When the table is turned during disciplinary session: What supervisors need to understand

The concept that piqued my interest in this week’s leadership topic in grad school is “effective interventions.” Thompson (2011) discussed that team leaders have a very important role to play in a team setting as information managers “focusing the team’s attention, facilitating communication, stimulating member contributions” and in keeping critical information alive and considered in team decision making (p. 134). This role is not only as a facilitator, but also as a mediator when conflict arises among the team. It is important for the team leader to probe deeper and encourage team members to filter out unimportant information and to focus their attention to things that could add value to decision making processes.

What really interests me is how it applies to a manager’s or supervisor’s role as a mediator to team member conflicts. Sometimes, this also applies to a manager’s corrective, disciplinary, or intervention to a team member’s poor performance. Based on my experience, new supervisors or managers often fail in this task when team members turn the table around, meaning, the discussion is shifted to the supervisor himself. I have had a share of this rookie mistake in the past, when I mediated between a supervisor and an employee. The supervisor elevated the counseling session to me because the employee would not accept any counseling from the supervisor. The conversation shifted when the employee accused the supervisor of committing the same mistake she was being counseled for and the supervisor ended up defending herself from the tirades. My mistake was that I failed to intervene sooner to stop this from happening.

On another occasion at another company, a fellow supervisor approached me for some advice on how to deal with a team member who refuses to wear an earpiece for a handheld radio. The employee said he will never wear one until this particular supervisor himself wears one as well. The supervisor ended up defending himself, explaining to the employee that the manager gives exemptions to supervisors. Worse, he also told him that he (the supervisor) never really liked to wear an earpiece. Remembering my rookie mistake in the past, I advised this supervisor to prevent employees from turning the tables around, redirect the discussion back to the employee, reminding him that an earpiece is considered part of the uniform, and while supervisors are non-uniformed team members, the employees are and they may be subject to citation for being out of compliance. Then, I encouraged him to ponder what the employee said about his own refusal to wear an earpiece. We, the team leaders, set the tone for the group.

A huge aspect of any corrective or disciplinary procedure is information sharing. I’m sure many of us would agree that no one likes being subjected to one, but in a trustful supervisor-employee relationship, a corrective action can be a welcomed shot in the arm. During this process, a supervisor shares either new information or reinforces existing ones to help the employee get back on track and improve performance. It is really important that corrective actions become more of learning sessions and this can be promoted by sharing information that could help the employees improve their performance rather than shoot their morale down by belittling or judging them. Effective communication is a key.

As a matter of fact, research has shown that in medical field, malpractice litigation can be simply linked to error in communication. Liebman and Hyman (2004) discovered that it is not the quality of care or negligent treatment per se that leads to people to sue, but the doctors’ ineffective communication with patients. These include the perceptions of physicians being not completely honest, lack of information made available, a perception that the physician would not listen, and being told by someone that they should sue. Improving not only the interpersonal and communication skills of a team leader, but also the effective management of information, can lead to a better intervention.

In a cross-national study conducted on behavioral indicators of ineffective managerial coaching, being an ineffective communicator was discovered to be one of those behaviors (Ellinger, Hamlin, & Beattie, 2008). This includes being unassertive, not assessing, and withholding information (p. 251). Team leaders, in order to be a more effective manager of information, must communicate effectively and confidently.

I personally have no problem getting criticized by my team because I encourage them to do so. Almost every day I let them know that part of the “open door policy” is for them to come tell me how they perceive my performance, the relationships I build with them, or even the decisions I make. Sometimes,  they can just simply come to the office, squeeze my arm, and vent their frustrations (I’d rather have them do that with me in a more private setting than for them to explode in front of a customer or a fellow team member). Even when the comments sometimes are not pleasant to hear, I always take them with a grain of salt, listen to what they really are saying, and learn from them. If a manager is open to “friendly rebuke,” the team members are also receptive to the same constructive criticism. The problem that I saw was that managers are on the edge of either spectrum: defensive and unable to redirect conversation to the issues at hand, or being tough on employees – telling them their mistakes and instructing them on what to do without so much of listening. This is an ineffective intervention and only leads to disastrous leader-member relationship.

What are your experiences with disciplinary counselings? Have you ever felt like a better worker after being counseled upon? What other tips would you give to young supervisors and managers?

References:

Ellinger, A., Hamlin, R., & Beattie, R. (2008). Behavioural indicators of ineffective managerial coaching. Journal of European Industrial Training, 32(4), 240-257.

Liebman, C.B., &  Hyman, C.S. (2004). A mediation skills model to manage disclosure of errors and adverse events to patients. Health Affairs, 23(40), 22-32.

Thompson, L. (2011). Making the team: A guide for managers (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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