Stewart Liff (Author)
Publication date: 07/01/2014
98 Opportunities to
Dealing with People Day-to-Day
Dealing effectively with people on a day-to-day basis is a supervisor’s most important job. People are an organization’s most important asset; the more involved, engaged, and developed they are, the better off everyone will be.
1. IMPROVING COMMUNICATION
How often have you heard government employees complain, “I don’t know what is going on,” “I am out of the loop,” or “Nobody in management cares about me.” Unfortunately, these seem to be frequent complaints—and not just in government. When people feel ignored or disconnected, they tend to become compliant rather than committed to the mission. In other words, they do what it takes to survive but not much more. This results in low energy, low morale, and mediocre performance at best.
One way to change this mindset is by communicating time and time again with the troops so they know what is going on and where the organization is headed. Moreover, make sure the communication is two-way, so they not only hear what you have to say but you also gain their perspective.
In my experience, supervisors should keep employees informed of goings-on at several levels. First, let them know what is happening at the national (or state or city, as appropriate) level. This will help them begin to understand the forces that drive your actions and see that your agency does not operate in a vacuum. How often have you heard your employees say something like this: “Those idiots in management constantly change our priorities!” If they understand the larger forces at play and why you frequently have to make adjustments, they will gain confidence in management and will not react so negatively every time something changes.
Second, let them know what is going on at the local level. That is, explain to them why you are realigning, why you are working overtime, or why you are buying a new computer system. The more they know what’s going on and why, the less time they will spend around the water cooler criticizing management.
Third, make sure you periodically let them know how both they and their team or unit are doing. Do this by showing them how they are doing relative to the group and individual goals and how they are performing relative to their peers. This way, they will know exactly where both the group and they as individuals stand. Such an approach will reduce uncertainty, keep the employees focused, relieve stress, and ultimately reduce grievances and complaints. I will address this topic in greater detail in Chapter Two.
As a general rule, make an effort to communicate with employees in a variety of different ways. You should do this because people have different learning styles or thinking preferences. Some are right-brain dominant (i.e., analytical, rational, logical), while others are left-brain dominant (i.e., emotional, synthesizing, creative). 1 If you rely on just one form of communication—say, written—you are not going to reach many of the people who need to hear the information or see a graph or picture to fully absorb it. Instead, you might switch between sharing information in town hall meetings, written memos, videos, and charts and graphs. When you take this approach, everyone will better understand what is happening—and, more importantly, you will reduce the confusion that typically permeates organizations.
Finally, I highly recommend that you manage by walking around. Such an approach will increase your visibility and give the employees greater confidence in you—if for no other reason than if they see you every day, they will become more comfortable with you and conclude you are truly interested in learning what is going on. Moreover, walking around is a great way to gain understanding of what is happening under the surface. If you stay in your ivory tower every day, you can always find a reason to convince yourself that things are going great. However, if you walk around, you will learn to read your employees’ body language, which is an excellent way of gauging the real situation. For example, if employees do not want to look you in the eye, that is probably a good indicator that something is not right. Moreover, you will also see if people are working together or are disengaged. Finally, if you regularly interact with employees on a casual basis, they will be more willing to share information with you and tell you what is really happening. Such information is absolutely crucial in nipping problems in the bud.
2. MANAGING TIME AND ATTENDANCE
Time and attendance is an area that needs to be managed well, but supervisors frequently struggle here. The key is to first establish very clear rules so that everyone knows what to do, and then deal with people who violate these rules in a consistent way. The less clear the rules are, the more likely it is that some people will take advantage of them.
To start with, let your subordinates know the procedure for requesting leave so that there are no questions or confusion. For instance, let them know who they need to speak with, whether leaving a message on voice mail is good enough, and the time frame within which they should request leave.
