Getting Your Head Around Supervising–Episode #3 | You and Your Mistakes

So what do good supervisors do when they make mistakes? That’s the question I left you with after Episode #2.

Supervising is murky. It doesn’t lend itself to measurement. Subjective evaluation, yes, but hard measures, not that I can see.

There are terrific books on how to become a great supervisor, like Marcus Buckingham’s First, Break All the Rules, but they aren’t recipes. You can’t put your interpersonal style, employee performance expectations, and feedback methods in a blender and serve up the perfect smoothie every time.

Doing a good job as a supervisor takes a realistic frame of mind, accepting that a lot of the time you’re good, sometimes even great. But there will be times when you’re woefully deficient, times your employees remember most.

You will make people mistakes, some big and others relatively insignificant. You’ll learn a ton about your employees and yourself each time you foul up.

Supervisors not cut out for the job don’t react well when they mess up. Some withdraw, lose confidence, wither, or self-flagellate. Others get defensive, resentful, or disillusioned.

Good supervisors see every misstep as a learning experience. They know how to recover. Their frame of mind is always focused on progress. When there’s a setback, a miscue, or a failure, they act fast.

Concede mistakes.                                                                                                        

Supervisors often derail their own careers because they’re afraid to make a mistake, especially with their employees..

Trying to be a perfect, by-the-book supervisor takes all the fun out of it. It’s a job more like white water rafting than a canoe trip. You get all wet, bounced around like a pinball, bashed against the rocks, and even thrown into the drink when you don’t hold on tight enough.

But, when you’re finally on dry ground, you realize how exhilarating it was: the risk, the camaraderie with your raft-mates, the demands of the river, and the courage you discovered was really in you.

Supervising is a wild ride. It tests you like the river. Your employees are about as unpredictable as the speed of the rapids and the rocks hiding below the surface. No one knows what they’re getting into when they agree to supervise.

We might like to predict how it will be and convince ourselves that we know what to do when the raft gets swamped. But we’re only kidding ourselves.

It’s true that some supervisor mistakes are more egregious than others. You can’t, on a bad day, speak abusively to an employee, even if it’s someone you and others believe has long needed a tongue-lashing. Abuse of any kind under any circumstance is both wrong and an indelible black mark.

You also can’t behave unethically: steal time, permit employees to break company rules, violate laws, and misuse company resources. These bad behaviors should go without saying, but I’ve read enough news coverage on errant business leaders to know that they need to be said.

Unless you want to make yourself into neurotic, hyper-controlling nut case, it’s just better to accept that you will make mistakes and do your best to fix them.

Think first.

Most mistakes that create employee problems come out of our mouths. We say the wrong things, at the wrong time, and in front of the wrong people in a tactless tone of voice, with bad body language, and without full awareness of the situation.

Sometimes we know right away that we bumbled, so we can correct ourselves. But most often, we don’t understand the impact until there are signs much later, signs that spell trouble.

We unwittingly set the stage for our mistakes by not thinking about the significance of what we, as supervisors, say and do. Clearly we don’t want to set ourselves up for calamity, but to avoid it, we need to adopt some important mistake-minimizing steps, like setting and maintaining boundaries.

So, what do good supervisors do to set boundaries that minimize mistakes? We’ll tackle that question in Episode #4.

Getting Your Head Around Supervising–Episode # 2 | It Starts with You.

What does it take to provide good supervision? That’s the question I left you with after

Episode #1.

The quick answer:  

Stay connected to the needs of your employees.

Supervisors affect the ability of employees to produce good work through words and behaviors that either positively or negatively affect self-esteem, self-confidence, growth, and optimism about their career future. That’s a very big deal, one that makes being a supervisor deeper than it may sound.

The you-role connection

Too many supervisors forget that they’re leaders. Their job is to create an environment where employees want to be followers, willing to stretch themselves to achieve results that will pay off and make a difference.

Earning that employee following starts with understanding what you do that attracts or repels it. There’s no formula for that, alas.

Supervisors need to face and master their hot buttons. There are employees who can spin gold out of straw (Yay) and others who inevitably turn gold into cow patties (Boo) because their work ethic and attitudes fall short of expectations. Some employee behaviors  may frost you, likely to bring out your worst. As supervisors, we’re all tested.

Each situation teaches you something important about yourself. How you handle each one showcases your respect for individuals, the team, the work, the company, and yourself. Strike the right balance and increase the depth and range of your following.

