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Tough tasks for a supervisor.

The author, a member of MLO's Editorial Advisory Board, is president of Answers & Insights, Inc, a management consulting firm in East Brunswick, N.J.

Lazy or failing or insubordinate employees present special challenges to a supervisor, as does getting involved in an employee's personal life or explaining why someone was passed over for promotion.

Rarely easy, the job of a supervisor turns tougher with certain unavoidable, potentially hazardous tasks. Since these tasks are often mishandled, causing irreparable damage, they deserve special attention.

Let's explore some tough supervisory tasks and strategies for dealing with them:

*How to energize a lazy employee. Tom's supervisor describes him as lazy, thereby offering a simple explanation for a complex problem. Indeed, Tom may exhibit a low energy level and may generalsy be a poor producer. But the label of "laziness" implies some kind of personality defect that he was born with and is destined to keep for life.

Laziness is not a birth defect. Nor is it an incurable, lifelong affliction . On the contrary, it is commonly a temporary condition that is situationally related: Tom is probably bored and demotivated.

Even though lazy employees perform below the expectations of their supervisors, they do not feel compelled to change their behavior. They believe they do enough to get by-and they are right to a large extent. Rarely will they be fired because of laziness. Usually, they will continue to receive automatic salary increases. They probably will not be promoted, but neither will many outstanding performers.

To reduce the increasing toll of low productivity, supervisors must upset the complacency of their lazy employees. They must demonstrate that the present behavior is unacceptable and that the employees will suffer serious consequences from continued laziness.

The traditional ways of trying to upset complacency probably will not work, however. Threats have only a temporary impact. Cajoling, needling, and embarrassing lazy employees are ineffectual methods. At best, they may respond for a short period, then resume old, undesirable work habits.

A much more effective basic technique of managing Tom and other lazy employees is to confront them, describing specific, observable, and measurable unacceptable behavior. While they may try to deny or explain away the facts, thorough documentation is difficult to refute,

At the same time, Tom's supervisor should encourage him to disclose his feelings. From the employee's viewpoint, what seems to be a simple case of laziness is justifiable behavior attributable to a monotonous, unrewarding job.

That dissatisfaction must be addressed, but the immediate problem is to improve Tom's productivity. To accomplish this, the supervisor should set specific work standards if they are not already in place, monitor actual performance against the standards, and establish a mutually acceptable hierarchy of consequences.

For example, after the first variance from the standard that cannot be legitimately explained, an informal verbal warning might be issued. After a second variance, Tom might be given an official written warning. After a third variance, his scheduled salary increase might be reduced or delayed. Finally, after a fourth variance, he might be dismissed. This hierarchy of consequences makes it clear that productivity consistently below work standards is unacceptable and subject to penalties.

In attacking the problem of job dissatisfaction, an important strategy is to try to add variety to the employee's work routine. Perhaps some tests assigned to Tom can be redistributed, permitting him to take on tests he does not normally perform. He could also be put on a special project.

The burden of adding variety should not fall only on the supervisor's shoulders; it should be a joint responsibility. The employee should be encouraged to think about ways to make his job more efficient, challenging, and interesting.

* How to deal with an insubordinate employee. Insubordination, ranging from passive resistance to open defiance, is common in any laboratory. The supervisor, however, may label it "uncooperativeness" because it is painful to admit that an employee is defying authority.

The behavior may be symptomatic of an employee wanting more freedom to make work decisions or feeling that he or she does not have to accept supervision. But it may also reflect basic dissatisfaction with the job or the laboratory and may suggest an unconscious desire to be dismissed.

Regardless of the reason for insubordination, it weakens authority and leads to a loss of control that has adverse effects on the employee's performance. Supervisors who tolerate insubordination will lose the confidence not only of management but also of their peers and staff. Supervisors cannot be respected if they tolerate insubordination.

With this important fact in mind, a primary strategy in managing insubordinate employees is to resolve not to allow insubordination. Even minor rebellious acts must be confronted, though not by angrily jumping on employees. Irate reactions to insubordination may actually promote it rather than suppress it.

Note also that an employee, when confronted, can be quite imaginative in explaining insubordination. Indeed, if the supervisor chooses to debate the validity of the employee's excuses, he or she may lose the debate, and 'in the process justify insubordination.

Instead of debating the issues that led to insubordination, the supervisor should confront the employee on the issue of insubordination itself. If you are in such a situation, make it clear that it is your right and responsibility as a supervisor to have your requests honored.

This does not mean blind acceptance of whatever you want. The employee should, however, respect any requests you make and comply with them if they seem reasonable or bring them to your attention if they seem unreasonable. In the latter case, you will give the employee a full hearing but may still insist on compliance with your request.

Sometimes you may properly confront an insubordinate employee yet see further acts of rebellion. You must then arrange consequences for such acts. The employee must be made to understand that continued insubordination will lead to disciplinary action.

