LeadingAge Magazine · May/June 2013 • Volume 03 • Number 03

Better Communication Means Better Staff Problem-Solving

May 13, 2013 | by Clark Roth

This provider has adopted a simple technique with which supervisors can master challenging moments with frontline staff, resulting in better communication and lower turnover.

Early in my human resources career in long-term care, supervisors would say to me, “I’m having a problem with Julie and I want to fire her this afternoon. Can you sit in?” Understandably, I had a number of questions at that point. But my first thought was often, “Why wasn’t this situation dealt with earlier?” In addition, I was concerned about the consequences of a dismissal: turnover, retention, hiring someone to fill the position, retraining and so forth.

As professionals in our organization were promoted to supervisory positions, they were faced with managerial challenges that may or not have been addressed in nursing school or technical training. They were great people deserving of additional responsibilities, but they needed new skills to handle the corrective-action process. When situations arose where such action was needed, supervisors’ responses ranged from ignoring problems in hope that they would go away, to overreacting to even the most minor employee issue.

I longed for a tool to empower our supervisors with the skills needed to be great leaders with the ability to master their challenging moments.

Programs to increase employee satisfaction and decrease turnover produced varying degrees of success. But for many of our supervisors, the reality was unchanged: Handling corrective action was not going well and was ineffective.

Our CEO suggested we contact Larry Thompson, the principal of our town’s high school and a nationally recognized expert in working with difficult students. Could Thompson adapt his successful, responsibility-centered discipline model to a human resources model that could help train our supervisors to be better leaders? It was an idea that eventually transformed our organization, empowering supervisors, reducing turnover by 30 percent, and making the corrective-action process about employees taking responsibility. I only wish I had thought of it first!

Responsibility-focused leadership (RFL) helped us recognize six components essential for employees to perform to their greatest potential and take responsibility for their reactions, performance and growth. Once leaders understand the components of the “responsibility pyramid,” they can utilize the process to shift responsibility back to the employee and see ownership and growth develop for lasting change. These keys to success are:

  • Clear expectations
  • Emotional control
  • Consistency
  • Benefit for change
  • Confident decisions
  • “Response-ability”—where responsibility shifts to the employee, who then plays a major role in solving the problem he or she created.


The genius of the program is its simplicity. Initial training can be done in a day, followed by brief practice sessions during meetings of licensed nurses or other leadership groups. These practices help supervisors become confident that they have both the skills and support they need to be great at mastering their challenging moments. Supervisors relate recent examples of difficult situations and are offered support and ideas for future conversations with subordinates.

In a society where people are quick to blame their problems on others, it is increasingly challenging for leaders to guide employees to a place of self-growth and responsibility. Continually dealing with these moments without promoting personal growth and internalization reinforces those same frustrations and challenges in the workplace. We would not accept a sales model that doesn’t generate sales, yet we embrace a leadership and corrective process that doesn’t create more responsible, improved employees. Although we recognize the problem, many organizations do not know of a solution. The RFL model provides the skills, processes and methods to create the change most organizations desire.

Once leaders and those they supervise witness that special moment when a problem or solution is internalized and growth happens, it is rewarding for all involved. The leader, the employee and the organization all benefit when what once was a moment of frustration, anger, less productivity and diminished teamwork, becomes one of reduced anxiety, increased productivity and revitalized teamwork.

The technique centers on simple, short conversations between an employee and his or her supervisor. Our counseling forms guide these conversations that allow supervisors to write down and practice each of the keys to success talking points before any discussion takes place. Supervisors are encouraged to practice with each other, or the human resources director, when facing a particularly difficult conversation. Most importantly, when supervisors become comfortable with the process, conversations may happen quickly, in perhaps five minutes or less. The concern is addressed immediately and without pain or drama. Unfortunately, not all conversations go well, and supervisors are trained in differing levels of resistance that may be encountered.

The conversations follow a prescribed pattern that is designed not to sound robotic or memorized but to give the supervisor comfort in conveying a clear message to the employee. Each conversation is designed to address expectations, where there is a breakdown and the benefits for meeting expectations. In addition, support for the employee and agreeable closure are also key points. The conversation is referred to as “Give Em’ Five” and every supervisor understands what that means. As in, “did you give her five?” “How did it go?”

A sample conversation may go as follows:

“Dan, I noticed you clocked in 10 minutes late the last two mornings. It's important that everyone be clocked in and ready to work at 6:00. You bring many strengths to our team. Being involved with the entire team meetings allows you to give input, show some leadership and stay informed of any issues we may need to be prepared for. Could you please make being on time a focus area this month?”

If resolution is not reached, supervisors ask the employee to meet with the next-level supervisor or the human resources director. I am excited about helping in the process. With the tools in place, I ask the supervisor and employee, separately, what has been discussed thus far. I also ask if the supervisor was respectful during the process. If we expect responsibility, our conversations must be led with respect, even if the employee’s responses are not.

In the past, our organization used suspensions somewhat as the “last straw.” If the employee didn’t respond to the usual two-day suspension by changing behavior, termination often was the ultimate result. The employee had two days to be angry, and the supervisor had two days to worry about the employee coming back to work angry. It was a “fun” process for everyone involved. Now, there are times when suspension is merited, but during that time employees must complete their plan of correction. They must articulate how they will take responsibility to solve the problem. That may take only a day, or perhaps three, but the employee must decide and bring the solution.

I don’t mind difficult situations now because we have a plan for dealing with them. When I have conversations with supervisors, they frequently go something like this: “I had a real concern with Julie, so I talked with her this afternoon. I went through the RFL process, and it went great! She was somewhat difficult at first, but then began to understand how her actions are not representative of our core values. She came up with some good ideas to better handle her situation.”

Now, our supervisors are equipped to be even better at what they do, difficult employees are called to responsibility for problem resolution and less time is spent feeling stressed about conversations that need to happen. And it’s all because our staff is trained to master its challenging moments.