Supervising reveals what you stand for, the principles you won’t compromise. I knew what they were for me when I was willing risk my job or my influence to:

  • go to the mat for employees I thought were being unfairly treated
  • challenge policies that made it impossible for employees to serve the customer well
  • openly voice objections to  company mixed-messages that were demotivating

Being a good supervisor means getting over yourself.  Big shot supervisors end up as easy targets for undermining employee noise. Supervisors with humility earn the respect of their employees when it’s evident that they’re working to help employees succeed, not the other way around.

Getting it right

Every day supervisors need to make decisions and take actions that must balance the needs of the organization and their employees.

Good supervisors understand how to adhere to policies and practices without being shackled by them. They can resolve difficult employee problems without compromising the standards of fairness to others. They can advocate for their work group with upper management  without undermining others.

Good supervisors need to know what’s going on without micro-managing and to intervene for the right reasons at the right time.

On that point you may be asking yourself, “How do I know what to do, when to do it, and how?”

I’d like to say there’s a formula for that too, but there isn’t.

Every supervisor learns how and when to intervene by doing it. When you see, overhear, or sense a problem, need, or infraction, you must act.

Some situations require immediate action and others give you time to think. Getting it right is the challenge; mistakes are inevitable but rarely lethal.

Sometimes supervisors must be judge and jury, teacher and Dutch uncle, coach and referee, cheerleader and conscience. The buck always stops with you, that’s why you’re earning them.

Supervising people well (yes, they are people first) can be the most important contribution you make to their careers, even their lives. There lies the true weight of the role.

The payoff

With the challenges of supervision come great rewards, so remember to savor them: the satisfaction of seeing your employees perform at their best, of contributing to their growth and future success, and of discovering your best self  as you grow as a leader.

Good supervisors have the courage to do what’s right even when there’s a price to pay. They’re honest about their deficiencies and mistakes; care genuinely about their employees, even the one’s they don’t like or who fall short; and insightful about what’s really going on around them, enabling them to take the right action at the right time.

So what do good supervisors do when they make mistakes? That’s a topic for Episode #3.

 

Getting Your Head Around Supervising- Episode #1 | What’s Your Take?

Supervising  doesn’t seem that hard.  It sure didn’t to me at first.

I never set out to become a supervisor, but I always paid attention to the supervisors I had, particularly what I did and didn’t like about the way they treated me.

I figured that, given the chance to supervise, I’d just imitate the good and exclude the bad stuff. How simplistic was that?

Ah, the memories

I can recite with ease every boss who helped me improve my skills, build confidence, and prepare myself for the next, usually bigger, career step.

I also remember the duds vividly. If I were to sketch a cartoon version them, you’d see a clown, a sexist, a scaredy-cat who kept a log of his pocket change (Don’t ask!), a stuffed shirt, and an empty suit. Funny, isn’t it, how those ineffective supervisors live forever as caricatures and the great ones as idols.

You can probably make your own list of loser supervisors pretty easily too. You may still be working for him or her. The most important thing is not to become one.

That’s why I’m writing this series.

Embracing the gig

Supervision is an endless initiation, a testing ground for your ability and courage to own it as your profession.

If you’re lucky, you’re chosen to supervise work you know something about with good performing employees. Hardly anyone is that lucky.

Good supervisors learn, in short order, that their effectiveness hinges on how they connect with their direct reports. That includes demonstrating humility, sensitivity, awareness, firmness, consistency, and courage, delivered predictably and sincerely.

Good supervisors help their employees get better.

The big revelation

Supervisory success  comes down to [drum roll] actually supervising. Not pretending to supervise. Not over- or under-supervising. Not supervising some people and not others. And not giving up on it.

I wouldn’t write this, if I hadn’t seen it all (even done some of it) and the havoc not supervising creates.

Look at your list of awful supervisors, and you’ll see what they generally had in common: The inability to deal effectively with you and others around you.

Since employees do the work, good supervising is about delivering the support employees need to do it well. Employees don’t get the right work done just because there’s a goal, a productivity report, or an assignment made and checked on by the supervisor. They get it done because the supervisor figures out what’s in the way and removes it.

You don’t have to be called a supervisor to be one. Anytime you have a direct report, you’re a supervisor. You might have the title of manager, director, project leader, or even vice president.  In every case, you  have to supervise real people, so they can get the work done without imploding, rebelling, subverting, or hurting their careers, the business, and your professional brand too.

