Supervising people is a thankless task. Anyone who has supervised employees knows that directing the performance of others requires patience, skill, and courage. People come to work with all of the messy stuff of life, including their own expectations and demands. And as business becomes more complex, and management styles more involved, it is hard for any supervisor to keep his or her focus on the primary tasks of managing. Managers today are encouraged to empower, motivate, incentivize, clarify, oversee, delegate, evaluate, coach and even support those they supervise. The Manager’s Desk Reference is one of the most comprehensive guides to solving “people problems” in the workplace, but with 45 chapters on different supervisory topics, it has only just begun to scratch the surface.
Succeeding at managing others is, however, not an endless list of “must-dos” or a role entirely void of focus. There are a few basic expectations that every employee brings to their work, be they an entry-level hamburger flipper or the CEO. According to Paul Stanley, director of the Leader Development Network in Colorado Springs, there are four basic questions that everyone wants to know from their supervisor. Answer these four questions — completely and repeatedly — and you will be 80 percent there. The Manager’s Desk Reference or the latest book on supervising people will help you with the remaining 20 percent.
The first question that every employee wants to know from their supervisor is, “What do you want me to do?” It’s a question that gets to the heart of clear responsibilities and expectations. A clear, detailed job description is the first way a supervisor answers this question, and yet it is surprising how many people are hired — and continue to work for years — with no written description of their work responsibilities. And when the requirements of a job change, as they often do, great supervisors document those changes and explain or model the new responsibilities until there is clarity and acceptance.
The second fundamental question every employee asks follows directly on the heels of the first: “What would each responsibility or task look like, if done well?” This question addresses clear performance criteria. If my job as a Customer Service Rep is to answer customer calls, what does that look like to you (Mr. or Mrs. Supervisor) when it is done right? The most logical place to define performance criteria or expectations is in the job description. Each responsibility in the job description should have an accompanying performance criterion or criteria that are written, measurable and specific. Employees are then reminded of their performance criteria in subsequent one-on-ones with their supervisor, performance evaluations, team meetings, and being “caught doing something right.”
“Will you help me when I need it?” is the third question every employee wants to know from their supervisor. It’s a question that speaks to coaching, support and advocacy (when needed). Some of the televised episodes of “Undercover Boss” have drawn a spotlight on the challenges that even a CEO face when their undercover supervisors are not available to help when needed. Great supervisors know the value of being available to offer coaching — not only when needs arise, but also on a regular, non-need basis to help strengthen skills. And they know the value of being an advocate for those they supervise, standing up for their employees when they need backing up or the influence of a higher authority.
The fourth and final question employees ask is, “Will you periodically let me know how I am doing?” If job descriptions are commonly missing from many companies, regular performance evaluations seem to be equally missing in the same companies. People want to know how they are doing. They want to be told where their performance can improve and where it is meeting standards. They want the bad news with the good, and not just negative criticism. And they want to receive a specific and actionable evaluation more than once a year.
So, how well are you answering the four big questions every employee who reports to you wants to know? How frequently are you answering them? If you aren’t sure, ask your employees! They’ll be happy to let you know.
Kent Wilson (PhD) is a business practitioner and leadership specialist. After running companies for 30 years, he now serves as an executive coach with Vistage International and the Nonprofit Leadership Exchange in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.