Category Archives: Supervising Employees

Setting Expectations: Moving Past Barriers  

Every manager and supervisor knows that a key part of performance management is setting expectations for subordinates. As they also know, this is often easier said than done.

What gets in the way of this necessary task? First, the manager or supervisor may not feel comfortable being so directive. They need to get over this. It’s their job. If some introductory talking points will help, here are a few ideas:

  • “Sue, I want to sit down and be sure we’re on the same page about your job duties. Let’s meet on Thursday and discuss them.
  • “Joe, I think things will go much smoother for both of us if we sit down and get clear on your job duties and how I want you to do certain tasks.
  • “Chris, I’m sensing that things are not going smoothly for you in the workgroup. Let’s meet and see how we can make things better. [Regarding relationship or behavior issues.]

 Second, many managers and supervisors don’t really know what an effective expectation looks like. The general rule when creating expectations is that they should be S.M.A.R.T:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Results-oriented/Relevant
  • Time-bound

Third, some expectations are easier to write than others. If you’re discussing a time and attendance problem or specific aspects of job performance, it’s pretty straightforward. But setting expectations for behavior or more complex problems can be harder:

  • It does not help, for example, to just tell an employee that her “attitude” needs to change. More helpful: “Employee needs to improve her attitude. Specifically, she needs to stop rolling her eyes and sighing loudly when she disagrees with her supervisor or others, to stop using profanity when she is frustrated, and to only criticize others, if necessary, in private and not in front of others.”
  • Similarly, it does not help to just tell an employee that he needs to improve his “communication skills.” What exactly does that mean? What does it look like? More helpful: “Employee needs to improve his communication skills. More specifically, he needs to initiate conversations with colleagues and managers, answer questions when asked, maintain appropriate eye contact, speak clearly, and not walk away in the middle of conversations.”
  • Poor writing is another tough one, especially since most managers and supervisors are not skilled at identifying what’s wrong with an employee’s writing; all they know is it’s bad. It may be necessary in these cases to consult with someone who can analyze the writing errors so that you can set expectations that address them. E.g., “Your written reports need to be easier for others to read. A few tips: Use shorter paragraphs and shorter sentences. Avoid excessive underlining and use of capital letters for emphasis. Avoid unnecessary history and other details. Use bullet points to make important information clear and succinct.”

Next, managers and supervisors may fear that the meeting with the employee to discuss the expectations will be difficult and uncomfortable. It may be. But if the manager takes an approach that is calm, friendly, and non-accusatory — but firm — that is less likely to happen. It is also helpful for the manager to approach the meeting as a coach (explained here), not a disciplinarian.

Finally, some managers and supervisors are hesitant to write things down — it seems too authoritarian or they may not be great writers themselves. The bottom line, however, is that the expectations need to be documented in a writing that is given to the employee at the meeting or sent via email afterward. If it’s not a performance review or formal memo situation, setting out the expectations in a few clear bullet points is sufficient. Just be sure to date it.

Any other thoughts regarding expectations?  ~Amy Stephson

 

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The Case of the Reluctant Manager

Henrietta was an ace software engineer: developer, problem solver, speaker at conferences. She was known throughout the industry for her brilliance. She was so brilliant, in fact, that the Company promoted her to manager because they thought so highly of her and were afraid of losing her!

At first, Henrietta was thrilled to be recognized and rewarded for great work in this big and visible way. She loved getting to take on the toughest, most interesting challenges. And now, as manager, she was able to assign work – so she got to assign the most interesting and challenging projects to herself. She also loved making sure that everyone on her staff did things the right way (her way). She was excited that she finally had the authority to make it so. And that’s when the trouble started.

