Are you shutting down a problem-solving leader?

Corrections supervisors can support innovation and job satisfaction by being open to ideas from staff


“That is a dumb idea!”

My supervisor used those words some 10 years ago after I came to him with my thought on a significant change a group of us were working on. We were in the implementation phase of a new classification policy for our facility. I was concerned about moving a highly sophisticated group of inmates within shouting distance of a group of protective custody inmates, which included vulnerable mental health patients.

I offered up an alternative housing configuration, but my supervisor was ready for implementation and short on time. He shut me down and clearly communicated how dumb he thought the idea was.

Luckily, we have some thick skins in corrections. I laughed the comment off, shrugged and said, “Copy.” I went on with my day and thought about why my idea was dumb. It would not have been the first dumb idea I had come up with.

However, I thought this particular idea was a good one, and I explained the why and the how of my option pretty well. I was convinced I had an answer to a problem we were trying to solve. Without any explanation or dialog, the supervisor defaulted to his rank and expressed his authority on the matter. He was quick, he was decisive, and he was wrong.  

I was on vacation the following week when a second supervisor who had witnessed the shutdown by my first supervisor called me, snickering. He told me that they tried the original housing configuration. The configuration went poorly, as I had predicted. They then changed course and followed my plan with success.

The win was a little bigger for me because I looked forward to hearing from the supervisor who shut me down. When I got back from vacation, I expected a sheepish grin from the first supervisor, “dumb idea” guy, with at least some acknowledgment that he had been wrong. That didn’t happen, and I moved on. However, I remembered.

Of the two supervisors, whom do you think I respected just a little more? Of those two supervisors, for whom did I try just a little harder? If I wanted to present new ideas or try to problem-solve with a supervisor, which of the two did I feel more confident going to?

CRITICAL THINKING OUTSIDE OF CRITICAL INCIDENTS

Corrections supervisors have to take command regularly of quickly developing incidents. Responsive decision-making often involves a quick team huddle and, at best, a fast discussion to devise a plan and review options. During critical incidents, it makes sense that the supervisor will shoulder the responsibility of a final call and shut down any deviations from the plan.

In such cases, the timeline to make decisions leaves very little room for staff development. It is beneficial to your team if you advise them ahead of critical incidents that you will generally take quicker and stronger command in those times.

For a majority of the time, however, a correctional team’s decision-making can be slowed down to be more deliberate and open for discussion. Maintaining open lines of communication between line staff and supervisors is critical to allow for the development of critical-thinking skills within a workgroup. Even in the tough corrections environment, supervisors must be mindful of any behaviors they exhibit that may discourage subordinates from volunteering ideas and possible solutions.

FOCUS ON THE ACT OF PROBLEM-SOLVING

When a supervisor expresses a negative response to a subordinate’s attempt to problem-solve, the supervisor’s team will put less effort into problem-solving. This seems like a simple concept, but supervisors still fail to follow through on it regardless.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to agree with every new idea your team is giving you. Some ideas will lack vision or big-picture thinking. Others will immediately annoy you, perhaps because some of the ideas staff members come up with are, in fact, dumb ideas. We have all had those.

Whether someone on your team comes to you with a good or a bad idea, first recognize that your subordinate cares enough about the job to think about processes and solutions. Second, recognize that the individual is trusting you – the supervisor – to not have a negative reaction, even if you’re joking, to their presentation of an idea.

As a supervisor, mind your tone when responding to your staff. Even your face can stop a subordinate from coming to you with a plan. For example, you may be focused on a project and walk out of your office with an intense look on your face, then wonder why your staff is keeping you at arm’s length.    

The next time you want to laugh, shake your head, or just shut your office door because you are too busy when a staff member comes to you with any communication, take a moment and consider the benefits of developing a culture in your team where staff are encouraged to round-table their problem-solving with or without their supervisor.

Sure, there is a point where the talking must stop, and the doing must start. At some point, the staff member with a bunch of good ideas who hovers at your desk for an hour is not contributing to the team. You will have to find the balance.

ALWAYS BE CULTIVATING YOUR FUTURE LEADERSHIP

Consider that you are one person and, while you may have more experience than most of your team, your line staff will often come up with better solutions than yours to the problems you face every day. If this is happening already, you should be celebrating.

If given a clear path to communicate solutions with their supervisor, your team of future leaders will enjoy more success. They will also feel more relevant to the agency and its mission, which will strengthen their desire to go beyond the job description. From a practical point of view, the more problem-solving capability a team has, the more bandwidth the supervisor has to carry out higher-level duties.

Ultimately, line-staff members who feel they can have a positive influence on agency missions will stay longer with your agency and promote. One key factor to cultivating this feeling of positive influence is a safe path to communication up and down the chain of command. That safe path starts with a first-line supervisor who is willing to set aside rank and authority and to remove barriers to effective communication.

NEXT: Can you hear what they’re saying?

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