Think what life would be like without relationships — no one to interact with, talk to or even e-mail or text. When we think of relationships, we think first about family, friends and perhaps coworkers.
We do not always think of supervisor/employee as an interpersonal relationship, but it is. In fact, for most employees it is one of the more important relationships in their lives. Research shows that nearly two-thirds of employee resignations are due to the relationship with their supervisor rather than with the company or organization.
Employee/supervisor relationships have many unique characteristics, but all relationships have one thing in common — they are based on trust.
Stephen Covey, in his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, likened a relationship’s trust level to a bank account. Deposits are made with such things as encouragement, compliments, smiles, training, integrity and listening. Withdrawals are taken with anger, broken promises, coercion, criticisms, lies, pettiness and such. He called this the emotional bank account.
It is crucial to remember that all interpersonal interactions have two objectives: to accomplish whatever is being discussed or decided, and to improve the overall relationship or increase trust. If we get what we want out of the interaction but diminish trust as a result, the interaction’s effectiveness is greatly diminished.
Fairness is key to improving trust and respect in the supervisor/employee relationship. Too often, supervisors focus on being nice versus what is fair or needed. Fairness involves providing great clarity about expectations as well as high-quality feedback.
Here are three actions that I have found valuable in improving supervisor/employee relationships.
• Provide encouragement: Being a supervisor isn’t easy. The supervisor is responsible for his/her own performance as well as those under his/her supervision. Of course, being an employee is not always easy either. The employee must understand and meet the expectations assigned. Yet they are not always clearly explained, and that can be frustrating.
Most employees want to succeed, causing him/her to avoid anything that the supervisor might view poorly. This often leads to a reluctance to ask questions or make suggestions.
One way to overcome this frustration and fear is to provide encouragement. A simple “I know you can do this” or “I have confidence in you” can be powerful. Providing encouragement also can increase confidence. Note that encouragement is one of the deposits in the emotional bank account that Covey cited.
• Avoid defensiveness: Think of the last time someone made you feel like you had to defend yourself. It likely made you uncomfortable and feel as though you had little control over the situation. You were not in a position to have a positive, productive discussion.
When an employee does something unsatisfactory, the supervisor often wants to discuss what happened, what went wrong and why the employee did what he/she did. Often this places the employee in a defensive position.
To minimize the employee’s defensiveness, quickly transition the discussion to what the employee will do when the situation arises again. Now, the employee has control over what can be done, and it increases the likelihood of a productive discussion. It minimized the withdrawals from the emotional bank account due to criticism and even anger or coercion. You have moved to training, suggestions and maybe even encouragement, all of which are deposits in the emotional bank account.
• Be proactive: Employees have three attributes pigs and crops don’t: they can speak, they can think and they have feelings. Establishing clear expectations, providing feedback and addressing employee issues maximize the value of these three people-only attributes.
I encourage supervisors to have frequent structured interactions with employees to gain from these attributes. Use frequent, short meetings to discuss performance and address issues important to the employee.
So remember, all interactions have two objectives: to accomplish the objective that’s being discussed and to improve the overall relationship. And the supervisor/employee relationship is as important as any other.