All workplaces need two primary things to function.
- 1) The processes by which the work gets done.
- 2) The people who perform the processes.
By this point, you, the reader, are probably thinking ‘Yeah, I knew that!’ But follow this line of thinking for a minute and a very common mistake will be revealed.
Supervisors are subject to human nature. Human nature dictates that we react to the squeaky wheel and ignore the quiet one. Processes are squeaky wheels. You see, we measure processes and the results of processes much more often than we do the people of our business. Most organizations measure business results daily (or even hourly) but only measure their people at annual reviews. This constant measuring of processes becomes the blinders that prevent us from seeing that the problem might just be a disengaged employee or team.
I have a cousin who works for a large telecommunications corporation. She shared with me her experiences with two different supervisors. Both supervisors held weekly coaching sessions with their employees, her included. The coaching sessions centered around listening to recorded customer service calls. You might be familiar with this if you’ve ever called a customer service line and heard the announcement that “this call may be recorded for quality assurance.” And as a reminder, the process here is the service call, and the person, obviously is the call-center employee providing the service call.
The first supervisor would pause the recorded file every so often and tell the employee how they had approached something poorly and how they should approach it differently next time. It was a very one-sided conversation with the supervisor doing all the talking and employee nodding quietly in compliance. He was approaching their calls as processes that could be improved with a different word here and a different phrase there – the people speaking those words and phrases were simply interchangeable word-machines in his eyes. If they couldn’t do a good service call, he would find someone who could. When people quit the team (which was often) he rarely saw it coming.
When the second supervisor would pause the recording, he would ask the employee, “tell me why you approached the problem this way?” and a dialogue would begin. He spent more time asking questions and listening than he did talking. He was measuring his employees in these conversations. He was assessing their knowledge, their training, their engagement, their desires to perform, their abilities to perform… This is a difficult kind of measuring. It’s much easier to look at calls per hour or sales per shift and see a number. To measure people, supervisors must engage and interact as human beings. By the end of the coaching sessions, his employees most often ended up coaching themselves by offering their own suggested changes in behavior. Occasionally he would ask “may I suggest something?” After getting permission, he would offer his approach to the scenario at hand. These offerings were received with enthusiasm. His employees knew that he understood them and they trusted him in return.
It probably doesn’t need to be said, but my cousin liked the second supervisor much better; in fact, she had retracted a letter of resignation when he came on board to replace the first supervisor.
Today’s American business culture focuses on measuring processes. The most effective leaders know this and balance it out by having meaningful dialogues with the people they lead to measure their engagement, their knowledge, and their desire to perform. They focus on the person and they empower the person to take care of the process. The best leaders focus on the quiet wheel.