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Getting to the Root of Why Your Employees Might Be Failing

Do you have any supervisor problems? Are your employees living up to your expectations? Are there people on your team who complain, have a bad attitude, of keep pushing back about what they’re supposed to be doing? Is there one particular problem employee that seems to take up most of your time? If you’re dealing with any of these issues, you’re going to want to finish this article.

I want to start this episode out with a true story. Imagine you’re a faculty member. Or if you are a faculty member, then imagine you’re you.

You have a large class and part of the curriculum is becoming proficient at using five different similar gadgets. It would take too long to test everyone on all five, so you set up a schedule and bring them in one by one and randomly test each student on two of said gadgets.

The students have all five gadgets to study with and are supposed to bring theirs for the test. Students would have to know how to use all five to really be prepared, so theoretically you can assume if they know the two you’ve selected, they probably know the other three. It will be a long day, but it will get the job done.

Things seem to be going well enough. Some students nail it, some struggle, but that’s typical. Then early in the afternoon a student comes in for the test. They pull out two of the gadgets and waits for you to tell them to start. You ask them to show you how to use the gadgets and they do each flawlessly.

But you’re confused. After they’re done, you ask them, “How did you know these were the two gadgets I was going to test you on?”

They calmly reply, “A few of my friends went earlier today and they all said you only tested them on these two.”

You look at them in disbelief. You had been testing on just two of the devices to be consistent just in case some of the gadgets were more difficult than others.

But you’re shocked that your students would share this information with each other about a test. You feel the adrenaline start surging through your body. Your heart rate increases, you feel the blood race to your face, you’re trying to stay calm, but you’re angry. You tell the student you’re going to report them for cheating and demand to know who told them the “answers.” They refuse to tell you, which makes you even angrier.

You change up the gadgets you test on for the rest of the afternoon, but you can’t shake the feeling of anger and disappointment for that student and all the others who might have cheated. Each time a new student comes in and looks at all surprised about which gadget you have them demonstrate, you assume they must have cheated too.

After you get back to your office you report the issue to your dean and demand there be a full investigation. You contact IT and ask if they can look through your students emails to see who shared information about the test. You email your entire class and let them know how angry and disappointed you are with them and that there will be a thorough investigation to identify all the cheaters. You even start looking on social media to see if you can get screenshots of anyone who posted about it during the testing day.

Okay so after listening to this story, how do you feel? Did it bring up similar experiences for you? Are you angry for the faculty member this happened to? Did that shock and disappointment remind you of any supervisor situations you’ve had to deal with?

I first heard this story from the student in question. They were one of my student workers. I worked at a college that focused on health care, so the curriculum was intense. Most students went from getting A’s and B’s in High School to getting C’s. Yes, cheating was a problem, but this particular student had zero reason to cheat. They were one of the gifted few that really didn’t have to study very hard to get straight A’s despite the curriculum.

When they told me what happened, they were both nervous and angry. When the faculty member accused them of cheating, they offered to test on the other three devices to show that they knew them all. But by then, the faculty member had already made up their mind and refused their offer.

I later heard more of the story from the dean, other faculty members, and other students – some who were in the class and others who were just outraged on behalf of their fellow classmates.

Everyone was upset. Everyone blamed the other side.

Now, this may not seem like it relates to supervising, but it absolutely does. As supervisors, we typically spend our days in back-to-back meetings followed by trying to get the work done that was assigned those said meetings. That means we don’t have much time to check in with our team. We just feel like we know how things should be working, so if we suddenly realize they aren’t, we react strongly.

And note I didn’t say respond. I said react. Reactions are impulsive. Our feelings direct our thoughts automatically because of the stories and assumptions we have about the situation. This usually ends up being a reaction that involves placing blame on the individual or individuals that seem to be the problem. In other words, “Why is Bill doing that? He should know better. I don’t have time for this. Expletive.”

And you know what, sometimes it is Bill. There are some employees who are for a variety of reasons, not showing up to do their best. But our initial reaction isn’t always right. Sometimes the problem is the system. Sometimes the problem is you. And often, it’s a mix of all three.

Let’s unpack our “cheating” story a bit more and I’ll show you how this applies to supervisors. Everyone was casting dispersions, but few were looking at it wholistically and asking what actually caused problem – if there was a problem at all.

Now just to add some context, my dissertation was going to be on academic dishonesty. Having Input, I put in a great deal of time researching the issue before quitting the program to put my energy into Strengths University. But in a nutshell, I know quite a bit about cheating.

First, let’s look at the student’s role. Did they discuss what was on a test with other students who hadn’t taken the test yet? Yes, they sure did. Was this sharing appropriate? I would argue it depends. In most testing situations, all the students take the test at the same time, so it’s not really relevant.

