“I can’t get anything done because I’m always firefighting!” Heard that before?

Most supervisors are promoted from operations because they are good at their jobs.

As supervisors however, they typically struggle by focusing on tasks without strategy, lack of people-savvy or lost without clear objectives. This is a result of not knowing how to approach supervision from a management perspective. If your supervisors are experiencing this difficulty you likely will notice:

  • ineffective use of time and

  • poor delegation

Ineffective use of time is a priorities issue

You can see ineffective use of time through prioritization difficulties, typically visible as excessive time spent on little or less urgent tasks, and too little time spent on priorities that are important, urgent, or both.  Another indicator of ineffective use of time is either too much planning in front of the computer away from the team, or conversely too much micro-focusing on every detail of the team with no thought to creating and administering systems to improve efficiency.

Delegation problems

Poor delegation comes from two conceptual misunderstandings. The first is not understanding how people learn at work. Early learning of new tasks requires clear explanations with support resources to serve as reference. Side coaching and encouragement together with correction of mistakes as they occur, are necessary during that beginning phase. Once employees show competence, it is time to back off and monitor less frequently, asking what team members need in terms of support rather than assuming you already know.

A second conceptual difficulty with supervisors who don’t delegate well, is inability to break down a process into a series of learnable tasks. A typical response from a supervisor who can’t delegate is; ”Why don’t they just do it? It’s just common sense”.  Common sense in any series of tasks is the result of mastery gained over time. Expecting a beginning learner to exhibit the same amount of mastery as someone who has been doing the job for several years is not realistic. A helpful strategy is to identify what “done” looks like at the perfection level. Then work backwards to consider what “done’ looks like at each stage of learning: beginning stage, emerging competency stage, competency stage, mastery stage.

Three bad habits

When supervisors have difficulties with ineffective use of time and poor delegation, you will most often see that they are the outcomes of habits stemming from a faulty belief:

Always putting out fires;

“I can’t plan anything because I do what the customer or my boss tells me to and that changes like the weather!”

Habit: saying yes to everything.

Belief: I have no control over my day or my job.

Jumping to conclusions;

“I heard you were slowing down the line and wasting materials. Time to fix that mistake.”

Habit: Act first, think later.

Belief: I already know all I need to know.

Not balancing people and task concerns;

“It doesn’t matter how you feel, figure out the steps and get back to work.”

Habit: Judging others by how I would do things.

Belief: Everyone is the same as me.

…and how to fix them!

Although it will take more than a short article to correct these three mistakes in their entirety, there are nonetheless entry points to solutions that can really help with aligning behaviours to desired outcomes. These are three success habits you can teach yourself or teach others to improve leadership results:

Solving “firefighting”:

The “big rock principal” is extremely useful in rethinking the firefighting mentality. If you start the day by thinking about what one thing you must complete and think about the week in terms of one project that must absolutely be finished, it is going to help with focus and prioritization. Even one week of daily thinking using the question “What is the big rock I must complete today?”, then “What is the big rock I must complete this week?”, clarifies thinking helps to order the day so that details also are completed while the “big rock” is being worked on. For example, if you need to implement a new safety procedure, then it will require chunking the implementation into several stages. Just thinking about that daily for week will likely ensure that you have a series of doable steps that can be executed the following week.

New habit: Improving effectiveness and control by focusing on one important thing at a time.

New belief: My effectiveness and productivity increase by prioritizing.

Reducing mistakes made by incorrect assumptions:

Jumping to conclusions typically comes from not ensuring you have all the facts. Incorrect data leads to incorrect decisions and more mistakes later. To learn to auto-correct this, remember that we all have what is called self confirmation bias. That means that we tend to believe that if we make mistakes it is a result of our circumstances, whereas if other people make mistakes it is a result of their poor character. For example, if I am late I am likely to say it is because of traffic or some other external obstacle (circumstance) however if I wait for someone else who is late, I am more likely to think that they are not respectful or courteous or that they are disorganized (character flaw). Reminding ourselves constantly that our self confirmation bias is incorrect and that we need to find out more information before deciding will help with this problem of jumping to conclusions. Ask questions such as “Can you explain to me how this happened”, or “What prevented you from getting this problem solved?”

New habit: Ask myself “What don’t I know and how do I find out?”

New belief: It takes multiple sources of data to arrive at a correct decision.

People or task:

Most of us have a lopsided approach to task and people considerations. This means we either have a task focus and ignore the people part, or we have a people focus and ignore the task part. Task focused supervisors often miss why something is not happening or not happening consistently. People focused supervisors are so concerned about preserving harmony and smoothing over hurt feelings that they may miss task deadlines. To correct this tendency, is helpful to ask, “What could I be missing? Is there something in the way team members approach this task that I should be paying attention to? Is there something in the system that is stopping this task from getting done?”

New habit: Self-awareness about my tendency to be task or people focused.

New belief: There is always another side to the story, and I need to find out what it is.

In conclusion, to learn the skill of supervisory leadership, it is important to intentionally focus on the habits and beliefs of good leaders. Without this focus, the operations ways of thinking and doing will obstruct leadership development. The trick to getting this right is to start with one strategy and keep practicing it until it affects both habit and belief.

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About Marie:

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: marie@shiftworkplace.com or 780-454-5661