Supervisors who hate their staff but don't know how to tell them
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Supervisors who hate their staff but don't know how to tell them

Judy is a branch head in a large government agency. Known for program nous and a snazzy collection of designer shoes bought on work trips to Melbourne, Judy is mid-career. She hates cooking and has a husband who is ambivalent about how much time she spends at work. Judy, like many career public servants, is dedicated, hardworking and overwhelmed by the competing demands of work, family and self. Seeking short-term relief from these demands, Judy is about to make a classic supervision error.

Judy's team of 15 includes Carina, an extrovert PhD in economics who struggles to conceal her disdain for the policy views (well-meant, though ill-informed) of a junior adviser in the minister's office. Still, she brings muffins to branch morning teas and is popular with other staff. Judy, who is committed to being seen by her staff as expert and in-charge, is defensive in the face of challenge. Though she finds Carina's endless expertise irritating, she is also committed to being "nice" and, for the most part, she conceals her suspicions that Carina isn't a good corporate citizen.

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On Wednesday morning, Judy opens her email with the usual stomach churn that accompanies the sight of her inbox. Two emails stick out. One is from her husband, who is proposing a date at the movies. A link in the email shows a trailer for a film in which a litigation lawyer at a large firm leaves his high-powered corporate wife for a woman who has a part-time job baking muffins, and needs things fixed for her. Judy sighs, assesses that the frustration in her husband's email is not yet at a level that really requires her attention, and moves on.

The second email is from Gayle, with whom she has recently completed a leadership residential course where they bonded over shoes and marital woes. Gayle and Judy have a professional rapport that is untested and compelling. Gayle is being "squeezed out" from her role by a supervisor who doesn't like her but hasn't said why. Under siege in her own life and wanting to help, Judy brings Gayle on-board to work alongside Carina, selling the move to Carina as program support that will allow her to focus on the policy aspects of her role. Judy's pleasure in her work increases – Gayle looks up to her, and will reward her kindness with a loyalty that never wavers.

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Carina, whose sense of her supervisor's trust in her is canny and accurate, resists the change, voicing concerns that she's being "squeezed out". Emphasising her commitment to her own professional development, Carina sends an emotional email requesting that Judy set out what it is about her performance that needs development.

In fact, Judy wants Carina to toe the corporate line in branch meetings, and to be more circumspect about voicing her policy concerns at interdepartmental meetings. Carina, who came from the private sector and is baffled by unwritten public service protocols, needs to refine her judgment around balancing her disciplinary expertise with the complex demands of public service. Development support – either from Judy, an executive coach or a good induction program that covers meeting etiquette in the public service – would likely see an adjustment in Carina's behaviour. Carina's caring needs to be better directed, and she needs to ask for what she wants from a position of greater personal power.

More tellingly, the difference in their rank means that Judy's interpretation of the dynamic between them automatically carries greater weight. (I am indebted to Rho Sandberg for this insight – see her brilliant work on rank and power.) Judy has identified Carina as the source of her overwhelm, and is moving to "squeeze her out" on the basis of poor performance. Because Judy is committed to being "nice", she avoids "criticising" Carina. In fact, she avoids conflict and lacks the internal resources to describe to Carina exactly where she needs to strengthen her performance.

This is Judy's supervision error. She has just abdicated her basic responsibility to develop her staff, preferring instead to "move Carina on". If you ask Carina whether Judy is "nice", she'll tell you Judy is unfailingly pleasant and completely inscrutable, and she feels threatened by her. She'll also tell you she has concerns about Judy's integrity, that she cries in her sleep, and that her life feels like death by 1000 cuts from a manager who reassures her while she undermines her.

Judy has also succumbed to the forgivable and devastating error of passing on her sense of powerlessness to her staff by failing to engage them in a transparent conversation about her aspirations, her concerns and her needs as a supervisor. In my view, this is endemic in the public service, and at the heart of the notorious mismatch between expertise and role description that is part of public service culture. Judy's rank in the organisational hierarchy puts pressure on her to "add value", "know everything" and have a better view than her subordinates – even where their subject matter expertise is greater than hers.

Judy responds to Carina's email in highly supportive language, letting her know she has identified a fantastic policy opportunity for her in a branch short on EL2s. Carina sees no connection between the new role and her sense of purpose at work. She begins to contemplate leaving the public service, taking with her a PhD and a deeply felt commitment to the policy work in Judy's branch. Worse, all of Judy's subordinates sense their own vulnerability to Judy's tendency to "manage by moving", turnover rates in the branch begin to increase, and a key piece of pricing legislation stalls.

Compounding the error, Judy will fail to notice or to introspect it. In the year that follows, she will develop a nagging sense that her staff respect her less, that it takes longer for the branch meeting to come to order than previously when she arrives to chair it, and that the calibre of people who apply for jobs in her branch has dropped. She will also begin to encounter difficulties with Gayle, whose charisma masks unaddressed performance issues that will soon exhaust their rapport and leave both feeling betrayed. Again, Judy will struggle to articulate these supportively with Gayle, resorting instead to criticism and blame.

What can Judy do? She can begin by asking herself: "What does it mean to develop my staff?" She can seek corporate and coaching support in building her capacity to develop her staff. She can commit herself to self-examination whenever she feels uncomfortable, to build a picture over time of her weaknesses as a manager and supervisor, and to undercut her tendency to criticise others whenever she feels uncomfortable. She can trust that her subordinates know much more than she does about weaknesses in her supervision, and ask them how they would like her to change. She can resist the complacency that comes with seniority about the impact of her blind spots on her subordinates' morale and performance. She can consciously undermine rank bias: stepping back from the sense of entitlement to be right that is built into the corporate hierarchy.

Eventually, she could seek Carina out for a coffee by way of amends for unexamined behaviour.

In this story, which is fictional, Judy notices the patterns in her own behaviour when one of her female friends quietly draws them to attention over coffee and fresh friands. She engages an executive coach who is particularly skilled in building Judy's capacity to introspect. As she takes her own needs more seriously over time, Judy's capacity to describe what she wants from her staff becomes more refined, and her commitment to an expert standpoint within the branch softens into a stance of greater transparency and vulnerability. Briefings from her branch improve in quality. Because she has learned to resist the temptation to "put her stamp" on it, her staff are more motivated to produce complex and innovative work. From this stance, she engages her husband in a sustained conversation about what will make both of them happy in the longer term. Judy is a good person who cares less these days about being nice or expert; and more about growing her skill and integrity as a manager.

Jacqueline Jago is a certified executive coach and the principal of Bloom Coaching & Consulting.