The authority to tell others what to do does not free you from the responsibility of treating your subordinates with courtesy and respect. On the contrary, as a leader you have the special responsibility of setting the right example. Courtesy toward subordinates is not just a moral obligation, however; your effectiveness as a supervisor will suffer if you neglect it.
Below you will find many of the common and less common situations where your ability to show consideration for your subordinates will be tested. In every case, you will gain rather than lose when you practice etiquette in your relations with people who work for you.
1. A request is better than a command
Barking orders is one way of getting people to work, but not the best. If you ask instead of command, your employees will respond to this sign of respect by working harder for you. By showing that what you want is willing cooperation, not subservience, you help your subordinates feel they are part of a team.
This does not mean, of course, that you should plead with your people to work. Your instructions must always be clear and definite, and there must be no question that you expect them to be carried out. You can accomplish this quite effectively without being dictatorial.
2. Courtesy demands that you set a good example
A good supervisor should not place himself above the rules that he expects his subordinates to follow. If you discipline a subordinate for a rules infraction that you often commit yourself, he will resent it, and with good reason. You have privileges as a good supervisor, but a supervisor who acts like a privileged character is showing his bad manners.
3. Show trust in your employees
If you take the attitude that your subordinates have to be closely watched or they’ll take advantage of you, they will reciprocate by not trusting you, either. A much more pleasant and productive atmosphere will exist if you trust the people who work for you, and show them that you do. If they know that you have confidence in their readiness to do their best, even when you aren’t looking over their shoulder, they will respond by doing their best.
When someone does take advantage of your trust, which some times happens, then you must discipline him. That shouldn’t prevent you from showing every subordinate the courtesy of trusting him until he gives you reason not to.
4. Show your loyalty to them
How do you react when someone, especially a superior, questions you about a matter that seems to reflect poorly on the work or conduct of a subordinate? If your re action shows that you are sure the employee was at fault and that you intend to discipline him for it, you are not being loyal to your subordinates. At the very least, you should suspend judgement in such a situation until the subordinate has a chance to tell you his side of the story. Rather than show your superior what a dynamic supervisor you are by promising drastic punishment to the guilty party, you should be prepared to show your loyalty by defending the people who work for you. You might simply say that you will look into the matter, and then take it up with the employee later when you can discuss it in private.
This is not to suggest that you should take the position that you or your subordinates can do no wrong; you should be big enough to accept blame when it is due. The point is that you should assume your subordinates are innocent until they are proven guilty.
Probably the most inexcusable discourtesy in this respect is to openly criticize a subordinate for something that you, as his super visor, knew about and could have prevented. Using a subordinate as a “scapegoat” is both bad manners and irresponsible supervision.
5. Don’t be careless with confidential information
Any person in a management or supervisory position will have access to information that, for good reasons, should not be made known to everyone. One courtesy your subordinates will expect from you is that you treat communications between you and them as confidential. Here are pointers on how and when you must watch what you say, and to whom you say it.
- Don’t discuss one subordinate with another.You should never discuss with one subordinate the work performance or the personality of another, except where their working relationship makes it necessary. It is a discourtesy to the employee being discussed, and what you say might give the other employee an unfair advantage if they are hi a competitive position for a promotion. It is also only natural that the employee to whom you reveal your opinions about his co-worker will wonder if you talk about him that way.
- Never violate a confidence.Whatever personal information you learn about an employee, through either his job application forms or your personal contacts with him, should not be revealed to others. If someone’s salary has been garnished by a creditor, for example, you could cause him great embarrassment if you were to reveal this to anyone. Your subordinates should be able to feel that they can confide in you, if necessary, without fear that you will make public knowledge of what they say.
- Keep company secrets, too.There are supervisors who like to impress their subordinates by telling them about company secrets (and rumors) they have heard from higher management. This is a dangerous practice, and it violates a supervisor’s responsibility to his company. You owe it to your company, as well as to your subordinates, to refrain from saying what shouldn’t be said, and to protect confidential information.
6. Give your subordinates the information they need
It is bad manners to be careless with confidential information, but it is even more inconsiderate to deprive your subordinates of information they are entitled to have. The following paragraphs give specific examples of types of information your subordinates want and should have.
- An employee wants his job clearly defined.Make sure that each subordinate knows exactly what he is supposed to be doing. Give him all the information you can about how, when, where, and with whom he should work. Try to go beyond bare facts and give him enough background information to help him make decisions on his own when a problem arises. And be sure that he understands what the limits of his responsibilities and his authority are.
- An employee wants to know how he’s doing.When a subordinate does something well, let him know that you notice it and appreciate it. Try to make clear just why the performance was a good one. When he does something incorrectly or poorly, you are being unfair to him unless you tell him that his performance was unsatisfactory; he can’t learn from his mistakes unless they are pointed out to him. When you criticize, be specific and be constructive. And do it in private! (See below for more advice on how to give criticism.)
- An employee wants to know what his job future is.Your sub ordinates want to know what lies ahead, both for themselves as individuals and for the department and the company. Let them know what your goals are and how you plan to reach them. They should be able to see how they are contributing, and how they stand to gain if they do their lob well.
7. Get their side of the story
Every employee likes to feel that he can talk to his supervisor when he has a problem or a question. If you discourage this, you may save yourself some time, but you will also frustrate the people who work for you.
