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When the Example Becomes the Story

Direct Report: I’m having challenges with people not really bringing 100% to work.

Supervisor: There’s a lot going on with the pandemic and everything, but what are you seeing?

DR: Well, it’s not any one thing, but a lot of little things that add up.

S: Like what?

DR: Do you remember the staff meeting last week where we had handouts?

S: Yes, was there something wrong with them?

DR: No, but the Zoom folks didn’t get them until after someone asked and then there was the struggle deciding to email or send to the shared file or share the screen.

S: I was looking at my copy and didn’t notice much. I recall we got going and discussed the report.

DR: Right, but we didn’t cover the full agenda and the report distribution should have been anticipated since having team members working remotely is not new.

S: I see. So next time, let’s add 30 minutes to the meeting to make sure we get through the entire agenda. We certainly don’t want voices and points of view to not be heard or shared because we ran out of time. Thanks for bringing it up.

Please pause your reading for just a second. Think about the times this has happened to you. Can you recall a time when you mustered up your energy to bring a difficult topic to your boss just to have it broken down to the smallest, easiest to manage portion and then dismissed as solved?

Supervision is difficult and leadership is more so. What makes it difficult is not “dealing with other people’s problems.” What makes it difficult is having the patience and tenacity to supervise correctly.

The employee in this scenario is describing to their supervisor that there is a buffet of challenges. The supervisor becomes hyper-focused on whether there is spaghetti or angel hair pasta available at the buffet. Why is this?

An Answer-Seeking Missile

When folks hear a problem, it is relatively natural to seek out the solution. What’s the answer? This is true even when the problem is relatively narrow in scope. Imagine a physician visiting a patient. The patient says, “In most ways, I feel great. The problem is my shoulder. When I lift my left arm between 45 and 55 degrees perpendicular to my body in front of me, I get a sensation of shooting pain that radiates from, what seems to be my shoulder socket.” The physician says, “Let’s have a look at that shoulder.”

Imagine the same scenario, but the patient says, “I don’t feel good.” The physician inquires, “Where don’t you feel good?” “Well, I’ve had a headache for about 2 weeks, my right ankle is swollen, my back is out, I’m not sleeping well, and my left shoulder hurts when I use it.” If the physician replies, “Okay, take some ibuprofen for your ankle and you can schedule a follow-up on your way out if you want to,” you may be in the market for a new physician.

The aforementioned difficulty with supervision and leadership is in the exploration and support. Offering an answer to a small portion of the problem might feel like solving the issue, but in most cases, the employee voicing their concern will not feel supported at all; and they will be right.

The Problem-Hearing Investigator

An authentic leader will engage in a deeper dive with their direct report. They will use intentional interviewing techniques to much better understand the direct report’s point of view. The authentic leader will take the example and use it for what it is: an example, it’s not the story. Then the leader will ask more questions as follows:


Not distributing the copy in advance is problematic. Not having a plan to distribute it to distance employees signals that they’re an afterthought. Are you seeing other behaviors that could show different engagement between on-site and distance employees? You mentioned people not bringing 100% to work, what other issues are you seeing? To what degree does this affect your day-to-day work? In addition to exploring the concerns you mentioned, how may I support you moving forward?


This will absolutely take time. It will cost energy. Because employee engagement and satisfaction are significant contributors to productivity and the backbone of culture, the investments of time and energy have a huge positive repercussions.

Leaders, please do not be tempted to imagine a funnel when an employee brings a big unruly challenge. The goal is not to stuff whatever challenges are presented into the funnel and have it come out in a tidy package. The goal is to support the employee.

Please consider imagining thick and heavy fog. You know that within that fog you will find vehicles, people, and buildings. But you don’t know how many, what type, how they interact, or anything. But your responsibility is not to determine what is going on with one vehicle, but to understand the entire situation. Additionally, there will be a lot more going on than you can see and you have to be okay with that. If you, as a leader, are not comfortable with, or cannot come to terms with ambiguity and the unknown, you will continue to seek singular answers rather than seek to understand the problem.

In short, do your best to fight the urge. Fight the urge to present the solution when the challenge presented is complex and involves humans. Take the example as an example of the struggle, not a complete and full depiction of the struggle.

Cover Art Photo by Gabriele Diwald on Unsplash

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