The Failure of Supervision – Professional Growth Systems

The Failure of Supervision

The Failure of Supervision

The supervision practice first appeared in the early 1900s in three arenas: social work, teaching, and business.  The pioneering theorist was Frederick Taylor, known as the “Father of Scientific Management” in the business arena. Taylor’s theory was that management should be responsible for finding the best methods for completing work and then ensuring that all employees practiced those methods.  In those days, most of the work was physical labor associated with manufacturing.  The nature of work has been transformed dramatically since then, but the role and methods of supervision have not shifted to meet them.

Today’s definition of supervision would suit the role practiced in the early 20th century:

Supervision – the act of watching a person or activity and making sure work is done correctly, safely, etc.  (Cambridge Dictionary)

What are the beliefs that underlie continuing to invest in such a role within a company?  Here are some I would propose:

  1. Workers are not motivated to do the work or do it well
  2. Defining the best methods for doing work should be done by supervisors
  3. Workers will not do the job well unless an authority figure oversees them
  4. The nature of work is mainly repetitive, and a single best method can be applied for good results
  5. Paying someone to oversee the work will add value to the organization

I would submit that most of these assumptions are faulty in the context of today’s workplace. Why?  Let’s look at each individually.

Faulty assumption #1: Workers are not motivated to do the work or do it well. Gallup regularly completes an extensive survey (1500 respondents) of employees on their engagement (def. involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace). The data has not changed significantly in 20 years. Currently (1st half of 2021, 15% are “Actively Disengaged,” 49% are “not engaged.” That makes for a total of 64% that are “not engaged” at some level, meaning not enthusiastic. Gallup considers “not-engaged” workers to have “…checked out. They’re sleepwalking through their workday, putting time – but not energy or passion into their work.” Those who are “actively disengaged” are “busy acting out their unhappiness” and disrupting work.

Why is this important?  The same Gallup survey found that engaged workers were 17% more productive,  generated 20% more in sales, and generated 21% greater profits.  Additionally,  employers with engaged workers outperformed their competitors by a whopping 202%.

The Failure of SupervisionGallup maintains, and my experience validates that the majority of the “not engaged” could become engaged with good people management.  Further, a portion of the “actively disengaged” are victims of temporary misfortune in their lives and can be returned to an acceptable level of engagement and productivity.   The majority of the “not engaged” (comprised of the “actively disengaged” and those neither disengaged nor engaged) could become engaged were people management improved.  The unmotivated that likely won’t shift despite the efforts of their manager is in the range of 5-15%.  Their future course should be another job or employer. Thus, the first belief or assumption is not valid for the majority of today’s workforce.

Faulty assumption #2: Defining the best methods for doing work should be done by supervisors. More than 20 years of doing process improvement work has proven that the best methods to do the work and most innovative improvements will be found and implemented by those doing the work and not by management.  They simply need permission, a methodology, and implementation support.

Faulty assumption #3: Workers will not do the job well unless an authority figure oversees them. Supervisors “overseeing” workers have more negative than positive impacts. That’s because most workers are motivated to do well.  Shift from “overseeing” to coaching, and the manager will add value through increased engagement and productivity.  Paying managers to oversee does not add value.  It is simply an added cost.

Faulty assumption #4: The nature of work is mainly repetitive, and a single best method can be applied for good results. The nature of today’s work is far less repetitive. Workers at all levels need to evaluate and modify how they perform their work to suit individual customers or situations. Machines in today’s economy are mainly performing the repetitive work.

And finally, faulty assumption #5: Paying someone to oversee the work will add value to the organization. If the outcome of “overseeing” work is simply assuring that it is done well, then oversight is not adding value, because the majority of employees don’t need it.  It is merely maintaining the status quo.  Managers at all levels, including first-line supervisors, add value by coaching and supporting the path to employees’ full potential.  If the performance of employees working for a manager is not improving, then value is not being added by the manager.

There is a high volume of chatter in the management literature about employee engagement and there are on-line “programs” to bring it about.  The push and the programs are directed at HR departments.  What is missing, in my view, is the need to put the responsibility on front-line managers to achieve engagement.  In the end, engagement is about relationships; between employee and manager, fellow worker, and organization.  But people managers are not given this responsibility and are not given training on how to bring it about.

Beyond the concept of supervision not adding value, supervision as traditionally practiced is failing and doing damage.   Here are some of the findings:

  • Only 50% of employees know what is expected (Gallup)
  • Only 19% receive routine feedback (Gallup)
  • Only 14% say performance reviews “inspire them to improve”
  • Managers are responsible for 70% of the variance in engagement scores (Gallup)
  • 78% of unwanted turnover is organizations are the result of “bad bosses.”

Why is this?  Among the reasons:

  • The role of a supervisor is not a fit for today’s workforce
  • Only 39% of managers receive management training in their first three years
  • 87% of mid-managers “wished they had received more training.”

In the second edition of my book, Creating High Performers: 7 Questions to Ask Your Direct Reports, I make a case for scrapping the concept of supervision and replacing it with a performance coach, whose value is measured by the improvement in the performance of his or her working group.  I define a new role, detail what someone should produce in that role, and then offer a methodology to guide employees to their full potential.  That new role includes assuring the engagement of employees.

The failure to define a first-line manager role that adds value and to invest in the development of managers to fulfill that role has a significant impact on the performance of organizations of all stripes.

In sum, the data overwhelmingly makes the case that investing in people management training and holding those managers accountable to add value through increased engagement and performance can pay huge dividends.  We will get into the details of the how in future blogs.