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Volume 9 | Issue 2

Putting it in context

A message from CDC Integrated Services, LLC

What We Think We Know, Part II

In the first part of this article, I shared with my readers my company’s perspective on the forces at work in the American workplace that shapes many of the conflicts we come in contact with in this new environment. Many of the disputes we help resolve have traditional roots. Yet, others are being born by new pressures and stress brought out by the changes currently transforming company structures and the workforce. 

I also noted in the earlier part of the article that seeds sown before the pandemic experienced accelerated growth due to the pandemic. For example, by the summer of 2019, social science data disclosed that employees had become disengaged from their jobs across many companies and multiple industries. 

These data showed that during an average month, between 34% and 45% of employees focused on other things at work for more than 3.5 hours

. In addition, some surveys indicated that more than 50% of employees would disconnect from their work during an average week in more than a few companies.

In many companies, this chronic disengagement during the workweek had a significant and noticeable impact on productivity. Companies were spending substantial time and money trying to get their employees re-engaged. Data also existed disclosing many of these efforts were largely ineffective. A number of the workplace conflicts my company helped resolve dealt with this dis-engagement environment.

Surprisingly, it took the disruptions and dislocations of the pandemic to expose one of the key reasons employees had become increasingly disconnected from their work. The wholesale shutting down of the American workplace disclosed clearly that the traditional relationship between supervisor and employee no longer existed.

This statement might leave many of you asking, what changed? Yet, it happened. It wasn’t dramatic or of such a seismic nature that would make it obvious, but by the end of 2019, this change was baked into many companies’ way of doing business. So, if you, my faithful readers, think I am wandering in the weeds, I am not.

The breakdown of the supervisor/employee relationship was, before the pandemic, a frequent source of conflict which I and others in my company had to deal with. I will start with some basic anecdotal information. Many human resource departments collect information on employee turnover. These departments gather this information and slice and dice it in various ways to gather data they then use to provide the company’s leadership with information on a range of issues.

One thing I learned from my work resolving workplace conflict is that roughly 50% of employees leave a company because of unresolved conflicts with their supervisor. Let me emphasize this, ½ of all employees that quit did so because they could not get along with their supervisor.

We know that more than a few books and movies mock employee and supervisor relationships. Still, the supervisor provided a crucial and positive link between the line employee and “upper” management for many decades. Previously, the supervisor was a seasoned employee, knowledgeable about the company’s products and services, and experienced in exercising judgment across a range of issues.

But things began to change about two decades ago. A shift occurred where companies started to speak about corporate responsibility on various socio-economic issues. In the balance between maintaining a focus on the core of their business and the new directives, the new directions gradually received greater emphasis. Instead of pushing back against issues that took the focus off a company’s primary purpose, many CEOs and boards of directors caved to these outside pressures.

The downward pressure from boards of directors and C-suite executives created a pressure point in the organizational structure – the supervisor. At first, these external issues represented a minor distraction from the supervisor’s primary goal of executing the company’s core competencies for the benefit of the company and its customers.

Over the past two decades, these outside socio-economic issues increased significantly, negatively impacting and disrupting two fundamental principles that undergird the supervisor/employee relationship.

Human resource professionals and others found the pre-pandemic workplace increasingly challenged by the breakdown between engagement and productivity. In retrospect, one of the challenges is easy to spot, while the second is more subtle. The first element creating a disconnect between worker and supervisor, leading to the productivity challenges that became so obvious in late 2019, was self-inflicted. 

As the soup bowl of socio-economic acronyms grew more extensive, the first and most vigorous pushback was from the supervisors who recognized the negative impact these initiatives had on employee morale and productivity because of their knowledge and skill. Consequently, supervisors who pushed back against these demands were criticized for their lack of commitment and pressured to agree or suffer harm to their careers. As a result, many chose to quit and move to more friendly environments. 

This corps of seasoned, skilled employees gradually disappeared, replaced by people more receptive to pursuing the company’s socio-economic initiatives and more willing to demand that employees engage in these initiatives – without losing their focus on doing their job. Yet, regardless of these internal stresses, companies continued to expand internal initiatives built around this soup bowl of acronyms. 

It was in this often hostile environment, where employees and supervisors no longer trusted each other, that the pandemic arrived. However, we still don’t know how this will shake out regarding the look and feel of future supervisor/employee relationships. 

What is certain is that the voluntary resignation of an estimated five (5) million employees across multiple industries sends a clear signal that business as usual as to traditional manager/supervisor/employee relationships will no longer work. Moreover, it is clear employees will no longer suffer in silence in response to pressures and demands that do not directly impact their ability to perform their work. Nor are they willing to be “blamed” for what happens beyond the factory’s gate.

What is also certain is that the relationship between employee and supervisor is still experiencing change, and the people least aware of this transformation are those occupying the C-suite offices.


Food for Thought:  Without the element of uncertainty, the bringing of off even the greatest business triumph would be dull, routine, and eminently unsatisfying. (J. Paul Getty)

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