity is there to bring down the effectiveness of the entire group by orders of magnitude. I have seen it happen numerous times.

If a team adopts a “No Bologna” rule, then a good technique is to have some kind of signal that can be given when someone forgets to follow the rule. Perhaps it might be a raised index finger or some other recognizable sign, like a “time out” signal that the team has agreed to.

One important concept is that the team needs to agree there will be no negative repercussions for anyone giving the sign, even if it is the boss who is causing the problem.

Having a pre-selected, and safe, signal allows the whole team to police the behaviors, and that permission quickly extinguishes the wrong behavior.

I was once with a team that was world class at making jokes at the expense of each other. The jokes were digs or barbs that were intended to be in jest and always taken that way on the surface. Unfortunately there was damage being done under the surface when people picked on each other, even if it was supposed to be a joke.

I suggested that they invent a hand signal to use when someone made a joke at the expense of another individual in the group. Since this was the third item on their list of rules, they elected to use three fingers to indicate someone violated the rule.

The results were simply amazing. In less than an hour the behavior that had been so firmly engrained in the team’s make up was totally extinguished. It only took a couple times of one member giving the sign to another for people to catch on and stop doing it.

The results in this group were transformational. The little barbs stopped, and from that point on the tone of the group was much more supportive. They still had fun and made jokes; they just did not do it at the expense of others.

Take the time with your team to invent some behavioral rules, and also invent some kind of signal to give if the rule is broken. You will find that it can make a big difference in the culture of the entire team.


Less Control Can Mean Better Results

January 26, 2013

JoystickThe advice in the title sounds backward, doesn’t it? The typical knee-jerk reaction when things are not going according to desires at work is for managers to add more controls. This is an effort to get more people to do what they are supposed to do, so performance will improve. Only one problem: most of the time greater control translates into lower performance.

The reason why more control is usually the worst course of action has to do with motivation. In most organizations, there is already too much control over what people do. Policy manuals and specific rules for how we do things are installed for a reason, and woe be to anybody who breaks the rules.

The signal being sent by management is that they do not trust people to do the right thing. When managers heap more rules onto the already steaming pile of procedures, people become more disillusioned, and motivation takes a hit. Result: people comply begrudgingly, but will not go beyond simple compliance. The organization suffers as workers leave most of their discretionary effort on the front steps.

Great managers realize that by reducing the control, performance often increases and does so in dramatic ways. In Smart Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey and Greg Link give ample evidence that when employees are trusted to do what is right, they normally rise to the occasion, and remarkable things start to happen. The book has literally hundreds of data points to show there is a definite trend here, but one example, in particular, caught my eye.

I like the story of Gordon Bethune, who took over the helm at Continental Airlines in 1994. At that time, Continental was approaching its third bankruptcy, and performance measures in all areas were the worst in the industry. The workers had been so abused by managers applying onerous rules and regulations that they were just going through the motions, and Gordon did not blame them. He was smart enough to recognize he would need to repair their spirits before he could get them to perform. He likened the daunting task of turning around their enthusiasm to being the adopted parents of severely abused children. He would have to earn their trust before he could begin to restore their enthusiasm for the work. But how could he do that?

In a number of steps, he started to show employees that he had more faith in them than in the rule books. In fact, at one point, he had company policy manuals taken out to the parking lot where he had them burned publicly. Rather than rely on controlling rules, he let the people know the objectives and broad operating methods, but let the employees use their own judgment in making the decisions on day-to-day activities.

Over the next decade, Continental Airlines, with this new philosophy of fewer rules and higher trust, began to win customer service awards. Their stock price went from $2 to over $50, and in Bethune’s final year, Fortune ranked Continental the Most Admired Global Airline. Let’s sum it up. Fewer rules and higher trust allowed a nearly dead airline to rise to a predominant position. Why? Because the power of the people is what you need to run any successful organization.

Covey and Link give a five part formula in the book that creates a pathway toward an enduring trust that is neither blind or naive. It is what they call Smart Trust. I recommend the book for any manager who is struggling with poor performance and a situation of over control.

It is important not to just throw away all procedures, because some of them are needed for legal purposes or to ensure standard practices in complex and critical situations. Managers should stop trying to account for every situation that might go wrong. They should stop trying to direct people how to react to every single scenario, because it chokes out the creativity and enthusiasm of the workforce.

The secret is to have specific processes only where they are needed, and allow people to use their brains when an off-standard condition requires quick thinking. For example, there may be a set procedure for investigating the situation before granting a customer refund, but there will be times when it is wiser to ignore the rule and immediately accept the customer’s word.

When managers allow people to use their God-given intelligence, they nearly always do the right thing, and if they make a mistake it is usually a small one. If the rulebook is so heavy that it takes hours to find out the proper way to react to a given situation, what you will get is simple compliance most of the time, but you will miss the opportunity to have a fully engaged workforce.


Increase Span of Control

December 2, 2012

span of controlHow much span of control should a particular manager have? Years ago, I was taught that any manager who has more than 6 direct reports cannot do a proper job of supervising the individuals. On the other extreme, with a very flat organization and self directed work teams, it is possible for a manager to be directly responsible for over 100 people.

