Where lies the issue? The individual or the system?

I was recently queried about how to address poor performance by a front line supervisor. Here is my response:

Agreed, the issue may lie with the supervisor. In my experience, however, many leap to that, because they don’t know where else to look (I’m not saying that you do!).

I will always want to start with the manager’s and the supervisor’s dialogue, which is often lacking in quality (specifics) and quantity (by avoidance on both parts). I will also always want dialogue between the supervisor and the direct reports, with feedback to the supervisor being a vital element, as part of any development process. If the supervisor hasn’t been experienced in relationship to their part of the system, then I don’t trust any judgements that have been concluded about them. I want to see them as they relate to their direct reports.

Most systems are caught up in judging people behind their backs, and will gladly hire experts who will join by doing the same.

Instead of useful feedback, such systems encourage blame and defensiveness (in the form of competition and maintaining an image of competence).

I assess people’s behavior partially within the lens of such systemic issues. If somebody is being careful and defensive and I see symptoms of a culture of defensiveness and blame, I will say something like this to the leader, “of course they are. The culture encourages it. Firing them and hiring somebody else won’t change it, even if you get lucky and hire someone who resists the culture in a healthy way. If you wont do what it takes to change the culture, than you are part of the reason they are behaving like that.” If I don’t have that kind of conversation…if I avoid it…then I become part of the reason they are behaving like that…I become part of the dysfunction in the system.

In addition, there are many other systemic dynamics that could be creating a culture of supervisory dysfunction, such as a lack of goal and role clarity, cross-functional misalignment, etc.

So individual performance, at least at lower levels, is rarely where I start. If very thing else is highly functional, or at least reasonably so, then the supervisor’s behavior may be a performance management issue. Even then, how they get confronted and coached can be either high quality with a high likelihood of success, or low quality, in which case the correct target of my coaching is the manager and their supervisor.

That’s how I think, and how I do my best to be.



About crosbyod

Crosby & Associates OD is a catalyst for high performance & morale. Our methods are a unique blend grounded in research and decades of experience. In the spirit of Kurt Lewin, the founder of OD, as we partner with you in the present we transfer our methods to you so you are independent in the future. Learn more at www.crosbyod.com
This entry was posted in Alignment, Culture Change, Gilmore Crosby, Leadership, Organization Development, Systems Thinking. Bookmark the permalink.

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