Let’s assume someone calls in and tells you he is sick and you simply respond, “OK.” You have just set yourself up for trouble. After all, does “OK” mean you are approving leave for the day, or until the person feels better? When does the employee need to call you again? It’s unclear. What if an employee leaves you a voice mail message saying she needs a few days off to take care of some personal business? Is that acceptable? You are better off setting a policy that goes something like this:
Requests for annual leave (except for emergencies) must be made in writing at least two weeks in advance. When requesting emergency annual leave or sick leave due to illness or injury, you must call me within two hours of your normal start of duty. If I am unavailable, you must call the front office and leave a message with the administrative assistant (or someone else) indicating the type of leave you are requesting and the length of time you expect to be out, and provide a number so I can call you back as soon as possible with my decision. If leave for the day is approved, you must continue to call in each day and request leave unless I have approved leave for a longer duration. Should sick leave be approved for more than three days, you must bring in a doctor’s note upon return, which indicates you were sick for your entire absence.
Consider this policy statement to be a sample; it doesn’t cover every possible situation.
When you craft your own policy statement, share it with all of your employees and have them all sign it. Give them the opportunity to make suggestions and ask questions so there is no doubt about what is required of them. Follow up by periodically going over the rules to keep them fresh in everyone’s minds.
In terms of implementation, the key is to apply the policy in a consistent manner across the board. If people know that the same rules will be applied to everyone, then they too will follow the rules. Deal with any leave-related problems quickly. Don’t hope they simply go away, because they rarely do.
Also, be aware of the distinctions between the broad types of leave so you can apply them properly. Here are a few of the key ones:
• Annual leave: It is an employee’s right to use this leave subject to the approval of the supervisor.
• Sick leave: If the employee is sick, it is the employee’s right to use this type of leave. When requesting sick leave for such events as doctor’s appointments, the employee has the right to use this leave subject to the approval of the supervisor.
• Leave without pay: There is no established right to use this type of leave except under narrow circumstances (e.g., if a veteran needs treatment for a service-connected condition).
Where you have discretion in granting leave, your first consideration should be whether the workload allows you to grant the requested leave. Consistently using this as your starting point will enable you to treat everyone in a fair and open manner.
Guidance on how to deal with leave abuse can be found in Chapter Four, “Stopping leave abuse.”
3. MANAGING KNOWLEDGE
All employees, whether they are new or experienced, should be developed. After all, the more skills the employee has, the better her ability to perform. The starting point is the skill sets that the team or unit needs to succeed. You should develop a skills matrix that identifies exactly what skills the team needs and who should attain them. Training is thus determined initially by what is best for the team and then secondarily by what is best for the employee. Figure 1-1 shows a sample skills matrix.
List the required core (the technical skills required to do the job) and enabling skills (which enable you to do the job, such as interpersonal skills and communication skills) and the team members who should attain them. Then identify the level of competence each team member needs for each skill. Several possible keys are given below.
FIGURE 1-1: Skills Matrix
Adapted by permission of the publisher from A Team of Leaders: Empowering Every Member to Take Ownership, Demonstrate Initiative, and Deliver Results, by Paul Gustavson and Stewart Liff. © 2014 by Paul Gustavson and Stewart Liff, AMACOM division of American Management Association International, New York, NY. All rights reserved. www.amacombooks.org
Once you have developed the skills matrix, it is a good idea to create a knowledge management plan for your unit or team. This plan should identify how the members of the team will acquire the technical skills and the less codifiable tacit or “art of the job” skills that the team will need to succeed in the long run. By this I mean knowledge that is difficult to explain or write down but is in the heads of the experts who have mastered the job. This kind of knowledge allows them to get the job done more quickly and efficiently and enables them to focus on what is important while not wasting time on trivial stuff.
Interestingly, while organizations tend to focus on teaching employees the technical side of the job, most of the key knowledge needed is actually not codifiable. What you have to manage is all of the required knowledge, with the goal of having it balanced and aligned. Managing the noncodifiable knowledge is key. This type of knowledge is best acquired on the job, through, for example, mentors, case studies, or role playing.
Keep in mind that it is one thing for an employee to acquire key knowledge but quite another for you to pass it on to everyone. Part of your knowledge management plan should be a plan to spread the knowledge to all of the key players on the team. Successfully dispersing key knowledge across your team will greatly increase team members’ skill sets and capacity, which will give the team greater horsepower and more flexibility.
