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The deficient supervisor: a special breed of performance problem.

Handling personnel problems is always hard, but never more so than when the problem staffer is a deficient supervisor.

When a bench-level staff member has a performance problem, the reason may be inexperience or a misunderstanding of expectations. Both situations can be corrected with time and effective communication.

Supervisory-level personnel problems, however, may be impossible to correct. The deficient supervisor may lack certain personality traits required for the position and may not wish to acquire them, or may not be able to. Dilemmas of this nature often occur when a technologist is elevated to a supervisory spot strictly on the basis of outstanding technical ability.

It will be easier to understand how to handle the deficient supervisor after briefly examining what constitutes a good one. For the successful manager, three needs predominate: achievement, affiliation, and power. Put another way, successful managing is derived from achievement, through power, with the use of affiliation. The equation will be explained in this article.

* Achievement. A supervisor who needs achievement is well organized and wants to accomplish as much as possible. Such a manager is result oriented, going beyond discussions of problems to finding and implementing solutions. Tangible results are achieved in a professional, responsible way. Examples include a test procedure developed after doing careful research and the decision to purchase an instrument after making a thorough evaluation of the options.

The achievement-oriented manager recognizes the accomplishments of the group as a measure of his or her own, taking pride in work done by all.

An achiever is self-motivated, volunteers, seeks additional responsibilities, makes constructive suggestions, and gains knowledge and skills independently. It isn't hard to find the need for achievement in laboratory professionals at any level. In my experience, most demonstrate their need for high achievement daily.

* Affiliation. A supervisor who needs affiliation enjoys relationships with colleagues. Relating to others in a warm, positive way, such a manager understands that people do not all express their feelings in the same ways. He or she prefers working with and around people to working alone.

Good supervisors do not hesitate to counsel employees or to handle personnel problems. They are good communicators who can motivate others with a few words. They take an interest in people-oriented tasks such as setting performance standards and appraising performance afterward.

* Power. The need for power may be hardest to understand because it is often equated with aggression. Many people feel uncomfortable even discussing power as it relates to their jobs.

As successful managers know, however, the appropriate use of power is an integral part of managing. A supervisor who needs power is comfortable wielding it in a constructive way. A common example of a person who is uncomfortable with power is the supervisor who was promoted from the bench and continues to perform bench tasks at the expense of supervisory responsibilities.

A good manager takes an active leadership role, knowing that power not driven on the knowledge and ability to motivate others is empty power. The need for power never excludes kindness or decency.

People with the right kind of need for power can be good leaders. Good managers are assertive and have a reputation for competence. They like to influence others, and will openly say they enjoy managing. They can often be identified by the way they dress and carry themselves.

* Balance. Striking the proper balance of achievement, affiliation, and power is not always easy. Yet none of these needs will be met effectively unless all are in balance. Of particular importance is to maintain a good mixture of power and affiliation.

Consider what happens when a supervisor neglects affiliation with the staff and begins using the power of the managerial position for personal gain. Examples of affiliation and power that have gone out of balance include affecting an autocratic management style, taking extended "business" lunches, giving a favored employee the best work schedule, and imposing policies without input from those directly affected. Unaffiliated management creates unrest that may be hard to redress.

Many of the questions submitted to MLO's Management Q & A department illustrate performance problems of supervisors as they relate to the three basic needs outlined above. I will now discuss my own recommendations for handling certain personality types.


Drill sergeant. "The chemistry supervisor in the laboratory where I am manager should have stayed in the Army. He goes overboard with memos, duty lists, scheduled times for lunch, and other details. Now his employees won't do anything unless the order is in writing. I know documentations is important, but this is ridiculous. How can I get him to ease up?"

This lab manager's chemistry supervisor lacks affiliation. In trying to handle this job responsibly as his experience dictates, he has failed to relate to his staff in a warm, friendly way. Methods learned in military service have been misapplied in the laboratory setting.

If a frank discussion with him doesn't solve the problem, he'll require civilian-world management training through counseling, reading, or attending seminars. In any case, treat this supervisor's attitude as a performance deficiency that cries out for correction.


Conservative. "I have learned that one of my supervisors, who is reluctant to make any changes, does not give new products an unbiased trial. As a result, we have wasted many hours on parallel testing and may be perpetuating outmoded procedures. In other ways, this supervisor does a good job. What should I do?"

This manager demonstrates a lack of need for achievement. By performing neither professionally nor responsibly, he diminishes the achievement potential of the entire group.

