The 3 Common Mistakes Supervisors Make During Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations are uncomfortable, so can I brush them aside? I’ve been avoiding difficult conversations and now feel like I’m about to explode. What can I do? Am I the only one who’s nervous to approach their supervisor with a difficult question?
Kenzie Koch
Kenzie Koch
Mark Penrod | Project Manager

Mark Penrod, Project Manager at GUARDIAN RFID served for over 12 years at the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office and finished his journey as the Operations Lieutenant. During the seven years prior to his last day, Mark led the Detention Bureau Investigations Unit, which was otherwise known as the Internal Affairs for his jail. Mark noticed that one of the most common issues was the communication breakdown between officers and supervisors. In this age of enhanced data analytics and video surveillance, it’s easy to understand why staff feel as though “big brother” is watching them and waiting to pounce the moment they make even the slightest mistake.

Being an Internal Affairs investigator veteran, Mark has been exposed to all sorts of scenarios. He believes one thing is for certain: line staff will inevitably mess up. This is something you can expect to happen with any employee in any field of work. It’s only human to make mistakes. You may be familiar with the phrase: it doesn’t matter how many times you fall as long as you get back up. Look at the bright side, mistakes can often lead to creativity and innovation. People learn from mistakes. It’s a process of elimination that leads to the correct answer. Mistakes are not failures. 

Punishing an employee for a mistake is like beating a dead horse. They know something bad happened, so what’s the point of rubbing it in their face? However, a common tactic that is just as harmful as threatening an employee for a mistake is the polar opposite action - ignoring the problem. Acting as if a serious problem never happened is just as, if not more, dangerous as punishing an employee for a mishap because the problem will happen over, and over, and over again.  Instead, use the mistake as an opportunity to learn and improve. There’s a high probability that it will be uncomfortable to be stern with your staff but use those difficult conversations as building blocks to improve further operations. Supervisors are known to be the leaders of the pack. Being a leader means being someone people want to follow. You don’t want to be the supervisor that employees are afraid to come to when something goes wrong. You want to keep an open-door relationship with your subordinates and have fluid transparency, honesty, and respect. When a supervisor or “leader” doesn’t allow for this type of relationship, tensions can rise and cause a lot of animosity. This will become draining for both the supervisor and the staff. 

Mark’s experience has led him to determine that this type of tension results from supervisors not fully grasping how to have an effective, difficult conversation with a subordinate. Although it may be awkward, difficult conversations are part of the employee-employer relationship. As a supervisor, you do yourself and your department a disservice by avoiding difficult conversations. Have you ever heard someone say, “My car is making an odd noise, so I just turn up the radio and I don’t have to hear it”?  You may have thought they are just prolonging a critical system failure and if they keep doing that, the car will eventually break down. This process goes the same for your staff, if you ignore the critical conversations then eventually every shred of respect your staff has for you will vanish.

The three most common errors a supervisor will make during a difficult conversation are what Mark likes to call: Rapid Fire, Stay Puff, and the Gotcha Sandwich.    

Rapid Fire

In this situation, all you do is unhinge and completely unload your laundry list of complaints onto your subordinate. Meanwhile, this officer stopped listening a quarter of the way through your rant and is already contemplating, “Do I punch this sucker in the face?” or “I’ll just quit and be done with this place.” Typically, this error happens due to a couple of reasons: the issue at hand has you so upset you can’t restrain yourself, or you’ve avoided the problem for so long that you’ve built a giant pile of dry ammo that just finally met its match.

Stay Puff

The opposite of Rapid Fire is a Stay Puff situation. This happens when a supervisor is so uncomfortable about having a difficult conversation with a staff member that they go above and beyond to minimize any negative impact. This supervisor blames other parties such as the Sheriff's Administration or the Warden for the mishaps. These supervisors “puff” themselves up to be the “friend” and deflect from his or her duty of supervising and counseling this employee.  You may recall conversations that start with, “I don’t have a problem with what you did, but those idiots upfront want a paper on you” then in the same breath turn into something like, “Oh, by the way, your attendance has been good, keep it up.” With conversations like these, your staff won’t know if they’ve been given a disciplinary or a promotion.

Gotcha Sandwich

Have you ever been the victim of a compliment that ended with you wishing you had worn some lead pants to work?  The Gotcha Sandwich is served when a supervisor says something to an officer like, “Hey Officer Johnson, great job on catching that contraband in 2A tank… by the way, you were late on a round that day. If you’re late again, trust me you won’t like what happens.”  This supervisor reels the subordinate in with a compliment and then drops the hammer on them out of nowhere.

Think about the mistakes you made as an officer; you weren’t perfect. It’s only human to make mistakes. Although we have advanced technology at our fingertips that help manage jails and prisons at levels of efficiency never imagined, technology can never replace our people. Our flawed, imperfect, sometimes sloppy, yet brave people. No matter how sloppy you are, no matter how precise you are, do not ever forget about the human element that fuels the corrections operations. You owe it to yourself and your troops to turn the negative components of the job into authentic coaching and mentoring opportunities. Have difficult conversations with an open mind. Who knows? Once you look through their lens, maybe you’ll have a different perspective. Some of us might end up looking into a mirror.