Supervisors in Transition

by Peter B. Grazier

Originally published in EI Network on December 1, 1994

Organizations today seem to be accelerating the pace of change. Everywhere there is experimentation with new work concepts such as quality management, re-engineering, process improvement, employee involvement, self-directed work teams, worker empowerment, statistical process control, just-in-time inventorying, quick changeover concepts, and more. Increasing competition has proven to be a strong motivator of change.

Of course, employee involvement and teambuilding play a central role in most of these concepts. As organizations move forward with employee involvement concepts, trust begins to grow in the employee's ability to contribute. After a time, involvement moves naturally to empowerment, giving the employee more autonomy within his or her workspace. As trust and confidence grow between management and its workforce, experimentation with self-management concepts begins. Frontline workers begin performing their own scheduling, quality control, performance monitoring, personnel evaluations, and more. They take over duties previously reserved for their supervisors. And this is good.

But what does this mean for the supervisor, and what becomes the role of a supervisor caught in such a significant transition?

One popular consultant has said to eliminate first-line supervision altogether. Some organizations interpreted this to mean wipe them out tomorrow! Other organizations have not really dealt with the issue and have left supervisors to flounder, attempting to survive as best as they can. As a result, studies have repeatedly shown that first-line supervisors have some of the greatest concerns for the new work systems.

For example, a study by Dr. Janice Klein of the Harvard Business School in 1984 and repeated by Dr. Pamela Posey of the University of Vermont in 1990 showed that, even though most supervisors (almost three-fourths) view employee involvement as good for their companies, less than one-third of them view it as beneficial to themselves. The fact that the numbers did not improve (and, in fact, worsened slightly) from 1984 to 1990 indicated that we had done little to help these supervisors with the changes taking place.
These fears result naturally in resistance to the new work system, creating yet another barrier to successful implementation. 

If job security and role definition are primary issues (according to the survey) to these supervisors in transition, how should the organization deal with them? If the supervisor's role is significantly diminished (at least in terms of traditional tasks), what should be done? These are some of the questions facing organizations today as outdated work systems are replaced by new ones.

One Approach
One of the best ideas for dealing with this is to convene a working session of supervisors to analyze their changing role. A good exercise is to brainstorm other value-added work that could be performed by supervisors.

I recently conducted this exercise with a group of frustrated and angry supervisors, and their temperament quickly changed to one of hope as they saw many opportunities for making new and valuable contributions to the organization. A good way to ask the initial brainstorming question is to simply say "If you had an extra two hours in your workday, how would you spend it?" This group's offerings included:

  • Head up an important project that the organization has never had the resources to address. (In other words, there are a myriad of valuable backburner projects the organization never has the time to address, and supervisors, with their abilities, are excellent people to tackle them.)

  • Search out and perform new training the teams may need.

  • Investigate emerging technologies the organization will need in the future.

  • Coach the new self-directed work team until it has sufficient skills to sustain itself.

  • Visit other organizations and bring back new ideas for improvement (benchmarking).

  • Work closely with customers to improve product and service quality.

  • Provide coordination between teams and departments.

  • Get new training in emerging technologies, methods, and machinery.

The point of the exercise is to demonstrate that these supervisors are valuable assets to the organization whose talents, skills, and years of experience can be used effectively to improve the organization. To do otherwise is a waste.

But another consideration in how these supervisors will be handled must be the ultimate feelings and attitudes of the rest of the workforce. What will they think about the way these supervisors are being handled? Were they handled with decency and respect, or were they cast off like expendable tools?

I once received a request for consulting services from a respected organization that had just eliminated its front-line supervision at one of its plants. The plant management had gone on a weekend retreat and, upon returning, eliminated the front-line supervisor position. They were attempting to implement team self-management concepts and thought that eliminating the supervisors would help to accomplish this. The reaction of the workforce was predictable shock.

I declined their offer to work with them because, in my opinion, it would take years to recover from such an insensitive action. Management had taken an action that violated all standards of ethical behavior, and will suffer the consequences of lowered commitment and trust for years to come. Changing work systems is difficult enough without starting in such a hole.

In summary, the role of the supervisor in a transitioning organization must be addressed. Supervisors should be actively involved in deciding how these issues will be resolved. Without this involvement, significant and damaging resistance to the change effort may result.