I spent over twenty years at a Fortune 500 electric utility company supervising both small staffs and large, multifunctional groups. I’ve supervised all kinds of employees in diverse functions, doing challenging, stressful, and important work against demanding timetables and performance goals.

Those employees counted on my direct or indirect supervision for their job success and satisfaction. That’s a pretty heavy responsibility, in my book.

How well you supervise underpins your career legacy.

The struggle

I’ve repeatedly asked myself:  “Why are so many supervisors poor or mediocre at best?”

Here’s my best answer:

Supervisors are often uncomfortable, even intimidated, supervising their employees. Why? Because people are unpredictable. They come to work with attitudes and expectations unique to them that need to be addressed.

People are a supervisor’s biggest challenge because, quite simply, they aren’t the same. They aren’t programmable, automated, or mechanized. They can’t be predicted with precision–not their output, their emotional responses, reactions, or intentions.

Every supervisor needs each person to function at his or her best every day and the only way to ensure that is to provide supervision that works for them.

The big question is: “How do good supervisors do that?”

Episode #2 will start to answer that question. Please come back.

Relief for Leaders–Understand What Keeps You Up at Night

lipkin book 17987524I couldn’t resist the invitation to write a post about Nicole Lipkin’s new book with this irresistible title: What Keeps Leaders Up at Night: Recognizing and Resolving Your Most Troubling Management Issues. Having spent my own share of sleepless nights over the years, I could relate.

You’ve made it. You’re in charge. The lead is in your hands. It’s exciting and challenging, an opportunity to set direction, form a productive team, and impact the company.

Leaders set the tone and establish workplace culture. Their decisions affect employees individually and collectively along with the company’s customers, investors, and suppliers. It’s a big deal being the leader, sometimes bigger than we can fully grasp.

As leaders we get our real education about the scope and challenges of the job when things start to go wrong…not when things explode but when they start to erode.

Nagging concerns

As leaders we often get a sense that something isn’t quite right, but, gosh, if the work’s getting done, it can’t be that serious, right? But somehow we just can’t stop thinking about something we’ve done, observed, or heard that was unsettling. Whatever it is, it’s ours to handle.

In her new book, What Keeps Leaders Up at Night, corporate psychologist Nicole Lipkin lipkin 6e4120eb91d40a7e9d9ac5_L__V388068734_SX200_targets eight of the most significant management issues that trouble us as leaders. Her focus is on the behaviors that drive both employees and leaders, building understanding through anecdotal situations, psychological studies, and remedies that we can adopt.

As leaders we make mistakes, some big and some small, some consciously and some unknowingly. To that Lipkin writes:

You can’t change what’s already happened, but you can change what you do next…I’ve learned that the solutions always begin with raising my self-awareness and helping others raise theirs.

So instead of self-flagellating, we need to step up to the plate and turn things around. Lipkin covers eight big issues that often plague leaders.Since I’ve written before about bad bosses,  I was drawn to this chapter:

I’m a Good Boss, So Why Do I Sometimes Act Like a Bad One?

Lipkin boils this issue down into three digestible bits. As the leader ask if you’re:

  • Too busy to win…Have I gotten so lost in the trees that I can no longer see the forest?
  • Too proud to see…Letting yourself get so tied to an idea that you won’t let it go.
  • Too afraid to lose…Question and second-guess every step along the way.

The consequences of failing to resolve this management issue are major, so facing your contribution to the problem is key.  Lipkin writes:

Self-awareness begins with admitting that you are human…your natural neurological and psychological make-up must cope with huge pressures….You see what you want to see.

Just pausing to cast an objective eye on your maladaptive or unproductive behavior or asking a trusted ally to tell you the honest truth…can get you back on track.

I have also written about the importance of managing expectations in the workplace, especially by bosses, so I was especially interested in her chapter on this sleep-threatening issue:

What Causes a Star to Fade?

Whenever we take a job or get a promotion, we start with great expectations of what the opportunity will contribute to our careers. In this chapter on the importance of employee engagement, Lipkin writes:

Every company and every boss enters into a psychological contract with their employees…an individual’s beliefs about the mutual obligations that exist between the employee and the employer.

