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A Letter to the Boss

letter to boss

If you are in a supervisory role or not, this has value for you.  The term supervisor extends from a front-line supervisor to a seasoned CEO or business owner.  I wrote this letter ten years ago to get the attention of supervisors and managers in the workplace.  It is easy to blame workers when things are not functioning optimally on the job.  How often do we, as leaders, look to ourselves first and take total ownership of a leader's role?  We will dissect the letter on the other side.

[Dear Supervisor

I am writing this letter because it is sometimes difficult for me to give you feedback and there are some things that I expect from you as my boss.  I don't want to offend you, and I don't want to make you angry, but I don't think you know how to get the most from your subordinates.  Please know that what I am writing is intended to make you a better leader and make us more likely to accomplish your objectives.

We want to do an excellent job for you, and I don't think you know what motivates us to perform.  Keeping good people on the team makes everyone's job better. Don't ever settle for just anyone because "we" have to work with them, and often "we" carry the load they don't.  Additionally, you need to keep the best and brightest people who are currently on the team.  We are concerned when good team members leave to find something better elsewhere.  It makes us wonder if we should go too.

Your integrity is critical for us to trust you, and we cannot follow you if we don't trust you to do what you say you are going to do.  Believe it or not, we don't even have to like what you want us to do if we know you are fair and consistent with assignments.  Please don't lie to us or someone else in our presence.  We want to trust you, and when you don't tell the truth, it makes trust very difficult.  We will forgive you when you make a mistake.  Own up to errors and occasional lapses in judgment, and we will pull for you to be successful.  If you promise to do something, we need to know that you have done everything in your power to make it happen.

You are "the company" to us, and when you blame or talk bad about the organization, we get confused.  We see only your perspective and hope that it represents what others in leadership think and expect.  We don't want to be a part of anything negative and look to you for cues to take that same information.  Often, our behavior is a direct representation of what we think you expect from us.  Regardless of whatever posters they hang on the walls or the speeches we hear, your opinion and expectations are what guide our behavior.

Your actions always speak louder than words, and we always judge your actions.  If you are quick to take a shortcut or sacrifice quality, we will too.  You are still our leader, and we do want you to be successful on the job.  We evaluate your motives and actions to see what you think about many different things on or off the job.  This evaluation is subtle, and we know you are not perfect.  Know that you are under constant scrutiny from us. We don't always have to agree with you to respect the fact that you have strong opinions about certain things.

Respect and appreciate the contributions we make, and we will give you more than you ever imagined.  Undervalue our effort, and you will get less from all of us.  We are not "that hard" to please, and if you make a sincere effort, we will give you our effort in return.  The little things matter to us, and we expect you to try to make our work easier any way you can.  When you overlook our struggles, no matter how small, we start to doubt that we are important to you or the company.  If we are not necessary, then why should we stay with you?

Finally, we expect you to stand up for us when it counts.  If we make a mistake trying to do the right thing, we hope you protect us from negative consequences.  If we cannot fail, we will make fewer decisions and do less work.  We won't show initiative or give extra effort if we don't think you notice.

I hope you won't take this letter the wrong way as we want you to be the best!  We will share more later.


Your Employee]

Now, we will examine the letter in parts.  It is up to the supervisor to create an environment for mutual feedback.  It isn't easy because one side has power, and the other does not.  Feedback typically cascades instead of flowing in multiple directions.  I teach supervisors to have monthly conversations with direct reports.  In these sessions, supervisors learn to make it safe for employees to give them feedback as a boss.

Average and top performers know when there is an inequity of work—keeping sub-performers places a physical and emotional burden on others.  Settling for the wrong people may seem acceptable; however, the team always suffers.  Supervisors should never be indifferent to the suffering created by hiring or keeping the wrong people.

Trust in supervisors is essential for team success.  Employees must trust their boss to do what she says, even when it is difficult.  Be it as simple as remembering a promise or enforcing a policy; people want the consistency to maintain trust.  When a leader makes a mistake (and we all do), people will accept the error if a foundation of trust exists.

Though tempting, a supervisor should never speak poorly of the organization or anyone on the leadership team.  This tenant is absolute.  Complaints and blame should never cascade into the organization.  Being a leader means taking ownership and looking forward when things go wrong.  If you want to commiserate, get a coach or a peer group. A supervisor's role is to lead each day.  Never be allowed to get pulled into negativity about the team or its leaders.  It is destructive.

People want to be appreciated.  However, it must be sincere and specific.  I teach leaders to be intentional about observing activities.  The activity of noticing details in a subordinate's work is a new leadership muscle for most.  It requires practice and repetition to become a leadership habit. Don't just be thankful, be detailed about the activities you appreciate.

Without power, people feel vulnerable.  It is up to the person in control to make people feel safe at work.  This safety extends beyond regular activity and includes taking risks or making decisions they are unsure about making.  People need to know someone has their back at all times as long as they try to do what benefits the team or company objectives.  Honest mistakes must be acceptable.  An honest mistake is a failure accompanied by positive intentions or a lack of knowledge.  If punishment or negativity occurs, people will no longer trust someone in power is protecting them.  This reality results in a human paralysis that appears to be a lack of initiative.  If your people are not making decisions or acting independently on the job, take ownership for not making them feel safe.

Taking full ownership as a leader means it is always your fault.  When you blame others or make excuses, you fail as a leader.  There are no bad teams, only bad leaders.  You must change the people or change the people.  Can you embrace that?  Because when you do, the ballasts get removed, and you accept the present reality and look toward the future.  People will follow you as their leader.