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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Richard Daniels
April 29, 2016
After working for the same employer for more than a decade, I accepted a management role with another agency in a neighboring county. I was now at the helm, being asked to direct a portion of a department and its program into success. I had studied organizational theory and human resources dynamics during my graduate studies. I had spoken about it at length during the interview process. But I had never led such a large group. As a supervisor, the largest group I had led up to that point was 12-15 staff—nowhere near close to 50. To put it bluntly, I was scared and ill-equipped.
Day one was full of introductions to people and formal structures. I also found my division chief had a lot of great ideas that hadn’t been implemented due to timing or sheer workload. Determined to make a mark within my first week—because we all know how impressive that would have been—I moved forward on an idea she had thrown out. I moved quickly, spoke with a staff member directly and asked if she was still interested in a job reassignment. Rookie mistake. In doing so, I had defied the cardinal rule of management: things need to go down the food chain. As a supervisor, I had grown comfortable with approaching staff about things I needed addressed or directions I wanted to go. As a new manager, I had not yet grown comfortable with approaching those I managed, so I reverted back to an area of comfort. I also found it took some time for the supervisors I managed to feel comfortable in telling me how poorly I managed the situation. When they were finally comfortable, they shared that they didn’t feel the staff member was a good fit for the new work assignment but it was far too late. I had exposed my weakness and it was easy for my staff to cast doubts on future decisions.
I also spoke too much about how things were done at my previous agency. In retrospect, the issues staff had with that were purely associated with identity. I was someone from the outside and they didn’t want to be molded into the image of another agency. They had their own identity. When I pushed ideas based on previous success from my last assignment, I lost them almost immediately.
It took some time for me to gain the trust of the supervisors I managed. The whole 30/40/30 of employee engagement divide was more like a 35/35 divide after these early hiccups. There was no middle ground. Either they didn’t trust me or trusted me some. I had to earn their trust and it came by keeping my mouth shut.
Too often, the transition to management or supervision comes with lofty personal goals. Successful managers set them aside, learn when to shut up, when to sleep on it and when to speak up.
When we learn to shut up, we are learning to take in the cultural aspects of the agency we are in. Even when we are promoted within the same agency or department, the culture of supervision is far different from that of being a line staff and the culture of management is vastly different from that of supervision. If we cannot grasp a feel for the department, where it has been, what it has tried and the direction it is going, we try any tact that will give us short-lived successes. Unfortunately, what we are often doing is causing damage to our credibility.
When we learn to sleep on it, we ensure rash decisions do not wreak havoc on our department. All too often, decisions that impact a lot of staff or program constituents are made based on a reflex or quick call. Barring an immediate issue, any decisions that change how the department or agency does business deserve to be thought out. A decision that has been flushed out well will also prove to your staff that you take their concerns to heart and their input matters.
Finally, learning when to speak up has everything to do with ensuring you have already shut up and slept on it. I cannot reiterate enough how damaging rash decisions are on staff moral—especially when the mistakes are admitted and policy reverts back. We owe it to our staff, our peers and our constituents to think clearly about how we organize departments to ensure they are efficient and effective at delivering public service. Mistakes that were made by rushing decisions are neither effective nor efficient.
The transition to management or supervision is not easy, but it can be made easier when we take away the need for early successes. Being consumed with the idea that your career is marked with early successes can easily lead to some of your biggest failures. Doing so makes us rely too much on the areas with which we are comfortable and prevents us from building new foundations.
We too easily forget the simplest thing we learned as children: when to shut up. Whether it be ego or pride, we then forget what we learned early in our career: when to sleep on it and when to speak up. Rediscovering these aspects of our personalities are key to ensuring a successful future and maybe ensuring the success of the communities we serve.
Author: Richard Daniels, MPA can be reached [email protected]