My Turn: Get Wise and Supervise

Study shows increased management pays off for organizations.

By Bruce Tulgan

Tulgan was the 2009 recipient of Toastmasters International’s most prestigious honor, the Golden Gavel Award. He spoke at the luncheon in his honor during last year’s International Convention in Mashantucket, Connecticut.

As a leader, manager, teacher or coach, or simply as a good citizen in any endeavor, you are wise to heed the old-fashioned basics of supervision. Whoever you are leading and wherever you are leading them, pay close attention to what your team members are doing and how they are doing it.

Spend time with them. Talk with them in a clear and penetrating manner. Guide them, direct them and support them.

I’ve been teaching these techniques to leaders and managers for many years. Over the last two years, my firm, RainmakerThinking, Inc., conducted a study to learn the most effective business strategies used by U.S. organizations during 2009’s economic crisis. Our findings show that the one strategy most important to an organization’s financial success was increased supervision and management of employees.

More than 1,000 managers participated in the study from different organizations in the private, public and nonprofit sectors. RainmakerThinking gathered data through surveys, questionnaires, one-on- one interviews, focus groups and seminars. Managers who used the following three strategies during the recession reported having the strongest financial results in 2009:

  • Cost cutting. This included eliminating staff, space and resources.
  • Innovations. Organizations found new methods of sourcing, design, production, promotion and delivery of their products and services. 
  • Increased supervision. Employees received more one-on-one training, direction and feedback from managers.

Yet among managers employing only one of those strategies, those who used increased supervision reported the top financial results by far in 2009. Cutting salaries and benefits might have been necessary, but organizations that stepped up their hands-on management were able to reward staff with perks like flexibility and working from home.

Managers who started paying closer attention to who was doing what – and why and where – were communicating more with their direct reports, and following up on their employees’ job performance more often. These managers were better able to reward their top- performing people, and less likely to reward those who performed poorly or didn’t work hard.

Managers began to view pay raises and benefits as rewards rather than as automatic or across the board. The result: They started practicing real performance-based compensation.

Most of the focus on performance- based rewards by the comp-and-benefits community has traditionally been on changing the compensation system. Yet the best system will fail miserably if managers on the ground are not doing the hard work of spelling out expectations, making the quid pro quo explicit and truly monitoring the production that’s within the control of individual employees. Much of that involves communicating effectively. Spelling out expectations, for example, requires that managers speak clearly to employees – and use specific, instructive words.

The recession-induced realization that organizations fare better when supervisors make their expectations clear, monitor employees’ progress and evaluate their outcomes has made a dent in what I call the “undermanagement epidemic.” Managers are finally getting back to the basics of managing.

Human relations pros can take this positive step even further by recognizing it as a training challenge. Start pushing your organization to commit to a culture of strong leadership and to building back-to-basics management training into the development process for leaders at every level.

Managers who already have returned to basic supervisory practices will find it difficult to walk away from that necessity in more prosperous times, because it has been so effective during the most trying of times. 

Bruce Tulgan is the founder of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a research, training and consulting firm in New Haven, Connecticut. He is the author of It’s Okay to Be the Boss and Managing Generation X. Contact Bruce at