Getting Your Head Around Supervising–Episode #6 | Misreading Employees

“How do good supervisors get a correct read on their employees?” That’s the questions I left you with at the end of Episode #5.

Supervisors tend to draw all kinds of conclusions about their employees based upon behaviors they see and words they hear from afar.

As a result, they run the risk of forming mistaken, often negative, perceptions that certain employees are:

  • A problem
  • Negative or difficult
  • Resistant or lazy
  • Weak links

In fact, those same employees may simply:

  • Misunderstand or misconstrue expectations
  • Lack self-confidence
  • Fear making mistakes, looking stupid, or having weak skills exposed
  • Feel unaccepted by or inferior to coworkers

Faulty perceptions, if allowed to continue, are a disservice to the employee, the team, and ultimately the supervisor.

Warning: Seeming is not reality.

The perceptions supervisors form about their employees are rarely a fully accurate picture.

Uncertainty about what affects employee attitudes and behaviors unnerves even the most experienced supervisor. Why? Because every employee is different.

The best way to get a correct first read on each of your employees is through face-to-face conversations on a whole range of subjects starting with whether or not he likes the job, how she thinks she’s performing, how accepted he feels by his peers, and what kind of support is needed from you.

Situational observations are a next approach. Now that you have a baseline read on your employees from those conversations, what you see in the course of work getting done will have a more accurate foundation.

When business direction, policy, or work group changes are announced or implemented, watch how your employees handle it. Do they act differently toward you or coworkers? Is their work output better or worse? Is their demeanor more positive, negative, or unchanged?

When you see unwanted changes in an employee, it’s time to follow up directly with him or her to understand the cause and redirect behavior.

By creating a comfort level for employees around sharing concerns and issues with you, you’ll get better information and make fewer perception mistakes.

Remain clear-eyed.

You don’t get a clear-eyed read on your employees by using yourself as the barometer. Everyone is not like you.

Just because you may not care that your manager rolls his eyes when he doesn’t like your new idea, don’t assume that’s how your employee, Glenda, will react when she sees your baby blues spin around in their sockets.

When your employees come to you with input, take them seriously and respond professionally. Avoid being glib, impatient, or dismissive at all costs.

Don’t misread busyness for productivity. Too many supervisors confuse employee activity as signs that the right work is getting done when it might not be.

No supervisor wants to get snowed by their employees. It’s a mistake to take what employees say about the status of their work or the intent of their behavior at face value.

When your employees are uncertain about performance expectations, boundaries, and professional conduct, they will fill in the blanks on their own.

Consequently, you need to have professional conversations with your employees about their productivity, work quality, and on-the-job behavior to form correct perceptions about them and to help them become successful.

Stay engaged.

Supervisors will avoid misreading employees by staying engaged through Skype video calls with employees in distant locations and through local in-person meetings. There’s no substitute for talking eyeball-to-eyeball.

This doesn’t mean you won’t fall into a misread or two, but that will be the exception and not the rule.

The impact and consequences of a misread can be significant. So every supervisor needs to be able to repair a wrong. Building a history of demonstrated respect can be essential to making things right.

So, how does a history of showing respect toward employees help a supervisor minimize the damage of employee perception mistakes? We’ll tackle that in Episode #7.

 

Getting Your Head Around Supervising–Episode #4 | Setting Boundaries

“What do good supervisors do to set boundaries that minimize mistakes?” That’s the question I left you with after Episode #3.

We unwittingly set the stage for our supervisory mistakes. Setting boundaries helps us minimize them and avoid a chain of calamities.

Think respect.

Boundaries are essential for supervisors and employees, so they can work together at top effectiveness.

On the surface, you might think that setting behavioral boundaries is simply a control tactic, the way supervisors keep their thunderous employee hoards at bay or imprison workers in the darkness of dreary, nose-to-the-grindstone tasks. Not so, at least not in a healthy workplace.

Actually, boundaries, when well used, build mutual respect between supervisor and employees that help everyone avoid making senseless mistakes.

We go to work to exchange effort for reward. It’s the same for both supervisors and employees. We do our best work when we believe that we’re respected for who we are, what we bring, and how we execute the requirements of our job. We determine whether or not we’re being respected by the way we’re treated, individually and in comparison to others.

Respect begets respect, that’s an easy principle to live by.

We earn respect in many ways as supervisors. Most often it’s about the way we treat people: our courtesy, acknowledgement, fairness, and courage to name a few. The platform for building respect, however, is in setting boundaries.

Set unifying boundaries.

Boundaries are limits supervisors set around acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, so employees know what’s within or out of bounds. This makes it clear whether or not it’s acceptable to:

  • Refuse an assignment or ignore required processes and practices
  • Be late or absent from work without notifying the supervisor ahead of time
  • Disrupt the workplace with distracting behavior
  • Barge into the supervisor’s office to complain, make demands, or interrupt
  • Demonstrate insubordinate, rude, or uncooperative behavior
  • Engage with others in ways not appropriate to the company culture or society

The potential list of work place boundaries is unlimited and no supervisor can or should try to figure them all out in advance. You’ll know when you’ve failed to set a necessary boundary when an employee crosses it , you’re caught off guard, and/or there’s been a negative impact on your work group. Some work groups, because of their make up, operate on few articulated boundaries; others need many.

