Help Me Rhonda:
I'm new to my company, in my first supervisory position. I don't want to step on anyone's toes and I want to be seen as a friendly boss but I feel like I'm being tested every day by my new staff members. For example, two of them will often be chatting to each other (in what is clearly a personal conversation), completely ignoring a ringing phone or the work they have to do. They won't even stop when I walk by, and it feels like they are almost daring me to say something. How do I fix this situation without pulling rank or being too bossy?
Cautious of Overstepping
Dear Cautious of Overstepping,
You're absolutely right, they are testing you and right now you are not getting a passing grade.
Remember when we were in high school and a substitute teacher would come in? We'd put that poor teacher through the ringer just to see what we could get away with. We'd learn very quickly which substitutes would tolerate our bad behavior and which ones wouldn't let us get away with anything. Your employees are doing exactly that to you.
At the moment, you seem more concerned with them liking you as a person than doing your job effectively. Work is not a popularity contest. They don't have to like you. You do have to pay the rent and buy groceries though, so given a choice which would you choose, making friends or being effective as a supervisor? (Hint: If you choose making friends, then I would suggest that a supervisory position is not the right one for you).
The good news is that you can be an effective supervisor without alienating your employees. You can be friendly and still garner the respect your position deserves and ensure that the work gets done. If they decide to dislike you because you are expecting them to do their jobs, it sounds like they wouldn't be the best kind of friends anyway.
The key is for you to be respectful, polite, specific and clear. That will demonstrate that you see what is happening but you aren't making a big deal about it. The next time you walk by and the telephone is ringing, say: "Diane, could you please answer that ringing telephone?"
She will probably give you a funny look, but answer the phone anyway; or she'll tell you why she isn't answering the telephone. If she refuses, or if it happens over and over again then you'll need to have a more detailed conversation with her.
Let's assume the testing is continuing, the phone is continuing to ring, and you don't feel that your instructions to answer the phone promptly are being followed when you aren't around.
That's when the DESC strategy will come in handy for you. DESC lets you plan what you are going to say:
D - Describe the situation objectively (rather than subjectively). Keep it black and white; state the facts with no interpretation of those facts yet. Your goal is to get them to look at you and wonder where you are going with this. Their likely response will be, "So?".
"Diane, I couldn't help but notice that the last four times I came out of my office you were engaging with Michelle in a conversation that didn't appear to be work related."
E - Explain the problem. This is where you give your interpretation and perhaps the consequences of the situation. After you make this statement, you should be prepared for a defense statement from them.
"It actually makes it look like you do more socializing than working, and when deadlines aren't met I can't help but think that if you chatted less and worked more we could get everything done on time."
S - Solution. Offer a solution or ask for a solution. Always begin with the end in mind. Know what you want the solution to be before you ever have the confrontation.
"Could you and Michelle please restrict your socializing to coffee and lunch breaks?"
C - Commitment or Consequence. You want to get the other person to agree with you or make some type of comment that at least affirms that they have heard and understood you. You don't want this to be a lecture, but more of a discussion.
"Does that sound reasonable to you?" (wait for the answer).
Consequence. If your position warrants it, and it's necessary, you can give a consequence.
"Since this is the second time that I've mentioned it to you, I will tell you that if we need to have this conversation again, it will be an official conversation and a record of the conversation will go into your personnel file."
Let them speak, defend or whatever will keep the conversation going. Don't lecture. Do your best to get agreement (commitment) from them during the conversation. If necessary, follow up with an email.
You don't have to be a tyrant but you are being paid to supervise, and although you are working with adults we all sometimes need to know what we can get away with and what we can't. Set boundaries. Say what needs to be said, respectfully and professionally.
Your job is to be an excellent supervisor, not make friends. However, you can do both if you approach situations methodically and professionally.
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