Henrietta repeatedly told her staff members what to do and how to do it. Some of these people had been doing the work for a very long time and were also considered to be experts. She figured she got to tell them what to do since she was the boss. But for some reason, her staff members seemed to resent her direction and advice. She corrected them when they did things wrong (not her way) – and they really took offense. That wasn’t what she had expected. She had assumed they’s appreciate or at least accept her management. But, she figured that since they resisted learning from her, she’d just let them fail on their own. She withdrew from supervising or managing them at all, and just did what she considered her REAL work: tackling those tough challenges that she really loved. After all, wasn’t the whole point of getting promoted that you were able to do more of the things you loved and tackle the toughest tasks?

Well – no. That’s actually not the whole (or even the most important) point of being the manager. Unfortunately, too many times people get promoted just because they have outstanding technical skills and the employer doesn’t want to risk losing them. And too often, they don’t actually want to do the #1 job of a manager (or even supervisor): to manage and supervise people. When someone is promoted into a managerial position, they are paid more – because they are expected to take on that really tough job of people management.

So, how should an employer think about filling that all-important manager position? Consider these points – in this order:

  1. Clearly define the job requirements – placing people-management skills at the top.
  2. Use selection criteria that emphasize the ability to supervise and manage people. Technical skills should come second (even if it’s a strong second.)
  3. Once the person is hired, clearly state job expectations: people management should come first.
  4. Then, ensure that the manager’s performance is evaluated first on his/her ability to manage and supervise people.

Technical expertise is great – but that’s not the primary responsibility of managers. If you have a Henrietta on your staff, this employee with great technical skills, and you want to reward her or keep her from going elsewhere, what can you do other than promote her to manager? You can

  • Create a Senior position, or an Expert position, or an in-house Consultant position where that person’s special skills can be used to their maximum advantage without putting them in a position where they are required to supervise and manage people – something they don’t want to do and that is not their strength. (Yes, every once in a while there are technical experts who love and excel at people supervision and management as well. If you find one of those, do what you need to do to keep them!)
  • Give the technical expert lead technical work – where she can be the lead on those complex projects without being saddled with people supervision or management.

Why is it so important to ensure that those whose strength is technical work (and not people management) not be placed in people management positions where they will fail? Here are just a few reasons:

  • When Henrietta becomes a manager, she becomes a toxic employee: she makes herself miserable, and likely makes her staff members miserable.
  • As a result, her work is very likely to suffer (even her technical work), and certainly her employees’ work will suffer: they’ll be thinking and talking about how awful she is – rather than spending all that energy on the work.
  • Because she’s uncomfortable supervising and managing people, and isn’t good at it, she’ll likely spend more time (emotional time and real time, and work and outside of work) fretting about that, and so be prevented from doing the job at which she excels.
  • Because she’s uncomfortable supervising and managing people, staff members who need a manager’s support, guidance, and supervision – or correction – won’t get it, and the employer will suffer.

Finally, if you do find that you have promoted a Henrietta who can’t supervise or manage people – all is not lost!

  • First, have an honest conversation as soon as you realize the problem exists. Admit your part of the fault in her hiring/promotion (if you were involved.)
  • Encourage her to learn a new set of skills – people supervision and management. Offer classes, coaching, and support.
  • Establish a clear set of expectations and a reasonable timeline to meet them.
  • Document. Document. Document.
  • If it doesn’t work out, figure out how Henrietta will leave her position with dignity,  perhaps to return to a purely technical position where she can save face, go back to loving her work, and to making positive contributions to the Company.

Check out this great recent blog by Vu Le, “Nonprofit with Balls”, on the subject of dealing with employees who aren’t making it. Even if you don’t work in a not-for-profit organization, it’s a great blog!

We’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you’ve ever worked with a Reluctant Manager. Let us hear from you! ~Daphne Schneider

Email in the Workplace: Do’s and Don’t’s

Recently, I did a coaching project and an investigation, each of which arose primarily due to the misuse of email. And the resolution of each partially involved developing some guidelines about email communication.

I am sympathetic to our use of email over other forms of communication given how easy and convenient it is. Plus, unlike a phone call, you can control when you read and when you send.

