Teaching Supervisors Self-Management

In my last column (”Supervisory Advisory”), I explained that most bad bosses don’t intend to be bad, that they end up being ineffective or counterproductive because supervisory skills typically aren’t intuitive, nor are they usually taught in the workplace.

The basis of good supervision is not, in fact, the ability to direct others, but the ability to understand and manage oneself–to recognize how and why one reacts to situations. Understanding your own strengths, flaws, and reactivity lets you anticipate and plan ahead for events that might trigger your weaknesses; it also encourages you to identify subtle situational cues you might otherwise overlook.

If self-management is so important, though, what can a manager do to help develop an inexperienced supervisor? In other words, can you help others learn to manage themselves so that they can go on to manage others? Remarkably, you can. The techniques you’ll find here are presented in the context of a manager working to develop a subordinate supervisor (of course you can switch the perspective and apply the same coaching to your own plan for self-development).

The body knows

For most of us, our instinctive reactions feel so normal that we have a hard time seeing how they limit us and how managing them differently could improve our performance. When we react negatively, it’s because we think something’s wrong. In this kind of reflex mode, we can’t actually trust that our judgment is accurate; we need to calm down first to avoid a response that’s inappropriate in its strength or its nature. So when a new supervisor overreacts, comes on too strong, or gets defensive, you can coach him to rein in his reactions to achieve a better outcome.

Start by encouraging him to be aware of his own physical responses. Ask if he ever finds himself in a situation in which his throat gets tight and it’s harder than usual to swallow or breathe or speak, or if he notices that his stomach is churning or queasy, or if his face or neck suddenly feels hot. Any of these physical cues indicates that his body has perceived a threat, even though he may think that he’s perfectly fine. Recommend that he breathe a few times before speaking, not only to calm himself physically but also to give himself time to think about what’s happening instead of reacting instinctively.

Listening to understand

It helps to be able to understand events deeply before deciding what needs to be done about them. How do you prompt your new supervisor to develop his ability to pay attention? Working with employees requires attentiveness–that is, truly noticing what happens. Encourage the supervisor to be an active observer by looking and listening carefully. Really paying attention requires not doing other things such as shuffling paperwork or scanning the room or frequently glancing at his computer screen to check for extra-lengthy calls.

It also means waiting to speak instead of interrupting, even when the supervisor has no time and even if it seems obvious what the rep is going to say. It means making eye contact and nodding. It also includes making sounds of encouragement: “Yes”; “Go ahead”; “I see”; even “Hmm- mm?” Even grunting is better than silence.

Paying attention also means looking interested and engaged. Many new supervisors strive to look neutral and dispassionate because they think it’s professional. You’ll need to prep your new supervisors that what feels neutral on the inside can be perceived as dissatisfaction or disparagement on the outside by employees who are trying to read the signs.

Motivation that moves

Sometimes new supervisors have trouble figuring out how to get their reps to do what they want. If simple requests prove to be ineffective, they resort to exhortations and pressure. How can you help supervisors be more persuasive and motivate more effectively?

You could start by reminding them that they and their subordinates are likely to have different goals. It’s usually more productive to understand what others want before trying to convince them to want what you want. Once supervisors are aware of their own reactions and are paying full attention to their reps, you can provide them with probing questions they can ask about the individual in question, such as “What does John care about? Is there any way within the work context that I can legitimately show John that I care about what he cares about?”

Occasionally a rep’s reaction seems just too farfetched for supervisors to grasp. They can’t see why someone would act in apparently counterproductive ways. Emphasize to your supervisors that employees generally want to succeed in their jobs and tend to do what they perceive as being the best response to the current situation. When they’re wrong, it’s usually because they can’t see the whole picture, not because they’re trying to infuriate their supervisors! Encourage supervisors to ask themselves “Why would someone who wants to succeed in the job do or say a thing like that?” There’s usually a less obvious explanation, one that exposes a rep’s fears or concerns so that the supervisor can return to asking what the rep really cares about.

Sizing things up

The next supervisory skill moves beyond the personal and the interpersonal to include all the circumstances at hand. Can supervisors figure out what’s going on and explain it coherently and cogently? They can when once they know how to conduct brief situational analyses.

The first step in describing this kind of diagnosis is via a kind of logical storytelling. Ask “What do you think will happen next?’ Or “What do you think the outcome will be? What are the events you’ve observed that make you think so? What are the things you know from your past experience that lead you to this conclusion?”

Point out where supervisors make leaps of faith or false assumptions. Probe for more evidence to see if their conclusions are somewhat based in fact or are completely subjective, as well as whether they’re relevant to the current circumstances or are derived too strongly from past experiences. You can ask them to compare and contrast this situation with other related situations to point out the similarities and differences and to ask what worked and didn’t in a range of related situations.

Inquire about which factors would impel them to immediate action vs. those that would encourage them to watch and wait. Answering your open-ended questions will give new supervisors the best chance of bringing to bear all the skills they’ve developed so far. You might use such questions as “Is there anything different you could have done to change the way the circumstance occurred?” “What do you want to do about it now? Are you using all your self-knowledge as you decide what to do?”

Each of these steps is relatively simple and straightforward. But supervisory development is a significant investment of time and energy on the part of the manager–a necessary investment if you want your organization to avoid the weaknesses and pitfalls that are typical of new supervisors.

Liz Kislik is president of Rockville Centre, NY-based contact center and customer service consultancy Liz Kislik Associates.

Other articles by Liz Kislik:

Coping with Change

Understaffed = Under the Gun

Claiming Your Inheritance

Setting the Direction with New-Employee Orientation

The Power of Positive Asking

What Makes Good Reps? What Makes Reps Good?