Make sure the consequences fit the crime. For example, it would be inappropriate to fire an employee who refuses to keep her work area clean. Lesser consequences would have an impact on the employee and be more appropriate.

Naturally, prolonged and unrelenting insubordination may represent intractable underlying problems-in which case, the employee may eventually have to be dismissed.

*Getting involved in an employee's personal life. A supervisor should rarely get involved in an employee's personal life--certainly never unless the employee's work is affected. Otherwise, the supervisor may be regarded as meddling.

Let's say Sue, one of your technologists, has a deep emotional problem. It is highly improbable that you can help her: That kind of problem is not solved by a long heart-to-heart talk with the boss.

Of course, you can encourage Sue if she thinks it necessary to go to a therapist, but be patient. It may take months for Sue to retum to normal, if in fact the therapy works.

Whatever Sue's personal problems, you are still responsible for her work performance. You have every right, indeed the responsibility, to confront performance deficiencies associated with personal problems. Just use an objective argument: "You have been making mistakes and are not carrying your full share of the workload."

Sue probably will excuse her performance deficiencies by blaming them on personal problems. She may want to tell you about them to get sympathy, understanding, and relief from work pressures.

You may then be hooked into helping solve her personal problems. Many supervisors feel that they manage the whole person, that they have a responsibility to find out what's happening in an employee's personal life and to look for ways to support the employee.

While you may choose to listen, demonstrating that you are interested in Sue's happiness, be careful that you don't get diverted from your primary responsibility. You are responsible for her work life, not her personal life.

*Salvaging the failing employee. Alice for whatever reason, is not meeting minimum expectations at the bench. You have a basic decision to make: "Should I fire her or try to salvage her?"

You have to decide not only whether salvage is possible but also whether it is practical. This involves considering her potential value to the laboratory; the likely difficulties, given the expenditure of time and resources, of salvaging her; and the probability of success.

Alice should have important strengths that you feel can be of value to the laboratory; she probably has acquired special experience, for example. These strengths should outweigh her weaknesses (some of which may be uncorrectable).

But even if she is potentially valuable to the laboratory, don't waste time and laboratory resources if you believe there's a strong possibility salvage will not succeed. You cannot afford to bet on long shots.

A primary factor is Alice's willingness to take a close look at herself and increase her selfawareness. She cannot correct weaknesses that she does not recognize.

If you feel Alice is worth salvaging and is likely to be helped, plan a program of changes. Launch it during an initial counseling interview. The two essential conditions that you must establish are her active participation in mutual problem solving and her acceptance of full responsibility for achieving mutually agreedupon goals. Thereafter, if she is enthusiastic about achieving the goals and is making a reasonable improvement, just monitor her progress, conducting evaluations at 30-day intervals.

Should you decide that Alice is not worth salvaging or that it is improbable such efforts will succeed, you have an obligation to terminate her employment. If she is a longtime employee and a personal friend, the firing will be especially tough: It may make you sick and disrupt your sleep for weeks. But it is part of your job.

Tell her that after careful consideration, you have decided to replace her. This should not come as a surprise. Instead, she should see it as a natural conclusion after unsuccessful attempts to counsel, coach, and revitalize her.

Review briefly in what ways Alice's performance did not satisfy the goals you both had agreed upon. She may contest your conclusions. Listen politely and acknowledge her point of view, but don't give the impression that your conclusions are reversible. To help her protect her self-esteem, also acknowledge mitigating circumstances.

In effect, the termination should be treated like an amicable divorce. The parties should not separate in bitterness just because their relationship was not successful.

Direct the conversation away from a review of the past to the employee's future plans. Tell her about termination benefits and offer any help you can to get her reemployed quickly.

* What to say to an employee passed over for promotion. Most employees cannot be totally objective about their own capabilities. Usually they hold a high opinion of themselves. Therefore, it is natural that they become disappointed and defensive on being told someone else got a promotion that they coveted.

This is why supervisors find it so difficult to break the bad news. They may commiserate with the passed-over employee and even imply that they were in no way responsible for the choice.

Supervisors, however, should be more than a conduit for bad news. They should try to get the employee to accept that the decision to promote someone else was sound. It is essential to induce the employee to realistically judge his or her capabilities and prospects for future advancement.

Naturally, this will upset the employee, who would prefer to live with high hopes. Supervisors should not close the door on advancement forever and destroy these hopes, but they should not, on the other hand, pretend that the door is wide open, just waiting for the employee to step through.

Because all of the tasks we have discussed are tough, a supervisor may follow the suggested strategies to the letter, yet find they do not work out perfectly. Neverthless, these strategies represent sound, proven ways to approach the tasks. They work much better than many of the other methods that supervisors traditionally use.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Roseman, Ed
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:May 1, 1989
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