For many reasons, however, using email for anything beyond basic communication is risky. First, most email writers are busy and when drafting an email, don’t take the time to be precise and clear. Many of us don’t really even know how to be precise and clear: writing is difficult! The result: miscommunication.

Second, email writing tends to be flat: it does not convey the range of meaning that body language or one’s voice conveys. Again, the result: miscommunication.

Third, email is simply not the appropriate medium to discuss complex or sensitive issues because, again, that only invites miscommunication. And worse: it can lead to hurt feelings, resentment, and even complaints. Because many of us are uncomfortable with complexity and emotion, however, we are relieved to not have to talk about such things in person or by phone – and therefore use email.

Finally, many of us don’t read most emails very carefully. So even if it’s clearly written, fairly straightforward, and not on an sensitive or emotional topic, some readers will miss the point.

And we’re not even talking about emails with inappropriate subject matter such as sexual jokes or racist comments.

So, what can be done, given email’s ubiquity and usefulness? I’ve come up with some rules. Ideally, employers would communicate these in advance to all employees who use email in their jobs. Reminders don’t hurt either.

  • If an email involves anything substantive, take the time to ensure that it is clear and complete. Do not just dash something off. Take a minute or two to think — and then proofread.
  • If an email string is developing, stop and decide if it makes more sense to talk in person about the issue. Go to the other person’s desk, pick up the phone, or send a reply that says, “Let’s talk about this” with a suggested time.
  • If a topic is complex or sensitive, consider communicating in a different way. A meeting, a phone call, a memo — one of these will often work better.
  • Keep your sentences and paragraphs short and your font reasonably sized. (Fie on Gmail for its small, boring font!) Do what you can to ensure that your readers will actually read and understand your message.
  • If you’re a manager, do not criticize subordinates in email. Talk to them. And if a writing is necessary, document the problem in an appropriate way.
  • Do not copy people into emails unless it is necessary. First, it clogs up people’s email boxes. Second, you know why you included a particular recipient, but that person  may not know why you have copied them in or may not be paying attention. Finally, if the message is the least bit negative, the direct recipient may feel that you’re defaming or undermining them with others.
  • The previous rule applies doubly strong to “Reply All.” Think before hitting that button.
  • Do not rely on long email strings to communicate a point. Restate the point or if appropriate, at least indicate where the relevant information can be found, e.g., “Please check so-and-so’s email of [date and time].”
  • If you think the other person is in error or has forgotten something, do not say, “That’s incorrect” or “You have forgotten X” or the like. Instead, say something along the lines of “My recollection is that we decided to do X” and then explain. Better yet, talk about the issue in person.
  • Keep emails will polite and respectful. No accusations or snarky or rude comments. Emails last forever.

Do you have any other email rules? ~Amy Stephson

Headphones at Work: Part 2

More than three years ago, I wrote a post about headphones at work. The post set out a number of problems with the use of headphones and also listed a number of situations in which wearing headphones at work may be appropriate if permission is granted. At the end, I asked if maybe it was easier to just ban headphones altogether. I still get occasional responses to this question: a resounding no.

Last November, the Seattle Times had an article subtitled “The science of picking the right music at work” (searchable at different sites). The article stated, “An extensive body of research shows what headphone wearers have known for years: When wielded the right way, music and noise can increase your output and make the workday go by faster.” The article outlined several instances where studies show that music can help employees:

  • For repetitive work such as data entry, it aids productivity.
  • To decompress after a tense meeting, listening to rhythmically simple music with 70-90 beats per minute can help.
  • To stay alert without caffeine, you want a good syncopated beat of 120-140 beats per minute.
  • For moderate-skill workers doing computer code, productivity increases if they can listen to the music of their choice.

What interested me the most, as a workplace coach, was research showing that positive, affirming lyrics are also important. The article noted, for example, that this can particularly help before a presentation or job interview.

