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HR has role to play in building better supervisors

When human resources professionals ponder what would make their jobs easier, having effective supervisors is likely high on the list. But what can HR do to help build better supervisors? Author and consultant Sandra Crowe has some ideas to pass along. 

Crowe, principal at Pivotal Point Training and Consulting, Inc., addressed the issue in a recent Business and Legal Resources webinar titled “Building a Better Supervisor: Core Competencies Proven to Motivate Your Team.” At the heart of the matter, she says, is exploring why supervisors and employees do what they do.

“All human beings have three core wants that drive just about all our behavior,” Crowe says. Those wants are control, security, and approval. Helping supervisors understand those wants can help them be more effective with employees.

It’s important for supervisors to exercise control, but often that “expands to wanting to control other people too much,” Crowe says, and one of the core competencies of a supervisor is being able to have control without micromanaging “unless it’s warranted.” She says if someone isn’t doing the job, a supervisor may need to step in to get things moving, but in general, micromanaging is to be avoided.

Whenever organizations undergo change, security can be threatened, Crowe says. For example, during any kind of upheaval within an organization—even if management assures people their jobs are secure—employees are likely to detect a threat to their security, and that’s when they may start exhibiting “bizarre behavior,” such as employees sending dozens of emails telling how important they are. Likewise, people resort to unusual behavior when they don’t feel a sense of approval and don’t feel valued in the organization, she says.

Lesson from Google
Crowe says supervisors can take a lesson from Google, which is consistently ranked as a top place to work. When most people think of why people like working at Google, they think of the perks the company offers, such as gourmet food, valet parking, onsite oil changes and bike repair, etc.

All those benefits are nice, Crowe says, but they don’t tell the real story. She says she has a friend who works for Google, and that friend says she loves her employer because she feels like it’s her own company. Her supervisor and the company as a whole want to know her ideas and they give her the ability to run with them.

Crowe says even if a company doesn’t have the same values as Google, the more a supervisor “can value what people bring to the table, their ideas, their thoughts, their ability to implement those ideas, the more you can value that and allow that in terms of your own behavior as a supervisor, the better you are going to be as a supervisor and the more you are going to be able to keep people on board.”

How should supervisors behave in order to convey that feeling of ownership to employees? Crowe says to start by asking employees questions, such as, where do you see this particular branch going, what issues do we need to work on, what are we doing well, and how do we expand on that?

Dealing with difficult people
Building better supervisors includes helping them understand how to deal with difficult employees, and Crowe identifies three fundamental principles for dealing with problem people:

  • Reward it, repeat it. Crowe says supervisors need to understand that they may be unconsciously rewarding behavior that they want to stop. When someone yells, cries, or gets angry, a supervisor who exhibits the same behavior is “playing into their game,” and the supervisor needs to see when that happens and stop it in order to shift the dynamic. “People do everything they do either because they’re looking for some kind of way out of punishment or they’re looking for some kind of reward,” Crowe says. So supervisors need to make sure what they’re doing isn’t rewarding the behavior they want to go away.
  • The stronger of two emotions dominates. Crowe offers tips on how to make a positive emotion dominate. She says supervisors can benefit by taking time to think of someone they love or something they like about the person they’re dealing with. Those thoughts can help change their approach to a difficult conversation. Also, changing posture—sitting up straight—can provide a boost of confidence. Finding someone the supervisor likes and having a quick visit with that person also can be a mood changer that makes the conversation go better.
  • Move the conversation forward. If a conversation gets argumentative, Crowe says the supervisor should move it forward by acknowledging the issue, making a request, and asking what needs to happen next to resolve the situation.