4 Ways Supervisors Frustrate Their Employees—Are You Guilty?

When I first became President of Thomas Nelson, I began hosting an event called “Pizza with the Prez.” Once a month I invited a different workgroup to have lunch with me—without their supervisor being present.

A Frustrated Employee - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/J-Elgaard, Image #16731921

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/J-Elgaard

This event provided an opportunity for me to get unfiltered feedback. It was one of my favorite activities. It also proved to be one of the most productive.

It confirmed what I thought was true: The further you move up the chain-of-command, the less likely it is you will get the truth. Information is often filtered, spun, and managed. People either tell you what they want you to know—or think you want to hear.

Some time ago, I read The Last Czar, a biography about the life of Czar Nicholas II, the last emperor of Russia. While his generals were brutally suppressing dissent, they told him civil unrest was the result of foreign influence and assured him his own people loved him.

The Czar didn’t have any other source of information. When the Communists took over, he was caught by surprise and forced to abdicate. Sadly, the Bolsheviks eventually executed him and his entire family. It is one of the saddest stories I have ever read.

Though extreme, his story demonstrates the difficulty of getting good information at the top. If you are a leader in any capacity, you must develop a pipeline for unfiltered feedback. “Pizza with the Prez” was one of the ways I did this.

Typically, I had ten to twelve people join me for lunch in the boardroom. After a few “icebreaker questions,” I always asked them:

  • What do you like about Thomas Nelson and want to see us continue?
  • What do you not like about Thomas Nelson and want to see us stop doing?

Although I only scheduled an hour of time together, it was always a challenge to finish on schedule. I was always amazed at how open people were and how many good ideas they had.

I have also noticed a recurring theme: most people’s frustration at work is inflicted by their supervisors.

Don’t misunderstand me. These workers loved their colleagues. They loved the company. But they continued to be frustrated by leaders who unwittingly hindered their productivity.

Here are the four most common complaints I heard. See if they ring true in your experience.

  1. Supervisors call too many meetings. Many of them are a waste of time. The issues could easily be handled by e-mail. Even those that should be called last twice as long as is necessary. This is because they don’t have a clear idea of what they want to accomplish or a specific agenda to get them there.
  2. Supervisors are often late to their own meetings. Since they called the meeting, the other attendees can’t start without them. As a result, they waste a lot of time waiting for the leader to show up. This makes them feel disrespected.
  3. Supervisors don’t really understand the work process. They don’t appreciate the amount of time it takes to complete certain tasks. Consequently, they sit on—or slow-walk—approvals and bog down the whole process. By the time the worker gets a response, they are in crisis mode. If a deadline is missed, they get blamed. This creates a lot of unnecessary stress on everyone.
  4. Supervisors are not responsive. They don’t answer their e-mails. They don’t return their voice mail messages. Workers often feel like they are sending e-mails into a black hole. By the time the manager does respond, the issue is resolved or it has escalated to a new level of urgency. Why can’t they just respond more quickly?

More than likely, you are not guilty of these behaviors. But, if you are, I hope you’ll take a moment and try to see how frustrating this can be to your teammates. You may not be able to change your boss, but you can change yourself and provide a better environment for the people you are leading.

Question: What other ways do you see supervisors frustrate their employees? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • http://www.brianhinkley.com/ Brian Hinkley

    I like this idea. Where I work we have a higher lever leader who has monthly “Cross Talk” meetings with employees. Supervisors aren’t invited.

    He will discuss anything you want to talk about, including your cat who was just as scared at the sight of a mouse running across the room as your were.

  • justmerach

    I resonate with Point 3, though from a different angle.

    My biggest struggle has been with managers who don’t understand the energy-management and creative dynamic of my job.  

    Software engineering requires extended periods of uninterrupted concentration.  (Ideally suited for us introverts :-) )  So, a 1h meeting smack in the middle of the afternoon can shoot pretty much the whole afternoon.  It is not the hour meeting so much as the slicing up of the time around it.

    I’ve got a remote manager right now (2h timezone difference).  I would have expected having challenges around this issue.  But he’s a developer himself and so he gets it, and I’ve far far less hassle ( + more productive time) with his supervision, than with my previous manager, who had all the calandar freedom in the world to plan intelligently.

