The problem with ‘TELL’ language is that it only works well if you have the authority to give instructions AND, particularly in the culture of small businesses, the respect of the people you are instructing.
This Supervisor in this case came from the catering industry where uniform command and control structures are employed. In a well run kitchen everyone knows their place and level of authority. So much so that you can move from one kitchen to another without drama. I guess he thought that moving into a different company and being giving the title Supervisor automatically meant people would respect his position and do what he told them to.
Telling people what to do might get a begrudging acknowledgement or a temporary shift in behaviour. But it will not create transformation in attitudes and behaviours, or build respect between two people. This is particularly true where the Supervisors technical mastery or knowledge is unproven.
So how can he fix the situation and begin to build the level of respect from his team that he needs in order to maintain control for the shop floor?
Firstly he needs to stop doing what he is currently doing, cos it ain’t working. I’ve told him to do three things instead
1: Replace instructions with questions
Every time he feels the need to tell someone what to do or to call out their behaviour I’ve asked him to replace the instruction with a question. Not just any old question though.
By way of example lets say he wants people to return to their workstations on time after a tea break. His normal way of doing this will be to say ‘ You were supposed to be back at your workstation five minutes ago. Make sure you get back on time in future’. It seems perfectly reasonable request but you can see how it just sets up for conflict.
Instead I suggest he uses a question and, specifically a WHAT or WHY question i.e. ‘Why were you late getting back to your workstation?’ or ‘What stopped you from getting back to your workstation on time?’
The reason these questions are so powerful are that they can’t be brushed off with a yes or no answer. In order to respond the person has to go to their internal representation of events and formulate a response. There are two broad directions that can take. Either they have a genuine reason for the delay (in which case unnecessary conflict and relationship damage can be avoided) or they don’t. If they don’t have a reason for being late they might try to brush you off, BUT, it creates internal conflict for them. We don’t like to think that our behaviour is outside of normal tolerances for our tribe so the internal conflict ultimately drives us to make change.
It might take a few repetitions and some patience but this is how you build respect and change the behaviour of others.
2: Make notes
As an Auditor I learned the subtle power of note taking. While people were explaining things to me I’d make general notes and diagrams so I could write up the evidence later. But, when I thought someone was pulling the wool over my eyes, or being evasive, I would make a real effort to slow my writing down and be much more deliberate in what I was writing; in a way they would notice.
Their body language would immediately shift and they would either back track or try to reframe what they had just said. Some would even ask what I had written down and why. My response was always to smile and say ‘I have a really terrible memory so I like to make sure I note important stuff down carefully’.
So I suggested that the Supervisor carry a small pad around with him and when a situation occurs (good or bad) he can take the pad out and make some notes, in the presence of the employee. I’ve instructed him, if challenged on what he is recording, to just jokingly indicate that he has a poor memory for conversations so wants to make sure he can jog his memory and also so he can learn to be better as a Supervisor.
3: Be vulnerable
I’ve also instructed him to be more vulnerable around the team and to admit that he doesn’t know everything. In fact I told him to ask for help from the team to explain things when he doesn’t understand them fully. Respect is not earned by trying to pretend we know everything. We respect people who know their own personal knowledge and performance limitations and that defer to others who know more, or have greater experience, than us. This is true irrespective of our hierarchical position.
This particular example is so perfect because it demonstrates a lesson that remains true across a spectrum of sales and leadership situations. When we adopt a communication position grounded in a desire to understand more clearly (SELL / DISCUSS positions), instead of giving out orders and opinions (TELL position), we open up opportunities to learn new information and to deepen the relationships with customers and colleagues.
This shift is at the heart of the Sleeping Tiger philosophy. Its what makes you, and your people, high functioning human beings in a fast moving and, often surprising, commercial world.