the terrible cost of  supervision
Graphic of a vortex in a sink taking cash down the drain. Used with permission.

I was struck by a description in Jim Collins’ book, How The Mighty Fall, of the administrative burden caused by poor employee performance:

Any exceptional enterprise depends first and foremost upon having self-managed and self-motivated people—the #1 ingredient for a culture of discipline… If you have the right people, who accept responsibility, you don’t need to have a lot of senseless rules and mindless bureaucracy in the first place.

Who Gets Your Time?

Marcus Buckingham, in First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, talked about how poor performers stunt the results of top performers. He said that star performers are often neglected by their managers because under-performing staff drain all the manager’s time away from their better-performing peers. The best managers, however, support their winners with their time and help them do even better. Under-performers must earn the right to have more of their manager’s time by improving their performance.

In Managing For Results, Peter Drucker addressed the opportunity cost of problems such as poor performance. “Results are obtained by exploiting opportunities, not by solving problems,” he wrote. He said that the best one can do by solving problems is to restore normality. Solving problems won’t take you to a new level of results.

These three observations raise concerns about how we as Christian ministries deal with under-performing staff. In this post, my focus is on the cost of under-performance. Sometime later I’ll write another post and discuss how we can work to improve staff performance.

Should Supervision Be Necessary?

I call dealing with performance issues supervision in distinction to leadership and management. Leadership deals with vision, goals, values and culture, shaping corporate identity and mission. Management deals with ways and means, providing resources and coordinating action. Drucker said that both leadership and management are important because leadership is about doing the right things and management is about doing things right. Leadership decides which wall to scale, and management ensures someone brings a ladder! Leadership without management is chaos, and management without leadership is pointless. The two go together.

So where does supervision fit in? Hmmm. Maybe it doesn’t. The dictionary claims that  ‘supervision’ means oversight, but maybe it’s really just a polite code word for dealing with performance issues. In Leading Self-Directed Work Teams, Kimball Fisher wrote that the job of supervisors is to control subordinates by telling them what to do and then making sure they do it properly (as opposed to team leaders, who facilitate, train and equip).

I associate supervision with old school Theory X management and lack of trust. Surely we expect better from our staff than this!  I don’t want to supervise people this way and I can’t imagine that anyone wants to be supervised this way either. If after training and coaching, you still can’t trust your employees to do their work correctly, well, you either haven’t done the staff development work very well or you have the wrong employees.

The Hidden Costs of Supervision

When performance issues persist and people don’t learn, there is a terrible cost of supervision:

  • Their managers must invest time coaching them for better performance, checking up on their progress, and sometimes even fixing their work, instead of using that time to find new opportunities for the organization;
  • The organization needs to put detailed rules and procedures in place for how to do things the right way, which starts to make the work environment seem heavy-handed, stifling and overly bureaucratic to those who perform well and don’t need those systems;
  • Whole new systems are created to do nothing but ensure the results of poor performance don’t make it outside of your organization  (such as quality control);
  • Organizational performance can start to drop as people settle for mediocrity and the environment becomes less motivational; and
  • The salary and other expenses related to underperformance and supervision is wasted budget that could have been used to fund those opportunities that are now lost.

A Better Way

In The Wisdom Of Teams: Creating The High-performance Organization, Jon Katzenbach shows us a better way. Teams don’t need supervisors, he says. Rather, they need leaders to equip and resource their teams, manage the team boundaries (how a team relates to everything outside of itself), and then get out of the way and let the team do its thing. To support such teams without having to have supervisors, Katzenbach says the organization needs a strong performance ethic that drives everyone in the organization to relentlessly pursue common performance results.

Stop for a moment and realize the significance of that last sentence. Katzenbach is not giving team members license to do whatever they want. There is an obligation for all team members to live up to a strong performance ethic. When you hire, you hire people who have the same performance ethic as the team. (See my post Hiring with the Team in Mind.)

So if the organization’s leaders choose which wall to scale, and its managers make sure there is a ladder to get up the wall, then team leaders train their members to climb ladders. But you shouldn’t need supervisors standing by the ladders making sure everybody climbs the right way. All you need do is provide your staff with the goal (scale the wall) and the means (the ladder) and then let them do what you’ve trained them to do (climb).

Don’t Rescue Poor Performers

While it may not seem too inconvenient to chip in and cover for poor performance, underperforming is a very serious problem. Jim Collins (in How the Mighty Fall) writes:

“If I were to pick one marker above all others to use as a warning sign [of an organization starting the downward death spiral], it would be a declining proportion of key seats filled with the right people [those who take responsibility and are self-managing/self-motivating].”

Collins says one notable distinction between the right and the wrong people is that the wrong people see themselves as having a job while the right people see themselves as having responsibilities. Certainly in your key positions, the ones the public sees, or the ones who achieve direct results or who represent the ministry to others, these positions must be filled with people who perform well.

I’ll talk about improving staff performance in another post. Until I write that, if you have staff reporting to you, I suggest you begin working on defining the performance ethic of your team. If you already have one, work at getting the team members to firmly adopt it as their personal performance ethic too.

At CCCC, we have two sets of statements that provide a very strong performance ethic that sets standards related to everything we do. Our team values include:

  • dependability, productivity, and quality,
  • knowledge,
  • competence, and
  • initiative.

Our aspirations include:

  • to provide accessible, practical and relevant services that offer high value to our members, and
  • to be respected educators who create, source and share expert knowledge as we model how Christian charities should operate.

A final thought. Everyone on staff is a team member and everyone reports to someone else (even the senior staff person reports to the board). Why not take ownership for your own results and lead and manage yourself? Make it your business to supervise your own work. Make the team values your own values at work and be sure you work by them. Study the organizational culture as promoted by management and adjust your work habits to fit it. You’ll have a far more enjoyable work experience and be far more valuable to your employer. Be self-directed and self-motivated and take responsibility for your results. Your manager will love you!

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An exploration of Christian ministry leadership led by CCCC's CEO John Pellowe