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How To Know When You’re In a Lot of Trouble as a Supervisor

Sometimes in life, it’s hard to know how you’re doing. The measurement may not be clear, people may not give you any feedback, and the goal itself may be fuzzy.

However, in supervision there is one way to keep really good track of how you’re doing in the eyes of those you supervise. I learned this one the hard way many years ago while supervising a group of journalists in London (another career), and here it is:

The more you rely on your positional power – your authority — to get things done, the more trouble you’re in.
In most of the military, this would provoke an immediate argument, since the dominant theory in use there is still behavior by direct order. (I completely support that in emergencies, or when the unit needs to take the hill. But I’m talking here about the garden variety federal workplace where information is managed, problems are identified and solved, people work through obstacles, surprises and the unexpected, etc. This is the stuff of knowledge work.)

Outside a battlefield context, use of the “Because I’m the boss, that’s why” badge may get you the immediate result you need – and I am overlooking here the potential for malicious compliance and the underwhelming result of token compliance – just the bare minimum.

Even if you get that short-term result, here’s what you have set into motion:

  • Employees who feel they aren’t asked about what needs to be done, and who then feel that their working perspective doesn’t matter.
  • Chronic disempowerment, which you will discover the hard way when you are scratching your head wondering why people don’t take the initiative more.
  • To be frank, bad feelings, including resentment, irritation and anger, which do not exactly help interaction, cooperation and commitment in time period 2.

Since reciprocity is a fundamental law of human nature – the value of fairness is rooted in it – it’s important to understand that people psychologically “get even” in ways direct and indirect. The symptoms identified above are examples.

There is an old story from the Navy about a reviled captain of a ship. He managed to anger just about everyone he came into contact with. One day the ship’s anchor was laying unchained on the deck of the ship. The captain walked by and barked, “Get rid of that anchor.”

Guess what the crew did.

We’ve all heard the metaphor of the rudderless organization, usually when leadership is ineffective, but in this case there was, literally, an anchorless ship. Just following orders, sir. And you can probably imagine the laughter below deck later.

One way to think about this dynamic is through the lens of product and process. That’s perhaps a fancy way of saying you can focus on what work gets done (product), or whether the way that work gets done strengthens or weakens the levels of trust, communication and motivation among people (process).

Or both.

One reason to care about process stuff is that you really need it down the road, like when you need the team to really organize quickly to get something done that’s hard. A group that has goodwill toward the supervisor will jump on it. If the social capital account is bankrupt, you can expect lots of questions, hesitation, foot-dragging, hemming and hawing, excuses, glances at the watch, sudden awareness of other commitments, and other behaviors that are not going to get you closer to the goal.

Reciprocity is a fundamental law of human nature. Or, as one speaker once put it, “Everybody always gets even in the end. Someone else said “You reap what you sow.”

There is an alternative to all this, and it is to get work done (process, again) in ways that get the supervisor the “what” (product) they need.

So what’s the secret sauce?

  • Give employees lots of information and help them understand the challenges.
  • Help them feel like their ideas and effort are part of the solution. They are connected to the issue.
  • Ask them for their best ideas on how to meet those challenges.
  • Give them feedback on good and bad ideas so they learn.
  • Express appreciation, support and encouragement when they come up with good ideas and good work.
  • Empower them to do the work. Don’t micromanage, get controlling, dictating or dictatorial.
  • Give them the support they need. When they have questions, get answers. When they run into obstacles, be a thinking partner to help them find a solution.
  • Link their work to their larger development. Help them to see the tasks as part of the growth of their career, not random things that you need someone else to do.
  • Finally, get a reality check periodically. How do they feel about things? Are they frustrated? Encouraged? Feel supported? Hung out to dry? Aware ? Clueless? Have an honest conversation in checking in with them.

There may be times when you get work done through direct orders, but the less often this is, the more effective you and your people will be. And if you today are getting work done just through orders from your higher GS level, you’re probably already in a lot of trouble – see bullets above.

By Mark Leheney

Originally posted on GovSupervisor.com

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