The Peter Principle still lives, and folks promoted beyond their level of competence continue to feed turnover and dampen morale. So? Is there a tactic to save the valuable employee who’s become a less than shimmering manager. Here are the rules.
A little more than two years ago, Jim was hired as the new team leader at Y-Me, Inc. in Anywhere, USA. Today Jim was up to his eyeballs in parts and grease when Bob, the plant manager, stopped by to speak with him.
“Hey Jim”, Bob shouted above the shop noise, “how are things going?”
“Real well”, Jim answered. “I’m just about finished fixing the press.”
“What happened to your mechanics?” Bob continued. “Isn’t that what we pay them to do?”
“Yeah, I guess, but it takes me a lot less time to do it myself than watch over these guys or fix their mistakes.”
“Jim, that is exactly why I stopped by. I’d like to speak with you……at let’s say 3:30. Will you have this machine put back together by then?”
“No problem, boss. I’ll be there at 3:30.”
Bob’s walk-by did not happen by chance. It was prompted by some unfavorable feedback on Jim’s performance as a supervisor. This was troubling to Bob and the senior management team because Jim was an 11-year employee who was one of the most knowledgeable and skilled technicians in the industry. About three years ago, the team leader position opened up and Jim applied. He felt he needed a new challenge and wanted the opportunity to teach the “young guys” a thing or two about how to really make these machines, or his babies as he called them, hum.
Although senior management had a few reservations about Jim’s short fuse and lack of experience managing people, they felt he deserved the promotion. Besides, it wasn’t like they were putting him in charge of the whole operation. How tough could it be to supervise a bunch of machine operators? The plant manager also agreed to keep a close watch on things.
When several of Jim’s good employees left the company, everyone blamed it on the hot job market and the lack of loyalty among workers today. When Jim fired two employees, he pointed to bad attitudes and carelessness as the reasons, although he had no documentation. Both employees unfortunately claimed wrongful discharge and the company ended up paying steep severance packages and unemployment. The senior managers sided with Jim because they liked his high standards. Besides, they argued it was a small price to pay because no one knew the business like Jim.
But turnover and morale continued only to get worse in Jim’s group. Something had to be done. So when senior managers, attending a recent workforce summit, they heard how other companies were fighting turnover and negativity. Several managers from best place-to-work companies spoke about how they trained their supervisors to elicit and return feedback to employees and as a result, retention jumped and morale improved.
The following day Jim was enrolled in a workshop titled “Giving Effective Employee Feedback” at the community college, which was being taught by one of the presenters at the workforce summit.
Three evenings and nine hours of classroom training later, Jim received his certificate. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Annual reviews were due in a few weeks and Jim was armed and ready.
It’s now nearly one year later. Turnover has slowed but morale is still terrible. To make matters worse, management is sure that the only reason turnover has slowed is that their employees are afraid to quit in this slow market.
Finally, Jim’s manager decided to contact several former employees. The comments she received from departing and departed employees revealed that Jim’s communication and supervisory skills left much to be desired.
Employees told Jim’s manager they were frustrated because Jim did not communicate with them. Yes, he did complete their annual reviews but many felt they were berated as a parent might scold a child. Others felt he overlooked serious performance issues with several of his friends and underrated less experienced employees when they asked for his help. Funny thing was that most of the overrated employees agreed that Jim let them get away with things and the underrated employees agreed they sometimes asked Jim to do their jobs.
Doing a little more research, the manager found that Jim did use the worksheets and process he learned in class. In fact, several departed and incumbent employees commented that they felt the process was valuable. The problem apparently wasn’t that Jim didn’t understand how to prepare an employee evaluation, but he was way off base on his delivery. What everyone agreed was that Jim’s behavior toward them was seen as condescending and critical, although no one believed this was his real intention.
When Bob shared management’s concerns with Jim later that day, Jim was crushed. Jim felt he was doing the best he could and the right things. He had no idea that he might have been the cause of so much turnover and ill will and offered to resign. Bob refused his resignation but needed to find some answers. The company could not afford to keep losing employees and watching morale sink lower and lower.
