“Talk to My Supervisor”


Those might be some of the most frustrating words you can hear.

Usually because whatever you’ve said to elicit that comment wasn’t a point of praise.  I can almost guarantee it was a criticism or a complaint.   Think about it – would someone ever tell you to talk to their supervisor if it was something positive? Of course not.

And whether it was those exact words, or something similar, it’s likely that everyone has heard those unbelievably frustrating words at some point.

They wreak of bureaucracy, of governmental inefficiency.  Honestly, they sound like something you’d hear at the DMV (note to the DMV: please don’t make me stand in an (even) longer line just for typing those words…even though they are likely true).

But what is it about those words that drives us crazy?

  1. Whether we are polite or rude, when we are unhappy about our situation, we want someone to take action. To say something to help. Heck, we just want someone to *pretend* like they care or are doing something.  “Talk to my supervisor” doesn’t even humor us for just how apathetic and inactive it shows us the other person is.
  2. Said supervisor is rarely around. They are usually “in the back over there” or dealing with another annoyed individual so you’ll have to wait your turn.  And even then, on the off chance you actually encounter the supervisor, you realize that the supervisor has no ability to do anything anyways.
  3. And that is where you realize that it’s not the individual, but rather the organization or system you are stuck in. That place has no accountability.  That role is reserved for the “they” – and no one really knows who “they” is (or is it “are”?).  The entities where these painful words are uttered are bastions of bureaucracy, inefficiency, and pain for the consumer.
  4. Most annoyingly, usually the person saying those words has spoken them countless times before. It’s almost like the words roll off their tongue.  As if they are so resigned to their lot, as if they just don’t want to hear it anymore.  As if I should be questioning why I even opened my mouth.

Here’s the kicker.  The attitude and culture of “talk to my supervisor” isn’t reserved for government offices.  It happens every day in companies, but just under a different expression:

“That’s what I was told was decided at the meeting a couple weeks ago.” (passive voice intentional)

“I got an email that said we shouldn’t be doing things outside the box.”

“What do you mean?” Followed by utter silence

And my all-time favorite:

“The CEO said to do it.”

It’s no wonder that the number one characteristic that top managers are hiring for is pro-activeness.  Because it doesn’t show up that often.  But also because of what it reflects:

-Someone actually thinking (I could just stop here, but I’ll go on)

-Not waiting to be told what to do

-Some semblance of leadership skill (note that is not the same thing as management skill)

-A desire to make a positive impact (assuming the idea is halfway reasonable)

-An action-orientation

-Presumably the right amount of impatience

Certainly there’s plenty of discussion to be had why the lack of initiative is so prevalent in companies.  This, despite that companies typically operate more efficiently than government entities.  People don’t like to stir the pot or draw attention to themselves, laziness, or politics.

And those cultural norms need to be addressed.

In particular, because this type of behavior is probably present in your organization, far beyond whatever level you think it exists today.  And I’d posit that it’s more costly than certain failed strategic initiatives because it lives each day in the organization and is impossible to be compartmentalized.

But it has to get rooted out if you want to have a great organization.  Which could include doing one or more of the following:

-Creating a culture of accountability – where single individuals hold accountability for key areas of a business (nothing is worse for getting something done than having 2 or more people supposedly assigned to it)

-Building a coalition, if you will, of people who will marshall the cause of change and proactivity

-Taking a stand for what you do and don’t accept.  And that often happens in the moment, when either because of time or even social etiquette, it is more difficult to take action.

-Making changes to staff when the desired behaviors aren’t displayed.

-Figuring out what your version “Undercover Boss” is. (By the way, I love that show because of how it gets regular employees to put their guard down, so you see who they really are, both negative and positive.)

So yes, we all go crazy when we hear those almost-insulting words of “Talk to my supervisor.”  But let’s also not be so delusional to think that that culture and thinking is confined to wherever you associate it.

Unfortunately, it’s everywhere.  And any organization that wants to be considered “great” has to take proactive steps (there’s that word again) to eliminate, or at least minimize the apathy, lack of leadership, and an overall sense of “it’s not my responsibility” in your organization.

And if you need any additional further motivation, just imagine if one of your employees said their version of “Talk to my supervisor” to your customers…

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Caith Chapman
GM, eCommerce & Consumer Products, Tastemade

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