    (And… for the amusement of geeks :-) ) the best articulation of this I have found was this blog post: http://christinemarie.com/why-programmers-sleep-at-night/  (Sorry, I couldn’t find the original post on the authors blog: http://swizec.com/blog/)

    • Jim Martin

      Your comment is helpful (as well as your link) in helping me understand this from a creative persons point of view.  Thanks!

  • Kathryn

    I work in retail and I am often frustrated because my manager hasn’t told about procedures she wants followed, or else tells me to do something one way after telling me to do it another way.  I feel ignorant and unproductive.  Also, I am frustrated when she comes to work in a bad mood and I have to pussy foot around her.  I get nervous and make mistakes and end up hating my job.  And I really do like my job!

    • Jim Martin

      Kathryn, what you describe must be not only frustrating and maddening, but exhausting.  The irony here is that in spite of this frustration with your manager, you do like your job.  I suspect this could be repeated by many other people, again and again.

  • http://www.nginaotiende.blogspot.com/ Ngina Otiende

    I think sometimes supervisors pass down what they receive from above. Personally, I was guilty of some of these gaffes (and not proud of it). Mostly because that’s how my bosses operated themselves. It was hard to get things moving when sandwiched between two immovable forces. Many things e.g slow work processes, ended up trickling own to my staff. 

    I agree with you Michael – I may not change my boss, but I can change me. 

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      You make a great point, Ngina. I’ve caught myself doing the very thing (as a manager) that frustrated me when my boss did it. Sometimes feeling powerless to change a situation can lead you to “give in” and become that which you can’t stand. “If you can beat Œem, join Œem.” Not the most healthy response, but it does happen.

  • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head Michael. In my previous positions, I’ve experienced supervisors that have exhibited all of these traits. The most frustrating being Supervisors that are not responsive/follow-through. Drives you nuts when you’re trying to get something done and then it falls by the wayside.

    Another frustration has been supervisors who have forgotten where they came from. Throwing the perks of the position in the faces of their employees. Acting like they don’t know what you’re going through in the position when they complained about it before. It’s amazing how quickly people can forget this… 

  • Anonymous

    Although I think my boss and my boss’s boss and my boss’s boss’s boss are great, I am struggling with my job because, although I was asked to speak at a conference and I was allowed to go, I had to take my own time to do it because it’s “not in my job description.”  It’s frustrating because I do speak frequently for ministry but I am not eligible for that type of position at work because I am the wrong gender.  ARrggh.

  • Tim

    Michael, your latest post has put a big smile on my face! I can identify every single one of these issues occurring at my last company. In fact they contributed to me moving to a new job.
    It’s sad, a lot of great people left that company because of the senior staff thinking they could get away with being late, not replying promptly and calling endless meetings as, in their mind, they were more important than the regular employees and they didn’t have to follow the same rules as the rest of us.
    I firmly believe that experience was helpful towards my career. Looking at the mistakes made by my old employers, I know how not to do things.
    Hopefully your post will help prevent some managers annoy their staff the way I felt. At least it’s not just me that gets frustrated by these issues.

  • Provocationofgrace

    I can relate to what you are saying. I work for a large monolithic corporation. Directives are normally given somewhere above, but we don’t have access to the people that make them. When company policy and formulated corporate templates are given to us, we are expected to fall within a 98% productivity range on top of many other strict guidelines. There was a time when it wasn’t like this. However, freedom in the workplace is now prohibited. We have no access to the decision makers, therefore, we have no recourse. If we fall short one month, we are placed on the first step of discipline. There are four steps. We always refer to it as a machine, and pray that we don’t get ground up in it.  I am not sure, but it seems like our immediate supervisors understand what we do in the field. However, when we explain our plight when falling short for some reason or another, they always say: “I understand, but that is just the way it is.” We have a standard that technicians aren’t suppose to get a 4% re-trip (A re-trip is having to return to the customer’s premises a second time within a months time). A friend of mine received a 4.3% this month  and is going to be placed on the first step of discipline. Two of his re-trips were due to circumstances beyond his control. When he explained it to his supervisor, he just told him that there was nothing he could do. Rules are rules! He said. Our problem is that there is nobody to reason with. Many supervisors are graded in different ways, and so that they don’t get in trouble, they do a lot of blame-shifting. I almost got in trouble today due to a communication problem between myself and the supervisor over the project I was working on. We didn’t connect on a particular detail and it almost hindered the whole effort. However, I prayed for success and this time the Lord delivered me from the wrath of the machine. I was threatened with discipline, but my efforts were approved by an upper manager. Come to find out, the supervisor who I had not articulated to me what the company standard was, was afraid that the budget wasn’t going to get approved for my project. He was ready to throw me under the bus. Nevertheless, with a lot of prayer, God blessed my efforts. I wish that I could sit down with the people who make these standards and find out why, and I would be hopeful that they would like to hear my thoughts, even if they don’t agree.