Your solid evidence that the supervisor falsified data and used new products incorrectly in order to make them fail may be grounds for immediate dismissal. A warning letter or other form of disciplinary action is called for.


Spineless. "My supervisor won't stand up to the laboratory manager, who keeps assigning special projects to our overworked section. How can I build up her backbone?"

The lack of assertiveness and inability to exercise the power that accompanies this supervisor's position have made her subordinates vulnerable. You can't build up others' backbone any more than you can boost their honesty or integrity. Your situation is extremely unlikely to change as long as this supervisor retains her job.


Blind. "The supervisor of our department, who has 12 years of experience, closes his eyes to all personnel problems. Three of us technologists always end up handling these matters,not because he delegates the responsibility but through default. What recourse do you recommend?"

This supervisor is low on affiliation. He apparently is very uncomfortable with employee problems, and therefore ignores them. He should realize that employee problems need not be managed coldly and harshly. A person with a high need for affiliation can deal with most employee difficulties in a positive way.

Since you can't change the situation, you have the choice of continuing as you are or refusing to keep assuming the abdicated responsibility. I would recommend the former option, to help your department function smoothly while providing valuable management experience for you.


Unethical. "We have observed our chief technologist perform 'sink tests.' Confronted by us, he laughed the matter off. When we approached the pathologist, he said he had heard similar reports but refused to believe them. Many physicians have known the chief technologist for years and trust his results--not knowing that we have to go behind his back to correct reports. Is there any way to put an end to this situation?"

Your chief technologist displays an apparent total lack of need for achievement. Unprofessional is too kind a word for him. Unethical, irresponsible, and grossly negligent are more appropriate descriptions. In fact, he should be terminated.

Since your pathologist ignored your report, you have the right and responsibility to go over his head. Take it to administration or your risk manager. Patients' lives are at stake. It is your professional responsibility to do everything possible to set things right.


Inconsistent. "One of my supervisors thinks that his section of the laboratory is the most clinically significant. Therefore, he stringently requires his staff to follow procedures to the letter. When supervising in other areas, however, he takes great liberties in modifying procedures. What's the best way to deal with his inconsistent approach to protocol?"

The supervisor in this case demonstrates abuse of power. He has no qualms about exerting it, but is doing so in a nonconstructive way. Routinely modifying other supervisors' procedures when filling in for them is wrong.

Counsel this supervisor, clarifying the limits on his authority when he covers other sections. Tell him that unless he sticks to the rules, disciplinary action will be taken.

* Predicting improvement. Examining supervisory performance problems for deficiencies of achievement, affiliation, or power can help you predict whether the problem is correctable. Difficulties stemming from an inadequate need for achievement are perhaps innate, often intolerable, and possibly beyond correction.

The two cases discussed above that showed a deficient need for achievement (number 2 and number 5) demonstrated this dilemma well. Even if you obtained a promise of absolute correction from these two supervisors, could you ever really trust them again?

Although the need for affiliation might also be considered an inherent quality, my experience is that anyone who genuinely likes to be around people can increase that need and consequently improve skills in relating to people.

Some supervisors who misuse power can be corrected by a strong boss. Those who are truly uncomfortable exercising power, however, probably won't ever become good supervisors. They will fill their positions without doing their jobs. In hopeless cases, the needs-deficient supervisor should be returned to the bench.

* Interviewing candidates. Keep the three basic needs in mind when interviewing candidates for supervisory positions. Develop questions that assess the candidates' needs for achievement, affiliation, and power. Good openings: "What would you do if . . .?" and "How would you handle the following situation?"

Anyone interested in advancement to management would be wise to perform a self-assessment in this regard. Those who possess all three needs and who believe they use them in balance are excellent prospects for successful management.

General references:

Fitzgibbon, R.J., and Snyder, J.R. "The Laboratory Manager's Problem Solver." Oradell, N.J., Medical Economics Books, 1985.

Friedman, P., ed. "The Pryor Report 3: Are you motivated to manager?" 3(2):9, August 1987.

Umiker, W.O. "The Effective Laboratory Supervisory." Oradell, N.J., Medical Economics Books, 1982.

The author, a member of MLO's Management Q & A panel, is chief technologist of hematology and microscopy at University Hospital, Pennsylvania State University, Hershey, Pa.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Bailey, Marti Yapit
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Dec 1, 1991
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