They key is to be honest with yourself about behaviors you absolutely won’ t tolerate as the supervisor. Start by thinking about supervisors you liked and visualize what they did and didn’t accept from their employees. Then reflect on things you’ve seen and heard coworkers do that you know were off base. Then put together your list.

The preparing is always easier than the doing. Always remember that boundaries aren’t just about what makes life easier for you, the supervisor. They’re set to make the workplace a positive, safe, and relatively stress free place for your employees and you.

Your boundaries are there to insure inclusiveness, no bullying, fairness across the board, consistency in enforcing company policies, and a climate of mutual respect. When you have good principles-based boundaries, you have the foundation for teamwork, collaboration, and initiative that builds a sense of value and self-worth in each of your employees.

Boundaries matter.

Boundaries ensure mutual respect among supervisor and coworkers, so everyone can succeed. There need to be standards around quality of work, goal achievement, courtesy and fair treatment, respect for differences, and ways of speaking to each other.

The boundary-setting mistakes supervisors make often mirror Goldilocks sitting at the three bear’s breakfast table, deciding which porridge bowl to eat–too hot, too cold, and just right. Getting the boundaries set right is the next step.

So what are the boundary mistakes that supervisors make and how do you fix them? We’ll tackle that in Episode # 5.

 

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.

Immature, Self-Absorbed, or Clueless? How to Save Employees from Themselves.

Employees can be maddening. They often behave in ways that seem to make no sense.

As supervisors, we try to understand what we see and hear, putting it into some kind of context so we can decide what, if anything, we should do.

No one said the job would be easy, but there are times it seems impossible.

Pay close attention

All employees come to work with personal job expectations and the history that spawned them.

As supervisors, we expect employees to perform their job duties, achieving set goals and adhering to standards and practices.

Simple, right?

Unfortunately, some employees don’t see their jobs from either a supervisor’s or the company’s perspective. They see them predominantly through a lens focused on their personal needs.

The temptation is to label these employees as immature, self-absorbed, and/or clueless, and then assume they are “young,” newly-minted entrants into the work world. Both would be a mistake.

Instead, the first signs of immaturity, self-absorption, and cluelessness that impact work negatively need to be identified and discussed with the employee right away.

As supervisors, if we let them slide, we:

  • grant employees a pass to continue them
  • validate that they are acceptable
  • establish them as the basis for replication by others
  • fail to correct issues that will hurt their future opportunities

If this makes you feel like a parent, that’s probably apt, especially for supervisors who have employees that don’t know how to:

  • behave professionally
  • connect their work with “why”  and “what” they are paid
  • subordinate their personal wants and needs to the “team”
  • connect the dots between what they do and how it affects the business

Make them matter

Part of a supervisor’s job is to help their employees avoid self-destructing, especially out of naiveté. This isn’t easy for two reasons:

  • Those conversations generally awkward for the supervisor.
  • Employees don’t want to or can’t, at the time, hear what you’re saying.

Employees are important people in any organization. It costs a lot to hire them and to fire them. By the time you get to supervise them, there was probably money spent to train them.

Aside from that, if, you, as a supervisor, know that an employee is doing things that will negatively affect his/her career, you really need to try to get through to them.

Think of it this way: If the employee’s behavior continues, they will eventually be so undesirable anywhere in the company, that they may one day lose their job. What you do to help them may save them from themselves.

Cues and clues

It can be easy to gloss over behaviors that lead to problems over time. They may seem unimportant at first, but when added together, can become career ending. Here are some examples:

Immaturity

  • Work attire that pushes the envelope
  • Excessive socializing
  • Excuses for unfinished work, lateness, and non-compliance with direction
  • An undisciplined approach to assignments

Self-Absorption

  • Need for repeated recognition and praise
  • Demands for promotion based solely on time in the current position
  • Expressed dissatisfaction with their job title
  • Compulsive use of social media on the job

Cluelessness

  • Lack of emotional intelligence with their supervisor and coworkers
  • Narrow view of the impact and implications of ideas/decisions
  • Poor judgment and lack of sensitivity when communicating
  • Weak understanding of the business model and their role in it

Knowledge saves

We’ve all had career “don’t get it” moments. If we were lucky, we had family, friends, great bosses, colleagues, and mentors within reach to straighten us out.

That’s what supervisors need to be–teachers who will level with employees, help them retool their perspectives, and provide a better course of action to take.

I agree this can be icky. I’ve had my share of employees and clients who didn’t want to hear what I had to say, but I kept saying it until the day it registered. That day made all the frustrating ones worth it.

We often can’t save ourselves from ourselves until someone throws us a life preserver. Let that be you.

Photo from noelle-christine-images via Flickr