How can I work in this vacuum?


I work on a small team (there are now just two of us since our supervisor was laid off). It is a pilot project and we need to be getting our sales and promotion going and going fast. The problem is that since our supervisor was laid off, the two of us left behind have been having issues.

One person just can't keep up to the changing needs. She needs exact lists of exact steps and cannot learn from or seemingly observe other factors that logically influence what we are doing. When things develop so that a plan needs to change, she believes that I have left her out of the loop when in fact this is the first time I have considered the impact of this new development. This type of emotional shutdown happens frequently. This is not an area or a time in the business where the procedures are laid out, so you have to be able to navigate using intuition and logic.

That leaves me to do all the business planning, and therefore all the supervising and task distribution on top of the planning and doing my part of the actions that need to be taken. She takes one task, and because there isn't a strict list of things to be done drags it on and on until I 'supervise' again and mention that something else needs to be done.

We have an official supervisor who is not at the worksite, nor does he like working with any details. My problem is that I am forced to be a supervisor and don't have the official authority to do so. I try expressing my task delegation as suggestions or observations, but unless I say "you should do this" she doesn't pick up on the suggestion. I have to spell out everything and I don't feel there is a lot of time to do this type of supervision right now. Even if there was, I don't feel like I am officially authorised to do this.


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John Colley's Answer:

OK, lets try to identify the problems here:

You are working in a dynamic and innovative area which demands flexibility and initiative on a pilot project which needs to get sales and promotion going. Your coworker does not exhibit these skills.

Your supervisor is not supervising or providing you with the authority to supervise

I think you need to take two separate actions simultaneously: deal with your supervisor and deal with your coworker. So in no particular order;

1. Your Supervisor

You need to enlist the authority of your Supervisor to empower you. I would suggest that you adopt a non-threatening approach along the lines of if this pilot project succeeds you, the supervisor, will get the credit from his boss.

Stress you are keen to take the initiative and, in the absence of the official supervisor who was laid off, you want him to give you temporary supervisory authority on this project to ensure it is a success.

Stress to him that failure on his part to do this may compromise the project due to lack of direction. An email trail to this effect will also stand you in good stead should he chose to frustrate you, although broadly speaking I am not in favour of purely "protectionist" emails.

If you get nowhere with your supervisor, the nuclear option is to go to his boss and table the issue.

2. Your Co-worker

If your co-worker needs lists and structure then I would recommend that you work with her to create them.

I suggest that you sit down with her and say, "We both know that this project has lots of detail and complexities to it and that neither one of us has all the answers. So we are going to work together to create the systems and structure as we go"

Remember, creativity can be chaotic but business needs structure.

It seems that your co-worker is uncomfortable without it and needs a set of rails to run on.

The first step is to brainstorm together and get all your ideas down on a sheet of paper and then organise them. Use a mind map to do this or create a document (eg in Google docs) that you can both access.

Ensure that she understands that she is free to add new steps as required. In addition keep a comments column to collect ideas and feedback from your work as it goes along. You will need a "completed by" column and a date, encouraging her to complete this as you go.

Agree to have a start of the day 10 minutes to prioritise the work for the day and agreed to have a two way flow of information. Have an end of day mutual debrief and progress check to discuss what has gone well and been completed. Also identify where progress has not been achieved and discuss why not and what you both have to do to rectify the situation. Make sure you have some examples of your own to table so that this does not feel like an interrogation.

I am recommending a "this is how WE have to get this done approach" but you will need her buy-in and acceptance to this process.

I strongly recommend you both read Atul Gawande's book The Checklist Manifesto for more ideas.

Make sure that you capture what you create and then present this structure and system to your supervisory as a blue print for future pilot projects, copied into the rest of the senior members of your company when you have finished.

It is clear that you have lots of self-motivation and ability. Turn this problem into an opportunity to show your senior colleagues what you are capable of and help them to better understand your value to the company. Who knows, there is already a supervisor vacancy...


About our Expert

John Colley
John Colley

John Coley is a partner at IAF Capital Limited and has more than 25 years of corporate advisory experience. He shares his insights into business strategy on his Six Minute Strategist blog.