Once you have developed the knowledge management and dispersion plans, it is time to take them down to the individual level by creating individual development plans (IDPs). I recommend developing an IDP for each employee, with one caveat: they should be used as intended, not simply for show. The idea here is to have a concrete plan for each employee that fits within the context of your team’s overall knowledge management and knowledge dispersion plans. Each employee should be integrally involved in the development of her IDP so that you and the employee jointly own it.
The best way to ensure successful implementation is for you to discuss employees’ IDPs with them during their individual performance appraisal feedback sessions, which I believe should be conducted monthly, or at least quarterly. These discussions allow continuous two-way dialogue between you and the employee and a clear connection between the employee’s performance and development. Moreover, when it comes time to actually give the employee her appraisal, there should be no surprises, as everything will have already been discussed at length. 2
4. DEALING WITH REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION ISSUES
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 20.2 percent of the people in the labor force have disabilities. 3 Needless to say, that is a lot of people. For the most part, this is not a major issue, because many people with disabilities do not even mention their disability or request reasonable accommodation. If you do supervise one or more employees who have requested reasonable accommodation, here is a very brief summary of what you need to know:
• Federal agencies are required to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified employees with disabilities, unless doing so will cause the agency undue hardship.
• The burden generally falls upon the employee to make a request for reasonable accommodation.
• Reasonable accommodation may be granted to make it easier for the employee to do his job. Such accommodations can be made to his duties, where and how the job is performed, or both. Examples of such accommodations include providing the employee with interpreters or readers, modifying job duties, restructuring work sites, offering flexible work schedules, and providing appropriate technology or other work-adaptive equipment. 4
Here are some pointers to keep in mind when considering reasonable accommodation for an employee:
• Have the employee put his request in writing and lay out exactly the accommodation he is requesting. This will enable you to know precisely what you are dealing with and make a sound evaluation of the request.
• Remember that you are not required to modify performance standards for the employee.
• If you believe the request will place an undue hardship on your organization, you must make an individualized assessment of current circumstances that shows that a specific reasonable accommodation would cause significant difficulty or expense. A determination of undue hardship should be based on several factors, including:
the nature and cost of the accommodation needed;
the overall financial resources of the facility making the reasonable accommodation; the number of persons employed at this facility; the effect on expenses and resources of the facility;
the overall financial resources, size, number of employees, and type and location of facilities of the employer (if the facility involved in the reasonable accommodation is part of a larger entity);
the type of operation of the employer, including the structure and functions of the workforce, the geographic separateness, and the administrative or fiscal relationship of the facility involved in making the accommodation to the employer;
the impact of the accommodation on the operation of the facility. 5
• A frequent complaint that is made in response to disciplinary/adverse/performance-based actions is that the employee is suffering from stress. Naturally, facing such an action is stressful. In this scenario, the employee often blames you, the supervisor, and (1) claims that you are responsible for the stress, and (2) requests as a reasonable accommodation to be reassigned to another supervisor. Bear in mind that you may consider reassigning the employee, but you are not required to do so. 6
Unfortunately, many employees who have performance or conduct problems may claim they have a disability and request reasonable accommodation in order to forestall any action from being taken against them. This to some extent is part of the cost of doing business. During my career, I received many requests for accommodation from problem employees. In one instance, an employee who was experiencing problems staying awake on the job asked to be able to move away from his desk for five minutes out of every hour. Since he was still required to meet his performance standards, that seemed like a reasonable request, and we granted it. This solved the problem, and everyone was satisfied.
On a different occasion, a troubled employee asked to be permanently assigned to another agency because he needed a job that would provide him with no stress. After carefully evaluating the request, we determined that it would place an undue hardship on our organization, as we would be both losing a full-time employee and paying him to work for another organization. Accordingly, we denied the request. A third party later sustained that decision.
The point here is that reasonable accommodations are a good thing; they are intended to result in a win-win situation. However, when someone makes a request that is unreasonable—that is, places an undue burden on your organization—do not be afraid to deny it if there is a legitimate basis for doing so.