This article describes some of the issues when considering optimal span of control and also shares some key behaviors that allow managers to broaden their span of control without loss of effectiveness. This is helpful information for leaders because most organizations are heading in the direction of flatter structures.

An overarching question is why we call it “control” at all. The idea that one must have control over people in order to influence or coach them properly is outdated. I agree that the total entity needs to be in control so the goals of the organization are met and the customer is well served, but the individuals within the organization do not need to be controlled like marionettes in order to perform well.

Most of my professional work centers around the concept of trust. If an organization has a culture of high trust, then the individuals within it do not need to be controlled to be effective. If upper management is transparent with information so that all workers at all levels know the goals and are trusted or empowered to do the right thing, then the conventional hierarchy of: group leader, supervisor, manager, vice president, group vice president, president, and CEO is way more structure than is needed.

Let us look at eight manager behaviors that will allow one individual to provide the needed guidance to numerous other people.

Delegate well

When managers back off and let people figure out the best way to accomplish the tasks required to meet goals, less direct supervision is required. The opposite of delegating well is micromanaging the work of others. Few people I have met appreciate, or even tolerate, being micromanaged for very long. It is debilitating to motivation, and it drains the productivity from people.

Trust others

Most managers would like to see higher trust within their group, yet few managers realize the key to having more trust within the organization is to show more trust in the people within it. I hear all the time, “but what if my people are not worthy of being trusted.” There is a simple answer. If people are managed properly and are treated with respect and dignity, nearly all of them will be worthy of being trusted. So, a supervisor who cannot or will not trust the people in his or her group is really the person who needs to change, not the workers. If someone is really not worthy of being trusted, then why are they tolerated in the workforce at all?

Fewer Rules

Standard operating procedures are really helpful guidelines for employee actions. They are vital whether you are preparing a detailed battle plan or trying to run an error-free hospital. But operating procedures should not be confused with constraining rules on how to react to circumstances that arise on a daily basis. Managers who attempt to figure out every possible challenge and invent rules to cover them will find themselves frustrated.

You simply cannot anticipate all the things that can go wrong. Rather, it is better to have some broad operating principles and solid values but let people figure out how to react to each situation at hand. Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos said, “We trust our employees to use their best judgment when dealing with each and every customer.” They do not need detailed procedures to figure out what is right.

Self Development

Much of the administrative and coaching energy that takes the time of managers involves the development of people. Many professionals have government mandated training requirements that cause supervisors to administer training classes for compliance reasons. Beyond the legal mandates, many organizations insist on forced career development discussions and detailed forms to fill out along with specific training hours per employee each year. These details are all well meaning efforts to bring out the best in people. What if we shifted the emphasis to recognize that nearly all people have an interest in doing the best they can?

Given the right encouragement and support, people are fully capable of figuring out how they can be more valuable to the organization in the future. The concepts of coaching and mentoring will help encourage employees who are timid or confused, but we do not need mandated programs that paint all employees with the same brush.

Think of it this way. You can mandate 40 hours of training for each employee each year, but you are not going to be successful at building capability into an employee who does not see value in training. It is far better to encourage employees to become involved in the extent and types of training they receive because they will learn much more. In turn, the organization will benefit much more as a result of employees using the new skills.

Better Mentoring

The power of mentoring is immense, yet the majority of corporate mentoring programs produce tepid results at best. Reason: the mentor selection process is usually done with a third party or a computer program creating the matches from lists of skills and interests of potential pairs. Since a great mentor relationship is based on a foundation of excellent personal chemistry, the number of perfect matches made by third parties will be low. Mentors and protégés go through the motions for some period of time, but they drift apart eventually due to a lack of reciprocal chemistry to keep the benefits coming. A far better approach is for the corporation or HR to encourage mentoring, but let the selection and administration be up to the individuals involved.

Reduce “Administriva”

Many of the supervisory functions that take time are really not necessary or at least could be made much more efficient. Have an audit of the forms and paperwork that managers are forced to fill out and vow to cut in by at least 50%. In most organizations that could be accomplished with no loss of vital information. Cut managers free to do the vital face to face coaching by reducing the Mickey Mouse forms and procedures that leave little time for communication, strategy, and reflection.

Improve Online Communication

It is a rare manager who does not feel buried in the avalanche of e-mail, texts, and social networking notes. The load is way too much to allow time for walking around the area to actually interface with people live. It is possible to reduce the online load significantly without losing vital information. Get help from someone who specializes in efficient online communication and create a culture where these tools are useful but not albatrosses.

Clean house

One reason why managers can only handle a narrow span of control is because there is usually some dead wood in any group. It is well known, by the Pareto Principle, that 20% of the individuals are going to take up 80% of the time of managers. Make sure to cull out the dead wood or disruptive individuals from the organization. That will create more time and allow the managers to serve more people better. Removing just one problem employee can make a huge difference in the entire atmosphere in a work group. It also shifts the balance of management attention from those who cause trouble to those who are doing great work. That will improve the quality of work-life for everyone.

Increasing the span of control is good for the efficiency of any organization. Following the eight tips above will shift the burden for most managers and allow them the time to have broader influence. This saves the organization money and provides a more rewarding environment in which managers can thrive.


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.