  • http://talesofwork.com/ kimanzi constable

    By telling them to do things they’re not willing to do, by not being honest.

  • http://www.theworld4realz.com/ Andi-Roo

    I work for a major corporation as a retail manager. One of my biggest problems with this company is that no one will carry bad news for you. We were bought out by said “major corporation” about a year ago and our retail model differed greatly than that of this institution. Mostly in the sense that it is a big box chain trying to fit their big box rules and procedures into our small box store that they bought out. It has been nearly a year now and we have been through 2 District managers. Even after all this time, no one is trying to figure out what is wrong. They have their own version of “small box” stores that they ran before they bought us, both of these are not doing well (as far as they are concerned). It seems to me that if my DM’s were not so worried about shaking things up a little, that some of the valuable information we have provided (having run these small box stores for decades, most of us anyway) would filter through to the top and maybe cause someone to rethink how they treat these style stores. Instead, what we here as an entire district of 30 stores is that we are not performing to their standards and we have to work harder and longer to achieve the desired results. The problem is, certain things are nearly impossible to accomplish because of the payroll hours allocated to this size store, other obstacles are that we are expected to hit the same add on sales marks that the big box stores do even though it is proven that the longer you’re in a store the more you will buy. See empathic listening…

  • http://abetterpossession.wordpress.com/ Craig Hamilton

    Great post! 

    As a supervisor I think I’m either the first to know or the last to know. And I think you’re exactly right in working hard to create that culture where people are free to be honest without fear of getting in trouble for it.

    The questions that I like to ask my direct reports are:

    1) What am I doing that helps you do your job?
    2) What am I doing that hinders you doing your job?
    3) In this next quarter what’s one thing I can do that’s out of the ordinary that would most help you in moving forward?

  • Lead4Him1

    Supervisors who micro-manage their employees. They provide them with countless check lists and then change them regularly without communication. Supervisors who don’t listen well but instead want you to know how much they know about a given topic. Other than that my supervisor is great.

  • dallonchristensen

    From personal experience in my last company before starting my own business, another item to add is when a supervisor automatically assumes his/her way is the best way and just overhauls a process without clearly understanding why I was doing something in the first place. My manager came in and simply took things over with little input from me. It left me frustrated and feeling like what I was doing wasn’t any good at all.

    I’m all in favor of supervisors and managers looking to improve processes, and they can be a great set of new eyes when doing their jobs well. However, totally bulldozing through what someone has done for some time is not a great way to build trust among employees.

  • Efinance08

    I work for someone who does 1 through 4….,..

  • D Smith

    Excellently stated Michael.  One question though, and I think many of the readers here can help too is, what do you do when you’re the #2 guy in a small organization and the big boss is guilty of all 4 issues stated?  We’re really spinning our wheels when we could be moving forward and truly making a connection with our community.  It’s not just lack of leadership and accountability, it’s also lack of experience and knowledge about how business works, from systems and structures to planning and strategy.  We’ve been a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants operation for years and have barely gotten by on the backs of some extremely loyal and dedicated and hard-working people.  But we’re all really burned out and want change.  Do you have any possible solutions?

    Thanks.

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      It sounds like you have a good feel for the leadership solution and are willing to help implement change.  If so, it might be time to have a heart-to-heart with the boss by presenting a problem-solution type message concluding with the benefits of making the necessary changes (increased production, profits, loyalty, and morale) and the potential cost of not doing so (no new growth, decline from loss of the loyal clients, lost employees from burnout).   Jim Collins’ book, How The Mighty Fall, could be a good tool for you to help you bring clarity to the state of your company and identify how to avoid failure.  

      Many times “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” leaders hire the #2 guy because they know that systems and structure are needed.  Your open, honest and constructive feedback and suggestions may be exactly what he’s looking for.

      However, if you discover that the boss is not open to it, I would keep your eyes open for an opportunity with another team where improvement is welcome.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      If it were me, I would work to make sure I had other employment options. Assuming you do, I would sit down with the boss and ask for permission to be candid. Then I would tell him—kindly but truthfully—what he needs to hear.
      If he is a wise person, he (or she) will receive it with grace. If not, then you probably need to look elsewhere.
      Hope that helps.

