For 30 years, I have followed the traditional methodologies of training supervisors, and I have become discouraged. People continually tell me that sending supervisors away for training does not change their behavior. At best, they’ll apply one or two new techniques for a couple of weeks, and then they’re back to their old habits. They become the same insensitive, out-of-touch supervisors that employees have informally complained about for years.
Too many managers believe that every problem in the workplace, including poor supervisory skills, can be fixed with a new policy, a new procedure, a new program and training. Just give people the right tools and rules, and everything will function better.
Trainers do not have a magic potion to change rude, out-of-touch supervisors into sensitive, active listeners who will then be able to motivate their employees to new, exceptional levels of performance. We spend millions of dollars on supervisory training, and the results in our employee surveys haven’t changed much. We still get complaints about not enough recognition, poor communication and low morale. Are the trainers incompetent? Should they be able to fix those poor supervisors?
No, you can’t fix supervisors by revising the appraisal program, adding new policies or conducting classroom training sessions. This has been the primary approach for 50 years, and it hasn’t been very successful.
Think about those two or three supervisors who have the well-earned reputation of having marginal people skills. Do you seriously believe these individuals will improve if you send them away for a few days of supervisory training? They will learn about employee motivation, communication and the value of recognition. They will bring back a three-ring binder that will collect dust on their bookshelf and a certificate to hang on the wall. But does this kind of classroom supervisory training really change behavior?
There is a better strategy to address this ongoing problem. Yes, every supervisor should attend some core courses in supervisory skills. It’s important that they have a basic understanding of what they’re trying to achieve. However, once they’ve acquired this basic knowledge, it’s now all about on-the-job application. Are they using this knowledge? Do their employees believe they’re using this knowledge? Can they take this knowledge from the classroom to the real world of work?
These questions can only be answered with input from employees, and this input needs to be more than an annual survey. The best approach is a form of 360-degree feedback, but the real challenge is how to use and share the feedback. It’s pretty easy to collect opinions. The real challenge is what to do with diverse opinions and how to use them to improve the working environment.
Every supervisor is, in fact, the leader of a team. As members of the team, employees share the responsibility to make the team successful. Employees who criticize but don’t participate in developing solutions are not effective team members. The supervisor may orchestrate the philosophy I’m advocating, but all team members must participate in developing and executing the solution.
There are several key elements that the traditional model of supervisory classroom training lacks:
- It focuses on the supervisor’s responsibility to fix everything.
- It does not define the employee’s responsibility to be an effective team member.
- It is normally generic training that does not address the unique needs and personalities of each group.
- There is no follow-up to determine whether the knowledge learned in the classroom is applied in the workplace.
Using 360-degree feedback and providing training for the entire team is not an easy task. You will need to collaborate with trainers to determine how to involve all of the employees who are affected by the supervisor’s conduct. You need to develop feedback tools to solicit their feedback and then share that feedback with the entire team. The supervisor provides leadership, but all team members have the responsibility to develop a more effective team.
I can’t tell you how many times managers have asked me to send away a supervisor for training to “fix ’em”: “We’re tired of listening to the employees complain, we know this supervisor has poor people skills, so please send them away for training and fix ’em.”
After supporting the decisions to send supervisors away for training, there was seldom any significant behavioral change. The only real change occurs when the entire team is included and asked for follow-up and feedback.
Admittedly, 360-degree feedback can be very difficult for supervisors. Once the process starts, the supervisor must be committed to listening to feedback from the team. For supervisors with poor people skills, this can be an intimidating experience. But if you’re serious about improving people skills—then you need to make a commitment to a totally different approach.
Someone once told me that the definition of insanity is “continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different outcome.” If sending supervisors away for one or two days of training has not made a significant difference, you need to consider a totally different strategy. And if you aren’t willing to change your approach to supervisory development, don’t expect a different outcome. The choice is yours—now go out there and make a difference.
Bill Kaminski has 30 years of human resource management experience in the fields of engineering, health care and academic administration and is currently the director of human resources for an agency that provides support services for the developmentally disabled. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Filed under: Leadership Development