To read about F's and my London trip, start here and click "newer post" to continue the story.

Monday, March 02, 2009

So among other things, my blog is a spot for me to park my internal monologue. Here are further thoughts on the supervisor/supervisee relationship.

A smart boss takes into account the personalities of the people who report to her. Why? Everybody is different. People have different motivations and priorities. They also have their individual sets of ethical standards. Bosses get into trouble when they tell an employee to do X, and the employee does it, neglecting Y in the process: "I never told you to neglect Y!" Well, some employees will always take care of the more important consideration, whether explicitly told to or not, and some will do whatever it takes to get the noise to stop. And since you can't design the perfect employee from the ground up, and then use the mold to make an army of clones, you have to work with what you get, and you have to know what you're working with and think about what kind of noise you're making.

So you have a lab employee who is compulsive about doing every single detail of a method exactly as written, but gets caught up in loops of minutiae and spends three hours on a twenty-minute task. And you have another who is very conscious of what has to be done by when, and takes little shortcuts to make sure she gets there. Both of these have weaknesses, but both have strengths. Managing adults is a lot like parenting - you get a lot further if you work from and expand on strengths rather than run head-on into weaknesses all the time.

One strategy is frequent, specific, and immediate feedback. This task can't take all day. You need to tighten up these duplicates - when you see a percent difference like this, you need to rerun. Look at your controls on this chart - they're the pink ones - see how much tighter they've gotten over the last month. Thanks for getting this stuff ready for my meeting; I appreciate you.

Another is to think about what's going on with the person and help her figure out what to do. When you start a task, estimate how long it should take. Look at the clock. Then look at it periodically while you're working, and challenge yourself to get through when you thought you would. Or: Let's pinpoint exactly where you're falling in a hole. Find that spot and then ssssslllooooowwww down.

Another is to teach beyond the task. This is really useful in the laboratory. I draw molecular structures and explain reactions so that the techs can see that, for example, heating the material with sodium hydroxide forms soaps, which are sodium salts of fatty acids. We're titrating the unused sodium hydroxide to calculate the amount of fatty acid we started with. So the volume of sodium hydroxide solution you use is a critical volume and you must use a volumetric pipet. And then as you get close - you see the pH changing. It's getting close to the inflection point, and it's not just the electrode not keeping up, the reaction is happening now. So this is where you stop and let it happen; don't try to rush it or you'll run past your endpoint.

These are all easy when the boss knows exactly what the employees are supposed to do. It's harder when the boss doesn't know. I've had bosses who clearly made a conscious effort to keep their priorities front and center: safety, of course, and then accurate, defensible results. If you're going to push people you have to know that they're not going to yield on the things that you tacitly expect them not to yield on, and those bosses aren't tacit about it. I wrote a little more about that here.

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