The First Challenges

The first challenges our study participants experienced happened right after our first training, when they went back to their organizations and communicated to the people they supervise that they were asking for weekly reports to be submitted every Friday.

Now, part of the training is about how to communicate this request to employees. It’s easy for people who are suddenly (from their perspective) asked to report in on what they’re doing every week to feel suspicious and defensive, even though we’re asking for both positive and negative. Being asked to report in on what went wrong for you that week is scary. Especially if the organization hasn’t created trust in the past, it can feel like a trap to report in on what’s problematic for you. But the intention of RISWS is to create a cycle of trust between manager and team members so that problems are obstacles to be fixed so everyone gets more work done together, and no one’s thrown under the bus.

So we talk about how to present the request to employees so they don’t think they’re being set up, and so they know that the more honest they are in what they submit, the more help they’ll get from the manager in solving stuff so they can just do their jobs, and that they’re leaving a concrete record of all the stuff they’re doing really well. And, frankly, that people who aren’t actually working aren’t going to be able to hide that for long, so this is a way to iron out the problem of freeriders.

But this is complicated in organizations like universities in which employees are not all the same category and often supervisors may have no direct authority over the workers in their units.That’s what we discovered in the first few days of attempting to implement RISWS: Employees in certain categories, who were directly under the authority of our managers, were the first to understand what we were trying to do, and that this was a way to assign responsibility for problem-solving and bring issues to light so we could work on them. But employees in categories that didn’t allow for any direct authority just flat-out refused to do any reports. One employee complained to her union rep about being asked to report in on what she was doing at work. One of our managers was told by her supervisor that implementing RISWS might violate the terms of the union contract.

This is utterly baffling to me, that we’ve set up organizations so that it’s a violation of employment terms for a manager to actually supervise someone who reports to them. And that we’ve built mistrust and adversarial relationships into workflow and work relationships. This seems like an astronomically bad idea, because then you’re paying people to fight with each other instead of to work for the mission of your institution. But I’m just the consultant, so I stayed supportive and just waited to see what happened next…

And it mostly worked out. The supervisor stood down and smoothed things over. Our managers started giving feedback to the employees who did turn in weekly reports, and those employees started seeing value in having a manager understand what was frustrating them (even if the manager couldn’t fix it yet). Our managers also found out that some of their employees were doing some cool things they hadn’t had any format to report in on before.

There were still holdouts, though. Employees in some categories still refused to turn in reports, and our managers couldn’t require them because there was no direct chain. So it started out as baby steps for the first few weeks.

What I learned, again, from this is that organizations with complicated org charts have a harder time getting anything done and fixing problems than organizations with simple org charts do. And that fear kills productivity and engagement.

The solution to both of these things for the manager is to open out toward your employees and be honest about what you need from them and what you can give, and then just stay in good faith. You can’t control what anyone else does, but you can do your best for your people.