Try to encourage your subordinates to come to you with questions. If you go a step beyond this, and show your interest in their progress by asking them how they are coming along, you will have their appreciation, and you will have better work, too.
An occasional employee will try to take advantage of your willingness to listen. You must make it clear to such a person that your time is limited, and that you can’t afford lengthy discussions on matters that aren’t connected with his job. This may take diplomacy, but it must be done. It would not be fair to your other subordinates to let your time be monopolized by one or two people.
8. Don’t take a good employee for granted
Many supervisors spend most of their time and effort on problem employees. This is hardly fair to the majority of employees who get to work on time, work hard and effectively with little supervision, and do what is expected of them without complaining.
Show your appreciation of good performance by not taking it for granted. Make a point of spending time with the subordinates who help you the most by their dependable service. A pat on the back is a small courtesy that means a lot to most people.
9. The art of gentle criticism
The best criticism is the kind that makes the employee feel he has learned something, and makes him want to do better. You get this result only when you know how to temper your criticism with good manners, and a consideration of the other person’s feelings. Here is how you can find fault with a sub ordinate firmly yet gently.
- Be positive.When you are reviewing someone’s work, mention the good points first, complimenting him If possible. This will strengthen him for the negative points you are going to make.
- Be specific.When the time comes to point out a mistake to some one, don’t be vague or ambiguous. Tell him exactly what he did or is doing wrong, and tell him exactly what he must do about it. You have gained nothing if he is left with a question in his mind as to what you didn’t like, or how he is supposed to correct it.
- Be helpful.Instead of harping on the mistake, try to concentrate on what is to be learned from it, and on how to prevent similar mistakes in the future.
- Be receptive.Naturally, you can’t afford to accept alibis from your subordinates; you have to get at the root of mistakes and find out exactly why they were made. But you will often find that a sub ordinate’s explanation of how a mistake came about will suggest how a procedure could be simplified or improved. Knowing that you are willing to hear his side also makes it easier for him to accept your criticism in a positive spirit.
- Control your anger.It is dangerous to criticize when you are angry. You are likely to say things that will only make matters worse; you will dwell on the mistake and forget that there is something to be learned; you will create a reaction of anger and resentment in the employee, instead of a desire to improve. When criticism becomes personal, it tends to create more problems than it solves.With this in mind, wait until you are calmed down before you discuss a mistake with a subordinate. Also, avoid the use of antagonistic or belittling words—”thoughtless,” “stupid,” “dumb,” etc.— when you speak to him.
- Do your criticizing in private.Don’t embarrass a subordinate by taking him to task in an obvious way in front of other employees. This is especially true if he is also a supervisor, and the other employees are his subordinates.Use a private office or a conference room, where you can both feel free to speak. If a private room isn’t available, and you must discuss it in his work area or another place where other employees are nearby, keep your voice low in volume and calm in tone. For a minor matter, of course, going into a private room would be un necessary.
10. Learn to handle a personality clash
Every supervisor, no matter how capable, is apt to find that he must deal with problems that stem from a basic clash of temperament between two employees who work together. Personality clashes that you may have to handle are either those between you and a subordinate, or those between two sub ordinates. In either case, your business manners will be put to the test.
11. Handling a clash between you and a subordinate
If you seem to strike sparks with someone who works for you, here are some tips that can help you deal with the situation.
- Maintain a dignity that befits your supervisory level.This means that no matter how angry you feel, you should not meet a subordinate’s bad manners with equally bad manners. Refrain from shouting or other displays of temper or lack of self-control. If necessary, dismiss the subordinate until you have had a chance to calm down and analyze the problem.
- Find out what the real problem is.The immediate unpleasantness may be only a symptom of what is wrong, not the problem itself. Here are some questions you might ask yourself, as a means of getting at the cause of the trouble between you:a. Does the subordinate get along with his fellow workers? Are you the only one who finds him difficult?b. Is it his work you object to, or is it strictly a personality problem?c. Could the tension between you be caused by differences in your educational or social backgrounds, rather than by your working relationship?d. Have you allowed your feelings toward him to influence what kind of assignments you give him, or to make you more critical of him than of others? (Have you been picking on him, in other words?)e. Is it possible that a misunderstanding is the root of the problem, and that a calm discussion might help clear it up?
- Make a sincere effort to overcome your differences.Once you decide what the basic problem is, take steps to solve it. This is actually a two-step process; first you must resolve the immediate conflict, then try to eliminate the basic cause of tension between you and your subordinate. If you approach this second step with an open mind, and show him that you are willing to go as far as you can toward improving your relationship, he is apt to respond in the same way.
12. Handling a clash between two subordinates
A feud between two co-workers can disrupt an entire office and have a serious effect on efficiency and morale. It is important that you take prompt action to settle a clash between subordinates. Here is a practical approach.
- if there is an incident, such as an open argument, handle that first. Use your authority to restore order and get people back to work.
- Hear the arguers out. Give each subordinate a hearing and let him present his view of the disagreement. Encourage him to try to explain why his disagreement with the other employee came about, as well as give you his side of the specific argument.
- Consider the two points of view and form an opinion as to whether one or the other is in the right, and decide what to do about it. If the blame is mutual, you might want to speak to them together and explain that you want no more disrupting disagreements. If one person seems chiefly responsible, it is usually best to deal with him alone. In a few cases you may be forced to change job assignments or keep the employees apart in some way; you may even be forced to discharge someone who is unable to work with others and creates a serious morale problem.
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