When promises are known or perceived  by employees to be broken, they choose actions, as Lipkin notes, that fall into four broad categories:

  • Exit: Leaving or planning to leave the organization
  • Voice: Speaking up to address the breach with superiors, co-workers….
  • Loyalty: Suffering in silence and hoping the problem will solve itself
  • Neglect: Making a half-hearted effort to do the work

Each of these can negatively affect the business and induce a leader’s sleepless night.

And there’s more. Nicole Lipkin covers these questions too:

  • Why Don’t People Heed My Sage Advice?
  • Why Do I Lose My Cool in Hot Situations?
  • Why Does a Good Fight Sometimes Go Bad?
  • Why Can Ambition Sabotage Success?
  • Why Do People Resist Change?
  • Why Do Good Teams Go Bad?

Bedside reading.

I like a book that I can turn to easily when an issue jolts me into wakefulness. Lipkin’s book is an easy reference for her eight knotty problems. The psychological concepts are written in lay terms and posed in practical situations. Reading adds to our awareness and gives us tools to solve the problems unique to us.The right book and a handy nightlight can be trusty aids to restore our sleep.

How Becoming the Boss Can Change You

Faults are often easier to see in others than ourselves. As employees we’re daily observers and targets of our supervisor’s style. What we see reflects what our supervisors have become. 

If we’re lucky, we’ve got a good boss. If not, we’d like to run for the hills. 

It’s hard to believe that ineffective supervisors used to be regular employees, like us. They had the same expectations from their own bosses for: 

  • Honesty and respect
  • Clear direction and the tools to do good work
  • Open communication and the chance to be heard
  • Fair performance feedback and opportunities to grow 

So what changes when those same employees become supervisors? Could it happen to you? 

What we see. 

There’s an endless list of perceived causes about what happens when coworkers become the boss or the boss’s boss or an executive. It’s a vicious chain that gets more toxic as poor supervisors get promoted. 

We often label those bad bosses as: 

  • Drunk on power and authority
  • Management’s pawn
  • Afraid of making mistakes
  • Micromanagers looking for scapegoats
  • Protecting his/her territory 

These changes, affecting one-time, regular employees who become the boss, are often the result of fear, confusion, and struggles for career survival. 

What they discover 

No one who gets promoted really knows what they’re getting into. It’s all rosy and can-do at the interview. The promoting manager fawns over the new supervisor, declaring how s/he has all the right stuff to handle the task. 

The hiring manager promises all kinds of support. “I’ll be there to help you. We’ll be a great team.”

This is fine and dandy if the hiring manager is actually a good boss. If not, things can go south quickly. 

Remember this: You don’t really know what you’re walking into until you get there. 

Tests that can change you 

As a supervisor or manager faced with these situations, what would you do? 

  • Your manager wants your performance ratings to form a bell curve. You have a high performing, veteran workgroup. You’re told to lower specific employee’s ratings.
  • You recommend the best candidate interviewed for a job vacancy. Your boss disagrees and tells you to hire someone s/he knows and likes.
  • You’re told to deliver a half-truth about the company’s financial shape.
  • Your boss insists that you receive recognition for work done by one of your employees because it will look more impressive to the board.
  • One of your employees, a valuable contributor, has objected openly to a policy your boss enacted. You’re told to build a case to get rid of him. 

Each of these situations challenges you to stand up for what you believe is right. Do you have the courage, influence, and leverage to resolve these fairly?

Or will you just do what you’re told, protect your own job, or make a token effort to do the right thing and then go along? 

These are knotty questions. They’re about how much you’re willing to put on the line. You will have to untangle a host of justifications, read between the lines, and weigh consequences. You’ll have to separate the right from the wrong.

There may be a lot of history, precedent, and perspectives to influence your thinking. You will now have insights that your employees don’t. Your vantage point is different from theirs and you will have to figure out how to bridge it. That’s what good supervisors do. 

Check yourself. 

If what you’re being asked to do doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. That’s the time to stop and think. Ask yourself: 

  • What are the impacts and implications of this action?
  • Who benefits? Who gets hurt?
  • What more do I need to understand? 

Keep asking “why” questions of your manager until you get the clarity you need. At the very least, your questions may be all that’s needed to influence a change in direction. That’s how your business fitness works for you. 

Tomorrow you may become the new boss somewhere in your organization. Better to be the agent of change than the victim of it! Everyone’s counting on you. 

Photo from cbanck via Flickr