New supervisor needs help!
April 6, 2006 9:01 AM   Subscribe

SupervisorFilter: I recently started working in an office and I supervise 4 people. It's a job where there is a definite year-long cycle, so every day is a learning experience for me. All 4 employees here have been here between 7 and 15 years. They all know what to expect and what to do. How can I effectively supervise them when it seems like sometimes they may be using my inexperience against me?

I hope it doesn't sound like I'm being paranoid. I really don't feel that way. I just want to make sure I am being fair to everyone when an issue comes up such as when a couple of the employees are complaining to me that they don't like the way another one is doing her job (or not, as the case may be). Since I am still learning exactly what happens in this job on a day-to-day basis, it's difficult for me to know if employee A is really having a difficult time doing her job or that she is "just complaining and trying to get out of it" as employee B says. Employee A has been doing said job for 15 years and employee B says now that there is a new supervisor (me) that employee A is using that to her advantage and trying to get rid of some tedious tasks.

I will be having a staff meeting tomorrow, but I am anticipating that it may dissolve into he said/she said among these employees and I will still be left in the dark about what should really happen to get the job done efficiently. I suppose I could just come up with all new processes, but this office has been working so well for so long, I don't want to throw a monkey-wrench into it. I also don't want to feel like I am being manipulated by either side.

Does anyone have any strategies that will help me make the employees feel they are being listened to, but still help me not to feel manipulated? Does anyone have any recommendations for books that may help? I know there are a zillion out there, so if any have helped you, I'd love to hear about them. Thanks!
posted by SheIsMighty to Work & Money (7 answers total)
Peer reviewed workflow analysis time! Have each person put together their average week in terms of time spent. Then have a meeting in which each person presents their week to the group and asks for feedback.

This will help you better understand the workflow of your group, plus will let your more experienced employees call BS on potentially inflated numbers. Make it clear that you're not trying to reinvent the wheel and that steps taken here can provide justification for the group getting more help down the road.

Don't let Employee A foist stuff off on you. Instead of taking over a task, say, "Wow, that looks like a lot of work. We should work together closely to see if we can steamline your day to make sure you have enough time to get everything done." The message here is: If you're being a squeaky wheel to get out of work, then I'm going to micromanage you. If you are right and need help, you will get it. If you are fibbing, you won't be able to keep it up for long.

I've done this before and its amazing how simply sitting near a person who "has too much to do" focuses them on the work and not, in the case I dealt with, talking on the phone with friends. As they work, make notes of how long a given task takes and then hold them to it down the road.

It's pretty stressful being the New Boss on the Block!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:18 AM on April 6, 2006

Unless you assess what each worker is doing you're not going to be able to work out whether employee A is a skiver or is really getting a bum deal with regard to workload, the same effectively applies to all of the employees. Bear in mind that B may have just as much of an agenda as A. Some reassignation of tasks may be in order, at least consider it, while always bearing in mind that the status quo is a valid option. Things have been going well - maybe there's room for them to be even better, maybe not.
posted by biffa at 9:20 AM on April 6, 2006

Is there anyone else you can talk to about the yearly cycle of work? I think you should try to find an old-timer who's a supervisor or somewhere reasonably high up in the pecking order, to try to get some independent advice on how things work at your place. But it should be somebody who's not likely to socialize with your staff, since you want as unbiased a view as you can get. Your own staff, needless to say, have a vested interest in trying to decrease their own workload! (Nothing personal here - 99% of humanity, including me, try to weasel out of as much work as possible.)

In addition to the workload, you should also try to suss out the reputations of your staff - is A considered something of a whiner, or is B considered a slacker? Try to keep an open mind and form your own assessment, but consensus opinions are often pretty accurate and you need to get to know your people fast. Again, ask the higher-ups who are unlikely to consider your staff personal friends (and unlikely to feel loyalty-bound to defend and praise them).

And even if B is a slacker, maybe s/he has a point about eliminating certain pieces of pointless busywork. Your staff will feel very listened-to and appreciated if you can reduce some of the useless paperwork or whatever crazy-making BS they have to deal with.

Lastly, some observations about a great supervisor I once had: he'd grill me mercilessly about proposals, ideas, kvetches, or whatever else I dumped on him, but once he had convinced himself that the idea was worthy, he would fight tooth and nail to implement it. And he took an incredible amount of shit from management and never let it leak down to his staff. He took all the heat and let us do our jobs calmly and efficiently. That's the kind of boss I'd follow anywhere! If you can be like this guy, you will be a hero to your staff too.
posted by Quietgal at 9:41 AM on April 6, 2006

Oh wow-- do not hold a meeting. Meetings are not a decision-making mechanism. In the twenty million years human beings have lived, no meeting has ever produced a decision. It's your job to make the decision so make it. It's three easy steps:

First, identify the problem. Ask Employee B to list those tasks that (she thinks) Employee A should be doing and describe why (she thinks) those tasks are Employee A's responsibilities. Then ask Employee A why she is not doing the tasks listed by Employee B, and, if not her, then who (she thinks) should be doing those tasks and why. Also get input from the other two employees if you have the time.

Once you have a clear understanding of the problem, make the decision. Either make Employee A do the tasks or redistribute the tasks to other people. Your decision doesn't have to be perfect. If you discover a couple of months down the road that you made the wrong decision, you can go back and come up with a new solution. Don't be afraid of failure.

After you have made your decision then hold a meeting and explain your decision. If people don't like it, let them vent for 20 minutes or so and explain why they don't like it--and then tell them that your decision hasn't changed but their complaints have been noted.

By the way, you might want to remind these people who's the boss. The 'it's not my job' excuse is pretty lame and not something you should tolerate. If the work isn't getting done then that means there's a problem and since this is a team, it's a problem shared by all and everybody should work to be solving it.
posted by nixerman at 10:48 AM on April 6, 2006

One thing that I wish had happened right when I walked in the door was an introductory meeting to my new chargees. There still has never been an official group discussion of the fact that I am now the boss.

But I'm only sort of the boss, and I'm 24, and as I write this from work I know that I'm leaving town June 1 and they don't. So i'm not your ideal case study.
posted by bilabial at 11:16 AM on April 6, 2006

In the twenty million years human years human beings have lived, no meeting has ever produced a decision.

Have the meeting. Good ones produce decisions. Some meetings do not have the purpose of producing a decision.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:42 PM on April 6, 2006

I imagine that these four people are feeling passed over and resentful that they didn't get promoted and instead a new boss was brought in. You need to get them on your side, so that they see you as someone who will help them to advance in their careers. You can be an advocate for them with upper management. But you need to know more about the job facing your group.

In your meeting, I'd suggest making a list of the issues and later going over them, one on one, with your people. Unless there is some special urgency in these matters, you should put off decisions until you know better what the right thing to do is.
posted by richg at 5:16 PM on April 6, 2006

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