Tag Archives: supervisors

Improving One-on-One’s with Direct Reports

Many managers and supervisors either don’t have one-on-one meetings with their direct reports, frequently cancel those they do schedule, or fail to prepare for those they have.  To these managers, one-on-ones seem unnecessary and a waste of scarce time.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Regular, focused meetings with subordinates are a key way to help ensure that your team is productive and happy.  Done right, they also help with employee engagement and retention.

It is not necessary to have one-on-ones every week (though with new reports, this is recommended), but it is best to have them at least every other week.  A standing agenda along the following lines is helpful:

  1. Update on action items/commitments from last time
  2. What is going well?
  3. What are the obstacles and how can I (the manager) help?
  4. Ongoing performance feedback, pluses and minuses, if and as needed
  5. Action items going forward

One or more times a year, it’s a good idea to enlarge the scope of the meeting and and cover the following:

  1. Where is the organization going?
  2. Where are you going?
  3. What are you and your team doing well? What are you proud of?
  4. What are your suggestions for improvements for the future (for the organization, for your team, for yourself)?
  5. How can I (the manager) help?
  6. What suggestions for improvement do you have for me (the manager)?

Other tips for having good one-on-one meetings with direct reports are:

1. Schedule them out for 6-12 months for about an hour each. Don’t wait for them to happen, because they won’t.

2. Don’t cancel, reschedule.  If you’re always canceling them, you’re sending the message they aren’t important.

3. Shut the door, don’t answer phones or emails, turn cell phones off, and give 100% attention.

4.  View the meeting as a coaching conversation primarily driven by the direct report.  The manager should ask questions, listen, and provide guidance if needed, but not dominate the conversation.

5. Don’t accumulate a to-do list for each employee, and then use the meeting to unload your list. Don’t overload the employee with action items.

6. Save some time to just talk. It’s OK to spend a few moments just asking what’s new, how’s life, how’s the family, etc….

7. Always try to end on a positive note – let the employee know how well they are doing (if it’s genuine) and how much you appreciate their efforts. If the meeting was a difficult one, you can try to comment positively on how things are going to improve moving forward.

Anything else you would add about successful one-on-ones?  ~Amy Stephson

Acting 101 for Managers

A little-recognized but oft-experienced reality is that to manage employees effectively, managers need to have fairly well developed acting skills.  Stated another way, managers need to always be aware of how they present themselves and the impact of their behaviors on their subordinates. 

So what does this mean in practical terms?  Think of these common scenarios:

  • An employee has repeatedly performed or behaved badly despite repeated discussions of the problem.  You’re frustrated and angry, but you don’t want to show it.  Your role: calm, firm and clear setter of expectations and consequences.
  • You’re having a really bad day.  It’s OK to hide somewhere if you can, but you don’t want to be cranky and angry or icy and formal with your employees.  Can’t you be real once in a while?  Unfortunately, no: employees get confused by a boss they see as unpredictable and up and down.  They also have long memories for slip-ups.  Your role: the consistent grown up. 
  • You really click with some of your employees and not with others.  Your tendency would be to hang out with and favor in subtle ways the ones who are pleasant, easy to get along with, and have a good sense of humor, while steering a little clear of the others.  Not good.  Your role: the parent who cares about all of his or her children equally. 

This is not easy.  But it may help to recognize that it’s your job and not the place to self-actualize and express your emotional self.  Also, if you remember that you’re playing a role – manager –that in itself can give you some distance from the emotional travails of managing people. 

One caution, however, about playing this role: you also need maintain a level of authenticity and interact with others on a human level. These are not necessarily inconsistent demands. You can play a role but still retain your fundamental personality and come from a genuine place of caring.  Those qualities will shine through even as you always present yourself as the proper manager.

What are your thoughts about manager as actor?  ~Amy Stephson

Why We Love to Dis the Boss?

I recently read an interesting article in the November issue of Coaching World entitled, “Leadership Dilemma: The American Leadership Paradox.”  For me it was a reminder that effective “followership,” which I discussed in two previous posts, is a difficult concept in the American workplace.

The author, Keith Lawrence Miller, states the issue succinctly: “Society demands a powerful altruistic leader…. However, America is a nation of individualists who strive to be the leader, and are ashamed to be categorized in the role of follower.… American culture frowns upon the follower and the omnipotent leader is exaggeratedly admired.”

He then goes on to discuss some of the ways he believes this plays out in our culture:

  • Americans want community and togetherness, but also want capitalism and individual freedom.
  • Americans value family, but love the rebel.
  • Americans scoff at and criticize leaders – believing they could do better – instead of following them. 
  • Americans tolerate highly imperfect leaders because the imperfections enable individuals to feel superior and better qualified.

