The well-established principle that supervisors should praise in public but criticize in private can derail a compensation system. An article caught my eye recently on how slackers pull down the group because the crew rarely sees the corrective discipline privately applied. It illustrates that what keeps people productive is effective communication of the appropriate feedback that drives behavior. That made sense, but the recommended solution sucked.
Two thoughts came to mind: (1) just as compensation is communication, isn’t communication also compensation? and (2) why are supervisors paid if not to keep the entire staff productive? This article will focus on the second question, because the first deserves a complete post of its own.
If a boss follows the accepted rules and keeps corrective interventions private and confidential, that apparent silence bespeaks indifference to the workgroup who do not see any improvement steps, remedial actions, reprimands, punishments or open displays of negative consequences to the slacker. One consultant prescribes intervention by the peer workers with the offender. Rather than getting pissed off and demotivated yourself, he suggests, you should take ownership of the issue (because you are most affected by it and therefore more responsible than the boss!) and handle it yourself. If the boss doesn’t act, some claim the peer co-workers should step up and chivvy the culprit.
Whose responsibility is it, to maintain a productive workforce? Nowadays, it is true, bosses may supervise remotely, having little proximate physical contact with the team and therefore frequently unaware of slackers who goof off. Even if out of sight, however, bosses are paid and supposedly trained to handle exactly these issues. It is their monkey.
Should co-workers be expected to cover for the supervisor, taking up the slack created by ineffective management to “supervise from below”? I think not. While social pressure from peers can be wonderfully effective, most workgroups are not elite teams of highly self-actualized experts who require little guidance. An immediate supervisor is usually PAID to manage the performance of subordinates. The boss may be called lead person, crew chief, foreman or forewoman, supervisor, manager, director, VP… or any title under the sun, but this role of people-monitor is the sole reason they receive a supervisory title and get higher income. Leaders don’t neglect the well-being of their followers, because that is a repudiation of their pay grade.
Remember that supervisors frequently have a more difficult task than mere managers. Many people get the fancy title of manager (higher rank, pay, status, etc.) while remaining a sole individual performer, handling a project personally or administering a functional area. Supervisors oversee people. Managers may have no subordinates reporting directly to them, but all supervisors are responsible for the output of workers who report directly to them. Handling people is actually a far more complex challenge than dealing with materials, administering plans, generating ideas and doing things that do not require exercising authority over people. Instead of doing things yourself, the supervisor is supposed to delegate tasks and leverage the application of talent through others. That is often much harder than handling issues personally as an individual contributor.
Since supervisors are already rewarded for filling that role of monitor and guide, they should be charged with the duty of fulfilling that responsibility. It seems wrong, improper and unfair to expect underlings to enforce discipline and to maintain the productive work environment when a supervisor is neglecting their duty. Any boss incapable or unwilling to perform that authoritative human interaction role should be demoted to a coordinator position where they can deal with data and things and not face supervisory challenges.
Or am I wrong, again?
E. James (Jim) Brennan is Senior Associate of ERI Economic Research Institute, the premier publisher of interactive pay and living-cost surveys. Semi-retired after over 40 years in HR corporate and consulting roles throughout the U.S. and Canada, he’s pretty much been there done that (articles, books, speeches, seminars, radio/TV, advisory posts, in-trial expert witness stuff, etc.), and will express his opinion on almost anything.
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