One of my favorite examples illustrating the many benefits of “coaching” a line supervisor also happened because of the engagement and flexibility provided by a good Employee Assistance Program (EAP.)
A supervisor who had only recently become the Office Manager of a very busy State bureau came to the EAP to see me (supposedly) about a personal problem at home. Truth was, she was checking me out because she’d been “nudged” and told I might be helpful with her true problem – managing people at work.
For many years, she’d been the “trusty right arm” to her boss, a remarkable woman who’d been in her job fourteen years, and then abruptly had to leave due to her battle with Breast Cancer. My client was the obvious choice for that battlefield promotion, but the truth was she wasn’t actually prepared for what the job really was: lion tamer.
Replacing that boss would have been hard under any circumstances, of course, but my client somehow hadn’t really been paying attention while faithfully serving her boss and helping her succeed. Now in the leadership slot, my client tended to react off the top of her head, had trouble owning mistakes and apologizing, and some of the people she was alienating were not just the obvious, “usual suspects,” but were some of her most ardent early supporters for the promotion and natural allies.
And yes, it turned out there were some problems at home. Her fundamentally sound marriage was being strained by disagreements with her husband about how to deal with their youngest daughter, who’d just bombed out of her Freshman year at college (costing a lot of un-refundable tuition money) was now unemployed, and sleeping-in most mornings.
From the EAP standpoint, taking up the “home front” part was fairly straightforward: a meeting with my client and her husband, focusing on helping them stay on the same page regarding their daughter, be both “understanding” AND jointly focused – stay concrete, create strategies with timelines, and, above all, commit to consistency and follow-through.
Meanwhile back at the workplace, as so often happens, events were racing ahead. A mini-delegation had already gone over my client’s head, to “the big boss” – essentially conveying unhappiness and anger at what it was like to deal with my client everyday. To my client’s eternal credit, her reaction was more hurt than anger, defiance, or disdain – the far more common reactions I see these days from others in roughly similar situations.
With that as our point of departure, my client was able to fess up to how “anxious” she’s been – “not just recently” – but nearly all of her life. She realized that watching her boss had been like being front row center for a virtuoso performance which she took for granted . She admired it, and was gratified to be associated with her boss’s “success,” but in hindsight now realized she had “no clue” how her boss had pulled it all off. My client was wired differently, and just couldn’t “ever put up with so much nonsense” without getting judgmental, upset, and unable to hold it all “in my anxiety-laden head.”
To make a long story short, our coaching focused on listening skills – especially including listening to herself – managing feelings, learning not to be afraid to not know something, and developing a slightly more collaborative approach. Simply having someone – me, not her direct supervisor – with whom she could speak from the heart about situations she hadn’t really prepared for, made a huge difference.
She became more relaxed, which was sensed in the workplace almost immediately. I actually got a grateful, handwritten note from one of my client’s co-workers saying that the atmosphere was 100% better since my client had come to see me, that others in the office were also very appreciative of the changes, and they wanted her to tell me so.
It turns out that the person who wrote the note had also been an EAP client, and was the one who’d lobbied heavily that her colleague make an appointment to see me. Behind the scenes at work she’d also been a voice of moderation and patience, which had helped steer things away from being a complete train wreck.
I wish I could say everyone lived happily ever after, but it seldom quite works that way. Things were better, and the entire office undoubtedly benefited from the small but real changes my client achieved. But it wasn’t a total metamorphosis, and the truth was she never really got comfortable managing such a busy, relentlessly boisterous operation. And by the way, her own direct supervisor watched it all happen without saying a thing, or being any help at all.
She weathered the storm with dignity, picked her moment, and then slid sideways (transferred) into a smaller, quieter department just shy of the second anniversary of her promotion. Of course, part of what makes it memorable was that “thank you” note – they obviously don’t come very often.
But that case highlights how helping a supervisor has a direct impact on the people affected by that supervisor. Many good, competent people need a safe place where they can talk and think about their real problems supervising live people.