WASHINGTON, August 4, 2014 — Last week, we talked about the differences between first-line supervisors and senior managers. We noted that first-level supervisors differ from senior managers in that managers learn the overall goals, precisely define the tasks that must be performed within those goals, and then clearly define their own role within those tasks.
We also discussed that first-new line supervisors tend to perform their jobs using the old “whack a mole” strategy. In other words, as one task appears on their desk, they perform it, and then the next task appears, they perform it, and so on. They do this until they gain enough experience to see the big picture and make a better plan for task accomplishment recognizing the need for overall goal accomplishment.
Let us take a look at an example of how these differences emerge in a typical work assignment.
About two months ago, I completed a project with first-line supervisors that lasted one week and more recently, I completed a one-week project with senior managers. Each group had to perform a set of tasks and complete them within one week.
The first-line supervisors completed the work I assigned them exceptionally well, and they followed the schedule I gave them exactly as I gave it to them. The senior managers completed the work I assigned them, and then asked for more in order to “get done” sooner than my schedule called for.
The senior managers immediately tried to understand the goals and then they tended to accurately define their roles within those goals. They kept small talk to a minimum. They kept their eye on the finish line and completed their tasks with an attempt at completing them sooner and at a higher level than the standard set.
The first-line supervisors did not spend as much time defining their own roles. They tended to look for ways to improve the tasks and the goals assigned to them which I conclude is based upon their individual needs to have a positive influence while simultaneously reinforcing their worth. These needs are part of being a first-line supervisor – these needs tend to wane over time.
A first-line supervisor who reads this article will think that helping to improve a system is more important than the time it takes to improve it. A senior manager reading this is more likely to find the positive aspects of an existing system and work to achieve the goals within that system without changing it.
Is it ever wrong to try to improve a work program? No, it is not. But, the supervisors or managers trying to make change must have perspective – the big picture.
First-line supervisors and senior managers may have a philosophical debate over who is right and who is wrong about trying to improve every work system. Both groups have valid points, but the senior managers have expertise that first-line supervisors have yet to develop – experience and a big-picture focus. Experience tells a senior manager that when they are assigned to complete a task within one week, they do not have to change the system or have an impact on the system itself. Instead, they must contribute their own skills and make the system as good as it can be. If they observe serious flaws in the system, they are experienced enough to know how to let their opinion be known, and in a politically correct manner, without detracting from task performance. So, they will withhold their opinion until after the project is completed.
In addition, they know the big picture. Has the system been working for a long time? If yes, what is the reason to change it? If there is a reason to improve it, they may offer their opinion at a later date or they may choose to decline involvement in future similar programs. In other words, they do not get hung up on improvements – they stay focused on task completion.
The senior managers know their worth; they need no additional reinforcement. First-line supervisors are still at a stage in their careers where they compete with their peers for recognition. Senior managers have less competition and do not allow these distractions to slow them down.
This week’s prescription: Help first-line supervisors gain valuable experience and big picture focus and thank senior managers for getting employees to the goal line