Thought-provoking stuff.  Does it apply in the workplace?  Not as much as in the political arena, but it does explain to some degree the disrespect and distrust many employees have for their supervisors and managers – even for those who are good at their jobs.  It also explains, perhaps, why workplace change initiatives are so fraught with difficulty and resistance. 

Keith Miller’s solution?  Leadership coaching that is cognizant of these attitudes.  I think that’s a good starting point.  Another solution may be training that addresses and fosters respect for the role of followers. Also important is to remember that the attitudes of employees from other countries and cultures toward leadership may be different than those of US-born employees.

What other ways do you see American attitudes toward leadership and followership play out in the workplace?  Do you have any other ideas on how to address these attitudes?  ~Amy Stephson

Attention Management

Recently, I was preparing for a management presentation I’m giving next month.  One of the topics is “time management.”  I’ve never taken a time management class myself, and I have to admit that the term fills me with a vague discomfort.  It also evokes images of fat notebook-like organizers filled with lists upon lists of meetings, tasks to do, tasks completed, priorities, calls to make, and so on.

I don’t want to go there. It’s not me and I don’t do it myself so how can I preach it?  Instead I’m going to share a general  coaching approach to time management. You can use it on yourself or when coaching others.

  • First, don’t conceptualize it as time management at all.  We can’t manage time – it’s a force outside our control.  However, we can manage our attention and our priorities.  So think of the issue as “where do I focus my attention” or “how do I manage my priorities.”
  • Second, be intentional.  Think through your roles and tasks, how you want and need to balance them, where you want to direct your attention, and what your destination and goals are.  With intention, you have a framework for making decisions on how to spend the time you have. Without intention or a goal, you end up being only reactive.  Most people are part of a larger organization, so external forces – your job description, the organization’s mission and values, and your leadership’s views will necessarily be part of this process.
  • Third, figure out where your attention is currently going and realign it to better meet your goals and priorities.  You can do this in any number of ways and in greater or lesser detail.  The important thing is to be conscious of what you’re doing so you can make the changes that are necessary.

Of course this sounds easier than it is, but as a macro approach, it works.  You might also want to look into the Stephen Covey “time management matrix,” which is an invaluable tool for focusing your attention on what is important, not just on what is urgent — or seems so.

As for the details, you can work those out yourself. Electronic PDA, paper and pencil, fat leather-bound organizer, post-its, color coding, whatever … it’s your choice. What matters is having a framework.

Let me know if this works for you!  ~Amy Stephson

Top Ten New Supervisor Skills

This began as the top five skills, but it just wasn’t possible, so I’m going for ten.  An interesting discussion on the LinkedIn HR Group listserv recently addressed this as did a speaker at a seminar I attended in August.  There are lots of books out there on this topic, but I’m aiming to keep it short and to the point. We’re talking about folks who have never supervised before, God bless them. 

  1. Understand your new role and maintain boundaries.  You now have some power (or at least your subordinates think you do) and can no longer be one of the gang.  You want to be friendly and empathetic but not get involved in solving personal problems.  You don’t want to go partying and drinking with your subordinates. And so on.
  2. Listen first, then speak, respectfully.
  3. Set clear and measurable expectations.
  4. Learn the fundamentals of delegation, directing and coaching.
  5. Understand the larger system in which you work so you can “manage up” and exercise your “followership” skills.  Your unit does not work in a vacuum — you can help your people only if you understand the universe, including the organizational values, around them.
  6. Develop basic conflict resolution skills.  
  7. Learn how to handle the routine stuff: timecards, leave slips, accident reports, etc.  Read the Employee Handbook, carefully.
  8. Find an experienced manager or supervisor to whom you can go with questions.
  9. Set up a regular but realistic system for meeting with your employees, both as a group and one-on-one.  No one likes a ton of meetings, but it’s absolutely necessary to have some regular meetings.
  10. Figure out how to reward those employees who do well and motivate those who are not engaged.

And what if we had to pick only five central skills?  First, I’d have to eliminate the practical, obvious ones such as learning how to handle the routine stuff, setting up regular meetings, and finding a more experienced person to be a mentor.  My top five then would be numbers 1 – 5 above.  I’d probably also want to figure out a way to squeeze in 6 (maybe by just adding it to #4!).

 What would you pick as the top five?  Did I miss anything?  ~Amy Stephson

How Much Technical Expertise Do Supervisors Need?

Among the many complaints about supervisors I’ve heard over the years is: “Our supervisor doesn’t know how to do the work we do” or “We know more about how to do the work than our supervisor.” This tends to come up particularly in technical types of work, both blue collar and white. As a consequence, the employees say, they can’t respect the supervisor, he or she can’t effectively supervise them, and so on.

Employees can feel very strongly about this. But I’ve always been skeptical as to whether a supervisor needs to have more than a passable amount of expertise in the relevant areas — except to the extent, of course, that the supervisor is doing some of the technical work him or herself.  

