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You Can’t Fix the Restaurant Until you Fix the People…

This blog post was originally posted on GovSupervisor.com.

Author: Mark Leheney

The supervisor was in disbelief, then shock, then rage, and finally full-out sobbing as she heard the staff talk openly for the first time about what it was like to work for her. For many years, she had run the place, doing whatever she thought was right, getting work done, thinking things must be OK.

But the results were getting less and less OK, and so a consultant had been called in. He talked with everyone, asking questions, noticing things, and finally convening a meeting in which people got honest.

It was fascinating to watch the supervisor. At first, the idea was that “nothing is wrong, why are we wasting time talking about this?” Etc. Then as the staff’s feelings came pouring out, she became more and more uncomfortable. One person said it was impossible to disagree with her. Of course, she disagreed with this (cue rimshot on the irony drum), but here came the others, saying the employee was speaking the truth.

Her two personalities also came up: would it be the nice, reasonable boss who showed up today? Or would it be the holy terror? She denied this, but did so in a way that didn’t leave much doubt that boss No. 2 was probably never very far away.

And then the consultant delivered the payload. He said that the people needed to be fixed before the business could be fixed.

This is not much of a stretch if you think of work as a series of relationships through which work gets done. (If you take a purely mechanistic view of work – that is it nothing more than people-neutral processes, then we need to drop back 10 yards and address some different, even more basic things.)

But here’s the kicker: Virtually no one thinks it is he or she who needs to be “fixed.” (This may not be the best word that could have been used, but the meaning is clear.) And as long as the problem is always “out there,” we engage in blaming, finger-pointing, denial and rationalization, and the longer it takes to fix the organization.

The truth is, few people have the stomach, will, courage or desire. It is initially deflected by eye-rolling, dismissive talk of needing to get the real work done, focusing on the job, not getting touchy-feely, and so on.

It is, for the most part, an unconscious dodge. By unconscious, I mean people are not really aware of what they are doing. They don’t consciously say to themselves, “Hmm. This is starting to feel uncomfortable. I realize I may have to tear up some basic patterns of how I supervise, communicate and interact, and I don’t really know who I would be if I did work that deep.”

Instead, it takes the form of railing at the world – at least the world of employees or anyone else in the way of feeling right. What’s wrong with them? Why don’t they get it?

The issue is forced when multiple people are lining up to say what the denial is all about. The escape hatches get sealed, and the supervisor has to confront his or her own behavior, whether it’s micromanagement, unwillingness to listen, hot-headedness, or any of the other sins that show up so frequently in surveys and conversations about supervision. A 360-degree assessment can serve this purpose.

When this happens, the supervisor may invoke the final defense, which I heard expressed once: “Everyone here is crazy except me.” One woman I coached blamed her abysmal ratings on the structure of the government agency in which she worked. The org chart was to blame.

So what is a supervisor to do?

First, you have to realize that supervision really is about relationships – the communication, interaction, trust level, confidence, support, guidance, mentoring and on and on. If you accept that premise that the relationship matters, then you can see that in any other relationship, good communication about what is happening really matters.

Accordingly, the most important move a supervisor can make, particularly if he or she suspects anything like the above, is to ask employees what they are really thinking and feeling. This is a radical move for supervisors who believe their only real job is to tell people what to do. It reverses the flow, and opens the supervisor to this thing called feedback.

Let us pause here to re-establish a central premise that virtually all supervisors would agree with: that it is important to give employees feedback on performance. Right? So why is it any different when the employee also has a title of supervisor?

The response of “That’s just not how it works,” apart from being a circular argument, reveals a central issue with power, information, accountability and performance. If the title is the shield, what does that say about the capability or willingness of the supervisor to improve? Wouldn’t anyone wanting to improve actually want feedback?

And here the issue of whether one is strong enough to hear the tough stuff comes up. It actually takes a strong supervisor to hear things that may be uncomfortable, without pulling the rip cord.

The advent of the 360-degree appraisal means we are living in interesting times. This is now an institutionalized device by which this feedback is happening. In working with clients and coaching them around their results, a clear divide has emerged for me: those who are interested in the feedback, want to know others’ perceptions and are willing to work on themselves, and those who don’t want to know, dismiss the data, or attack the feedback givers.

The question is which camp you want to be in. It can be either, but one can lead to growth, development, better communication and relationships and trust. The other to stagnation.

A final point about the scenario described at the beginning. The person facilitating the feedback was Gordon Ramsay, the infamous chef on all those television shows. It was one of those episodes in which a restaurant gets turned around. He said, quite well, “You can’t fix the restaurant until you fix the people.”

So true, and it really doesn’t matter if it’s a restaurant, government agency, non-profit, religious organization or the PTA. When people come together to get something done, stuff is going to happen, and perceptions are going to emerge about whoever is supervising.

The question is what do you do with that?

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