In this specific situation, no one was told they couldn’t. Students were just doing what they do after and before tests, letting off steam by discussing how it went. It’s just in this case, there were students who hadn’t been tested yet. And given they were supposed to be tested on any two of the five devices, knowing what Beth was tested on at 9AM shouldn’t really have mattered to Betsy at 3PM.

Quite frankly, if my student worker had taken out all five devices, the instructor wouldn’t have thought anything about it. They truly didn’t think it was cheating, so they absentmindedly only took out the two they knew were being tested.

Second, let’s look at the faculty members. They told students that they’d be tested over two of the five, but for whatever reason – I just gave a plausible reason earlier but I don’t know the reasoning on that specific occasion – the faculty member decided to only test them on two. One of the common deterrents to cheating is that faculty mix up the questions and answers on their tests. I’ll get to why that’s important in a minute. They chose not to do that. They also didn’t communicate clearly to the students that they were not allowed to discuss what was on the test until all students had taken it.

The faculty members immediately blamed the students without questioning their own behaviors. They turned an unfortunate situation into an incredibly tense one by their reaction. Everyone was defensive and blamed the other side. Even more importantly, it damaged the trust between students and faculty for years after the incident.

Now finally, let’s look at how the systems in place contributed to this situation.

As I mentioned, it was an intense curriculum, so cheating was an issue. To add to that problem, there wasn’t a centralized system at that point to deal with academic dishonesty. That meant individual faculty members were supposed to deal with things themselves – but some instructors just ignored it. This allowed cheating to flourish. That’s in part, why the faculty were so triggered by what appeared to be cheating by a trusted student in cahoots with perhaps the entire class.

If we zoom out a little further, cheating has been a systemic problem in education for centuries. It was often blamed on individuals who just didn’t have a proper moral compass. Most of the initial research on cheating was focused on identifying what types of students cheated. But more and more the research has looked at sociological and systemic issues. There are many nuances to cheating, so I don’t want to over simplify it, but as this isn’t a podcast about cheating, I’m going to try to summarize it here.

When we look at intent, yes there are some students who are just trying to take the easy way out. But most students don’t cheat because of a moral deficiency, they cheat because of external pressures. Maybe they have to work to be able to afford school. Maybe there’s parental pressure to succeed. Maybe they have to take care of their siblings for their parents, which interferes with their ability to study. Maybe they have a scholarship they need to keep.

Most students are just doing the best they can. But if they’ve tried their hardest and just need to get past one hurdle, if an opportunity arises to cheat there’s a decent chance that they’ll take it. That’s why faculty need to do things like mix up their questions. I mean if you needed to get an A on your final to keep a scholarship, one you need to stay in school, what would you do? That student - or even you - could easily think, “Overall I’m an honest student. This is just one time and I need to pass to be able to continue to be a good student.”

There are other cases where students “cheat” simply because they didn’t know the thing they were doing WAS cheating. This is directly related to setting clear expectations. This could happen for a variety of reasons, like the culture of the school, how academic dishonesty was defined, and how well that information was communicated to students. In fact, one of the challenges of the research is that everyone has slightly different definitions about what constitutes cheating. That means that when you look at two different studies, they may not actually be talking about the exact same thing.

I could go on, but I want to bring this all back to us as supervisors.

In this situation, it was easy for the faculty member to assume the problem was with the students. That’s what their gut told them, and that’s how they reacted. But if you really look at what happened, the students might have been careless but they didn’t intentionally cheat…at least not this specific student - and I’d argue most of them.

It’s easy for us to jump to the same conclusion when our employees don’t live up to our expectations. We think, “Why aren’t they doing what they should be doing? Why do they keep questioning the process? Why can’t they be more like (insert name of favorite employee)?” Our assumption is the problem is them and we’re annoyed we have to stop what we’re doing to address it.

We have a visceral response and focus our energy and frustration on fixing that employee. We run around asking other people what we should do about Bill, but we rarely stop and think, “what were all the factors that contributed to this problem?” Instead, because we’re stressed and frustrated, we just ask, “why are THEY falling short?”

Just because something doesn’t go as expected, it doesn’t mean the problem is with the folks who are doing it. In reality, the problem often lies with us as supervisors. I’ve talked about setting clear expectations in earlier episodes, so I won’t go into great deal here. But in another nutshell, we too often assume that people know what we want and what they “should” be doing.

To make things more complicated, we often don’t even have a clear picture of what we want to begin with. But when we see them performing in a way that displeases us, we’re suddenly disappointed and even angry. If you’re not clear from the beginning about what you want and they do their best to deliver their best guess, who’s really to blame?

