Don’t Channel Mr. Spock!

There have been many times that I have been called into a workplace because employees are up in arms against their supervisor (we’ll call her Bella,) while management can’t see the problem since she is delivering great work.  Again and again in these situations I find the following:

 Employees tell me Bella is unfair, mean, angry, cold, doesn’t care about them, never compliments them, doesn’t listen, micromanages, and even lies.  They say good employees have left because they can’t stand to work for her.

Meanwhile, Bella’s boss, Harvey, and her peers tell me she’s made a huge impact on the quality of work being produced, has straightened out any number of problems, improved efficiency, always responds quickly and effectively to whatever they ask her to do, is extremely knowledgeable and helpful.  

When I talk with Bella, she gives me perfectly logical explanations for decisions she has made that her employees labeled as unfair, uncaring and mean.  She explains why she pays attention to the details of the work and how that has resulted in improved work products and increased efficiency.  She describes how she has complimented employees, recalling she told one employee of whom she thought very highly, “I’ve assigned you to X, the toughest job we have, because you’re so good at what you do and this is important to the program.” (The employee’s view was that she was  being punished and her protests about not wanting to do this task fell on deaf ears).  Bella also tells me she provides information to her employees as appropriate, and that sometimes that information changes or evolves.

Are employees, manager, peers and Bella herself talking about the same person?  Is she simply behaving differently depending on the audience?  Or?

The answer is yes to all of these questions.  But more than that, Bella is channeling Mr. Spock – remember him from Star Trek?  He was a highly effective, efficient and task-competent, fact-oriented creature who had zero emotional intelligence.  That’s Bella.

It takes much more than task competence to effectively manage people.  Management sometimes forgets that when they promote a highly competent technician to a supervisory position.  Although in today’s world many supervisors and managers also perform tasks, their primary responsibility is to supervise and manage the people who report to them. 

What to do?  Here are the first steps Bella needs to take to build her relationship with her employees: 

  • Acknowledge and apologize: Before changing her behavior (even to improve it along the lines below), Bella needs to acknowledge and apologize for not being as good as she might have been at interacting with her staff in the past, and tell them she is committing to doing better.  She needs to ask their help in improving.  I know this is tough, but it’s very important in making a fresh start.  If Bella just starts changing some of her behaviors, her staff will likely notice and will most likely not trust that her efforts are well-intentioned (since they don’t trust her now.)  This could make things worse, rather than better.  This is a small scale version of the approach taken by the South African Truth and Reconcilliation Commission in moving past aparteid.  Then,
  • Actively listen: paraphrase, be genuinely open to input.
  • Frequently demonstrate empathy: acknowledge employee concerns, hearing both the content and the feeling behind the content.  Actully name the feeling, for example: “It sounds like you’re frustrated,” or “I’m guessing this move is scarry for you.”  Let the employee respond as to whether the feeling named is correct or not – being right matters much less than acknowleding that there is feeling involved  and attempting to understand it.  Remember: demonstrating empathy is not the same as agreeing.

These are the first skills to demonstrate when moving from Mr. Spock to someone with emotional intelligence.  Like all skills, they can be learned.  But if you’re Mr. Spock (or Bella) it won’t be easy and may feel like a waste of time.  It’s not.  Successfully supervising employees (not just the tasks they do, but them) is one of the most critical duties a supervisor or manager has.  In future blog posts I’ll talk more about some of these and other related skills.

Are there other critical employee supervision skills that Mr. Spock (or Bella) need to learn?  Have you had to learn some of these – or had supervisors who should have learned them?  Tell us your story – we’d love to hear from you!  ~ Daphne Schneider

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