Well, my skepticism has been borne out by none other than Google.  In 2009, Google began analyzing in-house data to figure out what made a good Google manager. The project, named Project Oxygen (not sure I get the metaphor), recently came out with its results and as reported in The New York Times, a Google HR team prioritized the information gathered and found that technical expertise – in Google’s case, e.g., the ability to write computer code – came in last of the eight main qualities of a good manager. 

 The reason for this, I think, is fairly obvious: the skills needed to be a good supervisor or manager have little to do with technical expertise and everything to do with “softer” but equally difficult people and organizational skills. So does this mean that complaints about a supervisor’s lack of technical expertise are all wet? Not necessarily, but it does mean that one has to delve further into the complaint to fully understand the issue and see if it might be a poor articulation of an entirely different problem.

I’d also add that putting technical people in supervisory positions for which they are not qualified is nothing new and is one variant of the well-known Peter Principle which states, “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” Speaking of which, though written in 1969, the book, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong, by Laurence J. Peter, is a great read: short, funny, and piercingly true. You can get it used on Amazon for $.01 if you’re interested.

What are your thoughts about supervisors needing technical expertise at the level of their crew or staff? ~Amy Stephson

A Little Slack

In my work, I see bad supervisors and managers. However, I also see a lot of supervisors and managers who have very challenging jobs and do their jobs well. Many do not always maintain the perfect managerial demeanor: at times, they get cranky, short, or visibly frustrated. This is not ideal, but sometimes I think that the bigger problem is that their employees give them no slack.

Some employees, of course, do take these occasional behaviors in stride. They figure the boss is having a bad day and they’ll just give him or her a wide berth until things improve. They don’t take it personally. Or they do take it personally and decide maybe it’s deserved and they should have gotten the report in on time.

Other employees, however, give the boss no slack. “She’s harassing me” or “he’s abusive.” If the employee is late on a project or screwed something up, there’s always an excuse: I’ve been sick, my car broke down, and so on.

So what’s my point? Employers need to take employee complaints against their managers and supervisors seriously and address them promptly. Communications coaching is often in order. At the same time, when an employer is faced with an employee who is quick to feel abused by a boss who is hard working and overall good, I think it’s important for the employer to also suggest to the employee that he or she give the supervisor or manager a little grace. Nobody’s perfect. Reminding the employee that this applies even to the boss is a point worth making.  ~Amy Stephson

Can A Manager Be Too “Warm and Fuzzy”?

Last week I asked if leaders and managers need to be “warm and fuzzy,” and concluded yes.  This week the question is: can managers be too warm and fuzzy?  By this, I mean a manager or supervisor who focuses more on an employee’s feelings, happiness, and personal problems than on the employee meeting job expectations. Again I think the answer is yes. 

Why? Because managers and supervisors often have to make hard decisions and do things that do not make their employees happy.  Because managers have to maintain professional boundaries or risk creating expectations in subordinates that cannot or should not be met.  Because a manager who cares too much about employees’ personal business and feelings can be perceived as intrusive or learn things he or she doesn’t want to and shouldn’t know. And finally, because employees, like children, can and do take advantage of the overly sympathetic, permissive manager.

So how to coach a leader or manager who is too warm and fuzzy?  The first task is to explain why this is a problem.  Usually this person is kind hearted and needs some help in understanding why being too nice can be a problem. This involves not only discussing the reasons set out above, but also exploring the notion that it’s not “mean” or “heartless” to view employees’ problems with a more dispassionate eye. This person may also be conflict-averse.  That is more difficult to address, but for better or worse, a manager or supervisor cannot do his or her job without dealing with conflict.

The next step is to discuss specific instances of overly warm and fuzzy supervision.  E.g., repeatedly excusing the employee who is habitually tardy (his car broke down, his child got sick, he was up late dealing with a family situation and couldn’t wake up).  Or repeatedly excusing the employee whose work is sloppy (she’s in the middle of a divorce, her cousin is dying, she forgets to take her diabetes medication). Dissect the situations and come up with alternative approaches to dealing with the problem.

After this, it may help to explore the concept of “ownership” in the sense of: who “owns”  an employee’s obligation to do their job, get to work on time, stay off their cell phones during work, etc.  At some level, the warm fuzzy manager may believe that he or she owns the problem and has to fix it. Wrong. The employee owns it — and as soon as both the manager and the employee realize this, the better.

Helping the overly nice manager toughen up may not be not easy because deep-seated feelings are often involved. However with ongoing support for the manager’s efforts and decisions, a new management style can be developed.  How have you addressed  this issue?  ~Amy Stephson

A Simple Change: Drop the “Should’s”

Imagine you are an employee whose work is careless and usually late.  How do you respond to each of the following messages from your supervisor?

