One-to-one supervision is valuable, but every manager will at some point encounter a defensive staff member who sees it as ’interference’, says former director Blair McPherson.
As a specialist team manager, Pete had been a rising star, but by the time I joined the organisation as district manager he was bitter and resentful. He could do no wrong under the previous director, but was not well regarded by the current senior management team, who described him as lazy and cynical. His reputation was not helped by the fact his wife had opened up a specialist residential home across the border in a picturesque part of Wales. The income from the home afforded him a flash four-wheel drive car and a lifestyle way beyond that of a team manager. He maintained he was still committed to the job and had no plans to leave.
It became clear he was used to being left to get on with it. It was also clear his team felt unsupported. He was responsible for a number of residential homes and two large day centres. There were problems. A half-completed restructure had left a number of posts vacant or filled by acting up arrangements. One manager had been suspended for almost 12 months while a complaint against him was investigated internally and by the police. In another home there was a steady stream of incident reports of violence against staff and a campaign to transfer those residents responsible. But transfer them where?
I decided I needed to be more hands-on. I told Pete I wanted to be involved in all recruitment interviews. In the first interviews we did together, he was very keen on a young woman from Wales. We agreed to appoint her, but when I looked at her reference from her current employer I could tell there was a problem. The reference was bland in the extreme; only confirming her position, date of appointment and that she had a good attendance record. A phone call to HR revealed outstanding grievances and complaints. Pete wanted to appoint her regardless. I said only if she provided another reference that reassured me. She didn’t, so I said no. This was the first of many struggles with Pete.
I made lots of unannounced visits to the homes he managed, including in the evenings and at weekends. Vacant posts were filled and acting up arrangement terminated. I had one-to-ones with all his managers. At first he clearly thought, “well, if he wants to do my job, let him get on with it”, but soon he became uncomfortable with what I found. I am sure much of what I discovered he was genuinely unaware of, but my point was he should have known what was going on.
It came to a head after about six months. We were in supervision and I was challenging a lack of progress on a number of issues, to which his standard response was he had tried, but got nowhere because of HR/finance/senior management. He then said: “What I can’t stand is people who won’t look me in the eye when they are talking to me.” We were sitting opposite each other only a couple of feet apart. I looked him in the eye and said: “Pete, I will always tell you what I think to your face.” He said: “Are you trying to get rid of me?” And then I looked him in the eye and I lied.
I have no regrets about lying to him. The way to deal with poor performance is to challenge and be clear about what you require, not to be provoked into telling some one you want to get rid of them.
Community Care’s recent debate on supervision has focused on the right of staff to expect and receive regular one-to-one professional support and guidance from their manager. It is clear this doesn’t happen as often as it should. As a manager who did provide regular formal one-to-one supervision, I found most staff valued it. However, every manager is likely to encounter a Pete; someone who is defensive in supervision, someone who doesn’t want to answer questions about how they are spending their time, who resents the “interference” and isn’t doing what’s expected and required.
Supervision sessions are a way for managers to tackle poor performance, but, as in this case, you sometimes have to bypass a poor individual and limit the damage. Supervision wasn’t going to change someone like Pete, but my more hands-on approach worked in that staff got the support that Pete wasn’t giving them and the service improved.
Blair McPherson is the author of People management in a harsh financial climate, published by Russell House
Photo credit: OJO Images/Rex Features (posed by models)