So does this mean that headphones are always a good idea at work? Of course not. It does suggest, however, that employers will not want to have a knee-jerk “No” response if employees want to wear them. Rather, employers will want to create evidence-based and fair headphone rules. These will consider what the job requires, how to address safety or distraction concerns, and whether compromises are necessary, e.g., allowing an employee to wear them for only part of the day or during certain tasks, or requiring the employee to use an ear bud in one ear only.

What if an employee wants to listen to books on tape or NPR ?  ~Amy Stephson

Workplace Favoritism: Perception vs. Reality

favoritism

Favoritism in the workplace is bad. There’s little debate about that. If a manager favors his or her friends, college buddies, fellow poker players or baseball fans, sorority sisters, or whatever, this can have a highly negative impact on the morale and productivity of those who are not favored. So if you’re a manager who is doing this, stop it!

Favoritism can also be illegal. If a manager favors those of a particular protected class (race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.), it can be discrimination against those who are disfavored. Similarly, if a manager retaliates against employees who have complained about, e.g., workplace safety or harassment, by favoring those who haven’t complained, that can be illegal retaliation. If a manager favors his or her romantic partner, that’s more complicated – it’s not good for morale or productivity, but may or may not be illegal depending on the circumstances.

Thus far we’ve talked about real favoritism. What’s more complex but not uncommon is employees who wrongly perceive favoritism when it’s really just management tending to turn to good workers rather than those who are not. An example: Employee “Gallant” is reliable, hard-working, and committed. Employee “Goofus” is none of these. [This is a test of your age, by the way. My older readers will get the references in these names; others may not.] Manager selects Gallant for special projects more than he or she selects Goofus – and selection for special projects is a coveted perk.

Many Goofuses will perceive this as unfair favoritism, as opposed to seeing that the manager is selecting the employee who will get the work done. This can create problems, particularly when Goofus decides that the alleged favoritism is not only unfair but is illegal discrimination or retaliation – often not that hard a case to make even if it’s not true.

So what can an employer do to try to prevent such situations? Often the problem is that the manager does not realize how his or her selection process appears to others. It just seems obvious: I’ll select the best person for the job. But one can’t necessarily expect Goofus to have the self-insight to understand what’s going on. It is essential, therefore, for managers to be sensitive to perceived favoritism and to explain to Goofus (and the workgroup in general) how the selection process works and how employees can qualify.

Done in a supportive, not punitive, manner (and without holding up Gallant as an example of what to strive for) this can serve as an incentive for Goofus and the workgroup as a whole to improve their performance.

Will this always work? Of course not: some employees are unable or unwilling to hold themselves accountable and will always blame others. But if management’s efforts to create a level playing field are documented, at least it will have some defense against potential lawsuits alleging discrimination or harassment.

Any other thoughts out there? ~Amy Stephson

Power in the Workplace

I recently read a fascinating blog post by Seattle area consultant and coach Neil Baker, MD, entitled “Hard-wired for troubles with power.” According to the post, research shows that all human beings are “hard-wired” to be “acutely sensitive” to those with power. In the employment setting, this means people with positional power, i.e., those with the ability to hire, fire, manage resources, and assess performance.

I have long discussed the impact of power in my harassment training and management coaching. It is frequently a very eye-opening concept. As described by Baker, however, the consequences for management that flow from employees’ acute sensitivity to power goes far deeper than we may realize.  He writes:

If you have positional power, “the sense-making of people who work for you will be determined less by the facts and more by their internal story. If you do anything that tells them it is not OK to be real around you, your authority will amplify the impact of your action. The slightest voice inflection, the most innocent remark, can land hard on those you have authority over, causing them to make up stories that support increased caution and distort further interaction.”

“Every action and utterance can be scrutinized for meaning”–those with power are suspect until proven trustworthy. On top of this, research suggests that, regardless of underlying personality or values, just being in a position of power will cause a person to listen less, talk more, and have difficulty getting into another person’s shoes to understand and empathize.