5. IMPLEMENTING THE PRINCIPLE OF RELIABLE CONSEQUENCES
So far, I’ve talked about how to develop employees, how to manage their time and attendance, how to communicate with them, and how to deal with reasonable accommodation issues, all of which are very important. A key concept in managing your workforce, one that applies in many of the situations I’ve discussed, is the principle of reliable consequences. Simply put, this means there should be reliable consequences for every level of performance and behavior—consequences that apply whether management likes an employee or not. In other words, if an employee’s performance far exceeds the minimum performance requirements for her position, she should receive an award and have an edge when it comes to promotional opportunities. If another employee’s performance is acceptable but no better, he should retain his job and receive his regular step increase. Finally, if an individual’s performance is unacceptable, management should quickly take action to help her improve; however, if that doesn’t work, then action should be taken to remove her from her position.
If these consequences are uniformly applied across the board, regardless of each employee’s social connections, race, color, creed, physical condition, or union affiliation, employees will get the message that everyone is going to be treated the same. This will give them confidence in the organization’s management and its systems and will encourage them to do better. After all, if they know hitting a certain number will entitle them to an award, they will strive to hit that number. Conversely, if they understand that failing to perform at a certain level will initially result in action to help them improve but could eventually lead to their removal, they will try extra hard to perform better.
When people see that the systems will be applied as intended and the consequences for exceeding and meeting expectations and failing to perform are real, they will treat the systems seriously and take the initiative to do their best, and management will spend far less time cracking the whip. This will make a huge difference in the organization’s culture and enable managers to focus on the work itself—they won’t have to stay on top of their employees like they normally would if there were no reliable consequences.
The same principle holds true for conduct. When employees know that the people who go the extra mile will be treated the same way as the whiners and complainers, they begin to ask themselves why they are killing themselves to do well. By the same token, if the people sitting on the fence see that problem employees face no consequences or even thrive, many of them will slowly but surely begin to go to the dark side.
Let’s say an employee frequently arrives late, but nothing ever happens to him. Everyone will take notice. Many will conclude, “If it is OK for John to come in late, it must be OK for me to do the same.” Some will start to wake up later, figuring that if they come in late, there won’t be any consequences. After a while, things might begin to snowball; tardiness could get out of control. If the supervisor then confronts a late employee, the inevitable comeback will be, “Why don’t you say anything to John when he comes in late? This is disparate treatment!” The union might eventually get involved, and before you know it, you have a mess. But the problem would never have progressed to that point if there were reliable consequences for poor attendance. Had John been disciplined for lateness, others would have realized that they too would be disciplined for being late.
Let’s take this one step further. What if the supervisor recognized team members who were never late for a given quarter? That recognition could be as simple as an announcement or posting their names on the team’s bulletin board. The point is that positive consequences for good behavior, working hand in hand with negative consequences for bad behavior, are the ideal way to drive the right behavior. Moreover, everyone will take notice when these consequences are consistently applied, and they’ll begin to give you the type of behavior that the systems are promoting.
The more the principle of reliable consequences permeates your culture, the more you will get the right performance and behavior. More importantly, because the systems will do most of the work for you, you will actually work less than before to achieve the results you are seeking.
1 Roger Sperry and Ned Herrmann pioneered this concept. See Roger Sperry, “Left-Brain, Right-Brain,” The Saturday Review, August 9, 1975, http://people.uncw.edu/puente/sperry/sperrypapers/70s/190-1975.pdf (accessed July 2013); and Ned Herrmann, The Whole Brain Business Book (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996).
2 This section and the skills matrix illustration were based in part or in whole on the book A Team of Leaders: Empowering Every Member to Take Ownership, Demonstrate Initiative, and Deliver Results, by Paul Gustavson and Stewart Liff (New York: AMACOM Books, 2014) and by the work of William M. Snyder, www.organizationdesign.com/-ourTeam.html .
4 U.S. Office of Personnel Management, “Disability Employment: Reasonable Accommodations,” https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/disability-employment/reasonable-accommodations (accessed August 2013).
5 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Enforcement Guidance: Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/accommodation.html#requesting (accessed August 2013).