Being good at your job has its downside.
People usually come into their first managerial positions because they are good at what they are already doing. Decision makers identify them as responsible, committed and technically competent.
With those company-friendly qualities you may just appear to be the perfect candidate for a supervisory position. Flattered, you agree, and the promotion becomes official. Problems start before you have much time to celebrate. Co-workers you thought you could count on, see you as having crossed to “the other side”. Friends expect favours and exceptions because they know you. Jealousies creep up from unexpected places. Your new boss never seems happy with your decisions. People complain that you lack authority, are disorganized, miss details – or conversely, lack empathy, come down too hard on others and don’t know how to coach. You aren’t sure if you should be trying to win over your team or if you should be firming up their expectations and insisting on the rules.
At some point soon after you have the new title, you are faced with the realization that your new job is exactly that: a new job, not your old job. And worse…you have no clue which new problem to focus on for regaining a sense of control and competence.
At least 80% of people who are in supervisory and management positions today came up through the process of internal promotion. Unfortunately, experience is not always the best teacher. Without new insights and tools to promote learning, you can make the same mistakes and not move forward in managerial skill building. Fortunately good management practice and examples are in abundance. No matter what stage you are at in the process, you can speed up and deepen your understanding of management issues by thinking about some of the position competency requirements. There are several supervisor skills that are critical to master if you want to excel in your supervisory role, and this post concentrates on the skill of providing direction.
Making sure your direction is clear
As part of the management team, your first order of business is to gain the trust of, and sense of authority with your team. That focus involves learning to provide direction in ways the team can feel confident you know what you are doing. If directions are vague, delivered in a way people don’t understand, or don’t close the communication feedback loop, not too many other things will work. First, make sure you yourself understand whatever you are directing the team to do. This may seem obvious but often we have so many new directives ourselves, what we think we understand is not always the clear in our own minds. When your understanding about the directive is sharp you can more easily break tasks down into steps for your team. Have those steps in writing and displayed visually whenever possible. To make sure you are actually speaking clearly, practice directions in front of a mirror at home and record yourself to find out how you sound. Make adjustments to articulating your speech, slowing down or speeding up and making eye contact (learn more about presentation mistakes you can avoid here and how to use your voice effectively here). It’s a good idea to practice with new information now and then to make sure your perception of how clearly you deliver is closer to what other people are actually hearing.
Paying attention to the environment and how the directive will be received
Once you are certain you are expressing yourself clearly, consider the environment in which you provide direction to your team. Information should be shared at the right time and place and in the right dose. Noisy environments, timing that proves too late or not in enough detail, providing too much detail or too soon, correcting too much or not enough – all these are lack of attention to your environment. And anytime you forget the place and people that make up your environment, you lower the efficiency of your directions. Get in the habit of starting your day or your shift with a quick team meeting where you provide the day’s tasks and an update on how things are going. Get to work early enough to know what you have to do and to set up your materials and programs so you are organized and calm. Think about when it would be best to provide additional or new information for a process or task and schedule it accordingly. Create and practice signals that alert your team to when you need their attention. A frenetic, unprepared supervisor puts the whole team on edge, so your planning for communication is critical to a productive work environment.
Closing the feedback loop
Finally, expressing yourself clearly and in a calm, organized manner is only half the context of providing direction. The other half is making sure the directive was heard and understood. You can be as clear as the light of day, but if you don’t pay attention to who is listening and whether they understand and can follow what you have asked them to do, all that clarity will be for nothing.
To close the communication feedback loop, what should you do?
Well, the first question to remove from your vocabulary is “Do you understand?” This question NEVER works because people tend to say yes even if they don’t have a clue what you have been talking about. There are three ways to check for understanding. Ask the listener(s) to:
- Repeat your directions back to you
- Show you
- Teach the directive to someone else
If you use one of these feedback checks, you will have an idea about who knows what to do and who doesn’t, and then you can make adjustments as required. If you use all three of the above questions, and vary how and when you use them, your feedback loop connection with your team will be even better.
So now you have clear directives, your timing whenever possible is planned rather than reactive, and you are certain your team understands what to do. You can go on with your other work, right? Wrong! Monitoring is very important to keeping your team aligned with directives. Most supervisors are too extreme in their monitoring behaviours: they either do no monitoring, saying they are “hands off”, or they stand over their employees watching their every move and jumping in unnecessarily. Both these behaviours are not helpful to your team. Beginning tasks that are new require side-coaching and frequent monitoring so people can ask questions and you can make corrections before things go off the rails. Once the tasks have become routine, however, someone on the team can take charge of monitoring. You can rotate that monitoring role so everyone feels responsible and everyone knows they need to take a turn at it. Remember that if you don’t provide the necessary support in the beginning people will feel lost and costly mistakes can be made. If you provide too much support when they already know what to do, team members either get angry and resentful, or they will become passive and wait for you to do everything. As soon as the team can do something well, make sure the responsibility to keep getting it done becomes theirs, not yours.
In summary the key principles for giving direction consist in:
Make sure you know what you want to say and are expressing yourself clearly
Consider when, where and how the directive will be best received when you deliver it
Check for understanding by closing the feedback loop
Monitor carefully in the beginning and hand over the monitoring responsibilities to the team once they know what to do
Find this useful? Want to go farther?
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About the author: Marie Gervais, PhD, CEO Shift Management is a business-to-business entrepreneur who specializes in helping employers train their middle management to lead, get their workplace learning online and interactive, and conduct team assessments to figure out who to promote and how. She has a background in integrating internationally-trained individuals to the workplace and has supported many businesses in their efforts to hire, retain, support and promote immigrant and diverse employees. Get in touch – she would love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org or 780-454-5661