On the other side of things, because of this magnifying effect of power, those with positional power can have a large, positive impact on the psychological safety of a work environment.” [footnotes omitted]

Baker goes on to give a wide range of suggestions on how those with positional power can reduce its negative effects, e.g., maintain two way feedback and be careful with language. They are well worth reading.

Reading this post, I had some additional thoughts. This power dynamic creates a difficult situation: most managers and supervisors don’t really have as much power as their subordinates think and actually are just fellow human beings, yet the subordinates are basically hard-wired to get upset and angry with them. To some extent, this just comes with the territory and management must acknowledge and accept this reality.

However, it is important for employers to not allow employees to demonize or dehumanize their managers and supervisors because of some real or perceived wrongdoing on the latter’s part. Anyone who does employment investigations or litigation has seen this demonization. Employers who allow it are undermining their management team and demoralizing the workplace.

So what should employers do when faced with this situation? Employees who name call or badmouth managers and supervisors should be told to express their concerns in appropriate and respectful ways. Those who make unreasonable demands  (e.g., put that abuser on leave immediately or that harasser needs to be fired now), should be told that this is not how the employer treats any of its employees as a matter of basic fairness and due process.

Might the demonizer then go after the person who did not give in? Possibly. But in my experience, almost everyone hears and understands concepts of respect and fairness … so long as the message itself is communicated in a fair and respectful manner….

What are your thoughts about positional power in the workplace? ~Amy Stephson

Who Really Owns It: A Stress Reduction Guide

Much has been said about the necessity of getting employees to “own” or “buy into” organizational goals if they are to successfully pursue those goals. Including in this blog.

What I’d like to address, however, is a different aspect of ownership in the workplace, namely, determining who exactly “owns” a task, a problem, or a project.

Many years ago, I did an investigation at a large tech company. One thing I noticed was that nearly every witness talked in terms of “ownership,” i.e., they explicitly allocated responsibility for tasks to themselves or other specific employees. In “project managing” cultures such as that one, the concept of ownership makes particular sense and is widely used.

Since then, I’ve come to see  that explicitly allocating “ownership” makes sense in many (perhaps all) workplaces, even those that do not see themselves as managing projects. Why? There are many benefits, including increasing accountability and improving outcomes. What I’d like to address, however, is how it can reduce stress.

Imagine these four situations:

  • A mid-level manager sees that there is going to be a severe staffing shortage in a key operational area during a critical time. She is losing sleep worrying about how to handle it.
  • Another manager is working 80 hours a week implementing a new computer software program and doing an excellent job of it. He has been given staff to work with but they are incompetent and impeding productivity rather than helping.
  • An assistant in a service business is frustrated with the professionals’ failure to send bills to clients in a timely manner. She brings it up frequently, but her concerns are met with indifference or irritation.
  • A supervisor is doing everything in his power to help an employee improve the employee’s work to avoid having to terminate the employee. He’s very frustrated because no improvement is occurring.

The common thread here: ownership is misplaced. In situation one, the manager has correctly identified a problem, but then incorrectly assumed sole ownership of it. It is an organizational issue and the manager needs to present it to her manager as a problem that “we” or “the organization” need to address.

In situation two, the manager is letting his management off the hook, again by taking sole responsibility for a system-wide project that upper management also needs to own. Unless the manager makes it clear that the status quo is not working, it’s one less problem for upper management to worry about.

The third situation is just the opposite: the assistant is taking ownership of a problem that simply is not hers to own. If the providers do not want to maximize their incomes, so be it – it’s their business. So long as the assistant is paid, their income is none of hers.

Finally, the fourth situation highlights what happens when a supervisor has taken improvement of an employee on himself, instead of placing it where it belongs: on the employee. The supervisor’s job is to coach the employee and provide guidance, but it is the employee’s job to do what’s needed to improve his or her job performance.

These scenarios are all based on real situations. In each one, once the person realized where ownership belonged or with whom it needed to be shared, their stress decreased markedly.

Placing ownership where it belongs is an important tool. Have you found that in your work? ~Amy Stephson