Supervisor A:  “I want to discuss my expectations for your work.  First, you should start paying more attention to your work product: it’s full of typos, incorrect calculations, and unclear sentences.  You shouldn’t turn it in to me unless you have proofread it twice. Second, you also need to get it to me on time.  It’s not acceptable to get it to me two days late.  Am I being clear?”

Supervisor B:  “I want to discuss my expectations for your work.  First, it’s important that you pay more attention to your work product, which tends to have typos, incorrect calculations, and unclear sentences. Second, it’s also important that you get your work to me on time, not two days late.  What can we do to ensure that you are able to meet these expectations?  One suggestion I have is that you proofread your work twice before turning it in.  What else might work?”

Both supervisors are saying the same thing and neither is being inappropriate or abusive.  Yet, most people would far rather get the message from Supervisor B.  Why?  For two main reasons.  Rather than giving directives, Supervisor B is using coaching language , e.g., “What can we do . . .?”  A coaching approach often produces a less defensive employee and better results.  As noted in an earlier post, one component of effective coaching is to ask open ended “what” questions. 

Equally importantly, Supervisor B does not use terms such as “you should” “you have to” or “you need to.”  This is central,  because for better or for worse, these terms are psychologically loaded, often raising feelings of obligation, guilt, and right vs. wrong.  

Think of an obligation and couch it in terms of “I should do X every week” or “I have to do Y regularly.”  Now reframe it using more positive words such as “I want to do X every week” or “It’s important to do Y regularly.”  It can be transformative: instead of feeling like an obligation or burden, it feels like a positive choice. 

In the workplace setting, avoiding use of the word “should” (and its cousins “have to” and “need to”) can be similarly transformative.  When Supervisor B says “it’s important,” he or she is using a neutral word without negative connotations. It has the added benefit of communicating that there is a reason for the request.  It also, in some subtle way, communicates that the supervisor and the employee are a team working on matters of common interest. “It’s important …” is one way to reframe the message; many others work as well. 

Avoiding “should” is a simple change that can bring about significant improvements in workplace communication.  Do you have any other magic bullets ?   ~Amy Stephson

Can People Change?

An ever-interesting  issue that comes up when managing employees is: can people really change?  Employers, of course, generally assume that employees can change and therefore set expectations, create goals, evaluate, develop performance improvement plans, and the like.  In many cases employees can and do change, so these tools are necessary and effective.

What about the employee who doesn’t seem to change? The one who continues – despite supervisory attention – to be tardy, to not finish assignments, to play poorly with others, or to yell at co-workers when stressed?  In many of these cases, change is possible if a few basic principles are understood:

  • Change at the margins is easier than fundamental personality change.  What’s at the margins will depend on the person, but examples are: dressing professionally, getting to meetings on time, following procedures, counting to ten before exploding, etc.  Sometimes small changes can have a huge impact on how the employee is viewed by others and views him or herself.  Small do-able changes should not be sniffed at.
  • Change requires the appropriate carrot and stick to ensure that the employee understands what is expected and is motivated to make the needed change.  Many managers wonder: “Why can’t I just ask my employees to do something and it gets done?  Why do I have to baby them? This is a job!”  The answer: humans are complicated.  Resistance and resentments can arise for a host of reasons.  The manager may come across as a nagging parent or spouse and the employee responds accordingly.  The manager and subordinate may have scripts that they just keep repeating.  The employee may have insecurities or inadequacies that he or she is hiding.  And so on.  The supervisor him or herself often needs to change his or approach to the problem.
  • Adding a positive behavior is often easier than eliminating a negative one.  For example, it may be easier for a bullying supervisor to learn to say hello in the morning to each of his or her subordinates and to bring in donuts once a month than to stop yelling when a hot button is pressed.  By adding these positive behaviors, the entire dynamic may change such that it’s then easier for the supervisor to change the negative behaviors.  If nothing else, these positive “deposits in the bank” may reduce the impact of the negative behaviors. 

In other situations, however, change may not be easy or possible: 

  • Change will be hard if the person is in the wrong job. People succeed in jobs that align with their strengths.  The opposite is also often true.  If an employee is poor at numbers, an accounting or finance related position is rarely going to work.  If they’re basically antisocial, customer service is not a good field for them. In such a situation, the employee may not be able to change sufficiently to meet the demands of the job. 
  • People often cannot change fundamental personality traits .  In these cases, the employer certainly should give the employee the opportunity to make the needed changes – with a focus on behavior and action, not personality.  But at some point, the employer will need to accept the reality that it’s not going to work out and act accordingly.  These situations can be very difficult.
  • Finally, in some cases the employee just doesn’t want to change and sees it as unnecessary. Termination may be the only way to address this type of employee.

Do you have other ideas on helping employees change?   ~Amy Stephson