Jim’s story is all too familiar. “You can’t teach a pig to dance” isn’t completely true in training employees. You can teach them to dance…..you may just need to watch out for your toes. Some learn, some don’t, and for some it just takes longer than others. U.S. organizations will spend nearly $60 billion in training employees during 2001. Unfortunately much of the training does not always see its way from the classroom to improved on-the-job performance. In today’s economy and fast changing skill sets, training the wrong skills or training the wrong people is too expensive and the fastest way to turn away employees and lose your competitive edge.
Knowing how to do a job well requires a blend of the right skills, experience, attitude, motivation and behavioral style. Although learning what to do is always helpful, more skill training is sometimes not the answer. The answer to a problem sometimes may be teaching people how to use the tools they already have, while at other times it may be that people need new or better tools.
The decision to send Jim for training was made under the assumption that Jim’s high turnover rate and low morale would be improved by his ability to do a better job at reviewing performance. Although this might have been true too, the turnover and negativity was as much related to the way he communicated with other people, not that he didn’t get or give feedback. An employee can leave an evaluation meeting with goals, an action plan and positive motivation or a checklist of things he or she needs to fix and a butt that is dragging. This outcome has as much to do with how the supervisor or manager communicated with the employee as it does with what actions were taken.
Jim’s managers made the right step in identifying that Jim was one possible cause of the high turnover and low morale. Jim needs to be given credit for accepting responsibility and wanting to improve. What both Jim and his managers failed to recognize is that the moment Jim moved from technician to supervisor, the importance of his personal and communication styles as well as managerial competencies played a bigger role in determining his success or failure as supervisor than his hands-on technical ability.
A vital ingredient of effective supervision is being aware of the power a supervisor or manager has to affect how other employees will respond to them. If supervisors and managers want to become more effective in dealing with others, it is important to be proficient in the competencies required for top performance and understanding how to manage, motivate, and communicate with their employees.
Managing people, especially teams of people, has gotten a lot more complicated. Effective supervision requires a blend of the right skills, attitudes, and motivations. To maximize productivity and profitable returns from training, I recommend a five-step checklist in selecting and prioritizing training needs for performance improvement.
1. Evaluate. What is preventing your supervisors or managers from getting these results today? Is performance being hindered due to the lack of specific skills or is something else getting in the way? Training skills without recognizing and neutralizing weaknesses is expensive and non-productive. (By the way, more compensation has rarely increased skills or neutralized weaknesses!)
2. Be specific. Identify what outcomes or improvements you expect from the training. In Jim’s case, reduced turnover and improved morale were the expected improvements. But how much did turnover need to be reduced as a direct result of Jim’s actions for his manager to view his performance as improved? And how much did employee morale need to improve for him to have any impact on overall productivity?
3. Action plan. Product and technical skill training may be generic, but performance training must be personalized to the strengths and weaknesses of each individual employee. What works in one company or for one employee may raise one employee to great heights while the next takes a dive. Each employee in conjunction with his or her manager should develop an individual action plan that identifies strengths, weaknesses, training opportunities, desired outcomes and a timetable. Rewards and incentives should link individual performance to organizational goals.
4. Accountability. Attending training or having a personal coach is only half the equation for improvement. The employee needs to accept responsibility for applying what he or she learns in class or meetings and management must set clear expectations and rewards for improvement and achieving desired outcomes.
5. Continuous Learning. Improving performance never stops. Completing a course and waiting to see what happens rarely results in any significant long-term change. Peak performers have a blend of many skills and the confidence to know what they need to do, how they need to do it, and to know what they don’t know. They are continuously seeking to learn more and improve what they know.
Ira S. Wolfe is founder of Success Performance Solutions and specializes in helping match, manage and motivate employees. Success Performance Solutions recently opened an on-line training center for supervisors, managers, salespeople and small business owners. Beginning on January 30, Success Performance Solutions and the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce will launch Managing to Excel, a series of 12 monthly workshops, focused on training the competencies that differentiate top managers from average performers. Ira can be reached at 717.291.4640 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.