I’ve wrestled with this myself on several occasions. I had my reaction – typically anger and disappointment. I run over and over in my head all the ways this particular person or team failed, which just keeps that anger brewing. Many times, I expressed that anger in less-than-ideal ways. I’m quite sure in those situations, I damaged the trust between myself and that person or team.

You may have experienced this with a supervisor of your own before. They gave you vague instructions or guidance along the way. Maybe you assumed you knew what they wanted or you didn’t feel comfortable asking them for clarification. You proudly had the event or turned in the report and were shocked when they told you how you’d fallen short.

This happens more often than you’d think. As Brené Brown says, “Clear is kind.” First you need to be clear with yourself on what needs to happen. Then be clear with your team.

Eventually when these situations would come up, I started to ask, “How did I contribute to this happening?” Sometimes, it was simply the fault of the team member, but more often than not I ended up having to pivot because I was unclear about things to begin with or I didn’t hold people accountable in the past for similar behavior.

To react is human - especially a stressed human. But to be an effective supervisor, we have to allow ourselves the reaction but then look at the big picture to create an appropriate response.

And just like with our story, we also need to consider how our systems might be preventing our team members from being successful. This could be anything from how we communicate with them to the culture of higher education itself. Even if you had a system in place for a specific reason and it worked well. If circumstances have changed, it may no longer be an effective system.

How many things were going smoothly before Covid? Did you just try to keep doing them with a few tweaks to adapt to being virtual? Or did you actually discuss whether that approach was still going to be effective at all?

Sometimes we have a staff to student ratio that allows us to do x, y, and z fairly easily. We may even do so well, we decide to add a, b, and c into the mix. When that ratio changes, which these days typically means fewer staff members, the answer is rarely “well we’ll just need to work harder to make the same thing happen.”

The answer is you need to pivot. You need to decide what are the most important things, so it’s once again a reasonable work load. Even if that means getting rid of a, b, c, x, and y. Even if it means rethinking the entire system. After all, if you were creating the system from scratch in the current environment, it probably wouldn’t have turned out the same way it did back then.

Even supervisors not being clear about expectations is often a result of systemic problems. Supervisors don’t get the training they need to be successful, so they don’t know how to effectively manage their team’s performance. Not to mention the unrealistic amount of work supervisors are being asked to do on a daily basis. That’s a result of ineffective systems.

I mentioned earlier supervisors often feel like they don’t have the time to check in with their team on a regular basis. And honestly if they do, it’s not always in a meaningful way. If the system creates an environment where supervisors both lack the skills and the time to adequately supervise, that’s a huge problem.

Now there are many policies, procedures, and cultural factors that cause systemic problems. But I wasn’t to specifically address retention. Retention embodies several larger systems, but because it’s such a trigger it’s way too easy to blame retention issues on individual performance. If you’re concerned that your team isn’t living up to expectations here, I want to really take some time to reflect on how our expectations about retention impact our teams.

People argue we have to keep pushing because we can’t let retention drop. Even if you’re not directly responsible for retention, you’re constantly being asked to do more with less to keep students enrolled. But does this actually make sense, especially if it means setting up our employees and even ourselves to fail? And if the systems you have in place for student retention burn out the very professionals you need to support your students, how can you then hold them accountable when they can no longer reach them?

With the population shifts that have impacted enrollment and Covid, things are simply different now. Trying to apply the same formula you used for retention before may not make sense. Are the things impacting retention even the same now as they were pre-Covid? Do students need the same things, or are you assuming and doubling down on what you used to do to the determent of your team? Maybe what was considered a good retention percentage pre-Covid needs to be changed given this new reality, especially if the old standard is now practically unattainable. If so, then looking at how well your team members are measuring up to those outdated standards is blaming individuals for a systemic problem.

To sum all of this up, yes, there are some employees who may be the main problem in certain problematic situations. If that’s you, check out our episodes on performance management, setting expectations, and even engagement. However, it’s rarely just some individual flaw or lack or morals that’s at play.

If you want to maximize your team and start responding to problems instead of reacting, you need to be able to step back and reflect on your own behavior and the systems that impact your team. Part of this process involves getting more training for yourself, so you know how to do things like better set expectations, build trust, coach your team, and hold people responsible. Part of it also means assessing the systems that impact your students or your department to ensure your team members have the best chance possible of success.

Realistically, you can’t change everything, especially the larger systemic problems that might be happening on your campus or in higher education. But that doesn’t mean you have no power. You can change things in your department you have direct control over. You can change some of the systems you use that just don’t work anymore. You can pivot and adapt to make an environment where employees and students can be successful. Even more importantly, you have the power to change you. In fact, changing yourself is often where you can make the biggest impact for your team and yourself.

You can listen to My Circus, My Monkeys on our website or through most of the major podcast hubs, like Apple, Spotify, Google, Amazon, TuneIn + Alexa, & Stitcher

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