  • Kate McClain

    One way that I, as a supervisor, frustrated my team is not giving appropriate feedback. I used to only give detailed feedback about what they did wrong, and never really acknowledged what they were doing well. Because of this, they felt under appreciated and weren’t very motivated to work for me. After realizing this, I started giving detailed feedback in areas they were doing well in addition to feedback on how to improve.

    Now, me team is more productive, their moral has improved, and their work displays excellence.

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Kate, kudos for making an honest evaluation of your leadership and making adjustments. You deserve the rewards!

  • Julie Swihart

    Supervisors also frustrate by micromanaging.

    Instead, supervisors should properly train new employees, then for specific projects:

    1. Define the desired outcome
    2. Provide a deadline
    3. Be available for questions
    4. Let the employee figure it out

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      Micromanagement is a near universal frustration among employees. Sounds like we could use a blog post on this subject! (hint, hint)

  • Guest

    Supervisors who don’t hold ANY meetings and do ALL communication through email are just as frustrating. 

  • http://www.enmast.com/ Devan Perine

    I know the exact frustration! I’ve had bosses that would run really late to meetings and we’d get barely anytime to go over what we needed to discuss. Because of it, we would never get to accomplish anything and I wouldn’t be able to make an appointment to meet with them until the following week. 

    Then best yet – they’d have an appointment or meeting right after mine, and made sure we got done early so they wouldn’t be late, squishing my 45 minute meeting a 15 minute meeting. I didn’t feel like I was respected or my time and work was valued..

    I just wrote a post on this same topic the other day – but from the employee’s point of view and what it feels like. 

    I would really love to get your thoughts on it, Michael. 

    When the leader doesn’t lead – an employee’s point of view: http://ow.ly/aYJ1D

  • Phyllis Twombly

    During district meetings the company I used to work for didn’t want to give attendees time to relax and explore the city the meeting was in. In effect, we were supposed to put in unpaid overtime because the company had paid for travel and hotel expenses. While it wasn’t the case a few decades ago the more the company lost ground the worse it became, resulting in a lot of absenteeism during the meetings.

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  • http://www.48dayrebel.com/ Jonathan Brown

    One of the best books I have read on the subject is Hans Finzel’s : Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make. Many bosses have the ” I’m in charge” mentality’ (Top Down Attitude/ # 1 Mistake)   because they work over their employees not beside them. It’s like they think they are the only one who has a brain!

  • Disgruntled

    They always criticize, and pass blame, but they never encourage or praise. The atmosphere become very heavy and negative and it is becoming harder and harder to digest. Soon I will be ready to walk away from that horrid place.

  • http://www.leadingeveryday.com/ Juan Cruz Jr

    Supervisors send too many emails. 

  • Glenn Nigel

    Excessive control can be a very demoralizing.  Favoritism towards a few members in the group can result in a lack of trust among members of the same group and also encourage group ism.

  • Sally

    Favoritism toward employees where some can “get away with it” and others must tow the line.

  • Kelechi

    Michael,
    You need a print button for your web pages that allows one to print the article without it appearing garbled

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Thanks. There is one at the bottom of each post where it says, Share and Enjoy. Click on the PrintFriendly button.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1123723512 Don McBride

    There are many times I feel like I’m not getting accurate information and I feel at the mercy of those who are presenting information to me. I have to trust them, and if I’m wrong, I become part of the monster of a problem. This was a great post and I’m adding it to my MBWA. 

  • Tim B

    Another to add to the list is the “Grossly incompetant, highly vindictive and opportunistic” supervisor.  I spend most of my time either covering his stupidity or laying low so that I don’t become the target of a witch hunt.. (Usually intended to throw dirt on you to take the focus off of himself.)  What’s more frustrating is our entire department has told upper management about the ongoing issues, but nothing is done either because he has sucked up to the right people or he is friends with others.  It’s incredibly demoralizing and highly aggravating.

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  • Jane

    These are good topics, but I have run into Supervisors who are concern about maintain his or her positions and are willing to hiring other managers who job is to interferer with the employees productivity (aka high turn over)! Profit over productivity is a big issue and now we are seeing guides on how not to take it personal by being professional in every book store and library.

  • Carlos

    Have a supervisor, and after a few months take away their privilege and put them to work as regular employee after another person has come to take your place. Is that even possible?