Posted by: davidhayden | April 7, 2010

Why must you convince your employees you know less than they do?

My first machine shop job was running a numerically controlled (NC) machine that made parts by executing programming instructions punched into paper tape.  Being the ever curious type, it only took me a few weeks to teach myself to program the machine.

9 months later I was hired by a competing shop to be their NC programmer / supervisor supporting 6 machines and 9 machinists.

It takes years to become a good machinists. Yet, here I was supervising people that had from 5 – 25 years of machining experience and considerable more NC experience.

Richard was the most experienced machinists in the place.  After I had been there about a week, Richard decided to let me know in no uncertain terms, he knew a hell of a lot more than I did.

What should you do when everyone knows the job better than you do?
Whether you are dealing with the Richards of the world or a more passive group, there really is only one thing you can do. . . admit ignorance.

Sounds counter intuitive doesn’t it?   But think about it.

It is not a secret.  In this situation everyone knows you don’t know squat and they are just waiting to prove it to you.  But when you admit it, you immediately diffuse some negative attitudes.

Nothing offends people more or is more obvious than fraud.

The more you pretend to know or speak in doubletalk, the greater their desire to prove you wrong and put you in your place.  But when you admit that you don’t know, and sincerely recognize they are the experts, the more willing they will be to work with you and teach you.

Tell them what you do know and what your role is.
Your role as a supervisor, as it relates to your employees, is to clear the road blocks that interfere with their getting the job done.  You need to explain this to them in meetings and one on one.

I told my employees at one shop the following:
Look, one of the most important things I can do is translate your needs in to the language the owner’s understand.  They don’t know why you need a particular tool or inspection device.  To them it is just an expense.

If you work with me and help me understand what you need and why you need it, I can present it to them in a way that you might actually have a chance of getting what you need.  Or not, that’s up to you.

Maybe you do know it all, for God’s sake don’t let on
There are few things more discouraging than working for a know it all.  Employees stop making suggestions because

  1. it might sound stupid or
  2. since you know it all anyway, you will reject it out of hand,
    or the very worst one yet
  3. you really don’t know and will take credit for their good idea

never , Never, NEVER take credit for a good idea
Even if it is your idea.  The instant you start taking credit, morale goes down the tubes, you lose all respect and no one will step up to help you again.

If you have a great suggestion, drop the seeds, nurture them until someone steps to the fore and says hey boss, I have this idea.

Snap up the idea, give them credit an make them responsible for implementing it.   Then support them to the fullest extent you can to make it work.

What if things go sour?

That is when you must take credit.  After all you are the supervisor. You own the problems.  Blaming your employees only serves to alienate them and pops up a bright red flag to your manager that you are not cut out to supervise.

If you do know it all, your employees will make sure they prove you wrong
This is just a fact of life.  People don’t like know-it-alls and will go out of their way to set you up for failure . . . even if they think it is a good idea.

Listen, when you know it, push it and implement it, you own it, your employees don’t.  They have no stake in making it work or making you look good.  It is more fun to set you back a notch and they will.

The more you know the harder you will have to work
As a supervisor, if you know it all, people stop thinking for themselves.  Pretty soon they are coming to you for every little thing.  You are trying to work on scheduling or whatever and they want to know if they should use this tool or that.

You can’t empower people if you are the know it all.  At the end of the day, you will be doing so much of the thinking for them, you might as well as have done their job too.

This is not to say you can’t or shouldn’t be a good resource for your employees.  On the contrary.  Help them solve problems when it is appropriate, but expect them to know and do the job they are paid to do.

If they are lacking in some areas, train them with the intention that next time, they will do the task themselves or with minimal supervision.  The goal is that in a very short time, they are not dependent upon you to do their daily tasks.

Your employees deserve better than an know-it-all supervisor
People rise to the level of expectation and when they do, they are better employees, have greater self-esteem and hob satisfaction.  Don’t take that away from them by constantly trying to outwit them or proving you are smarter than them.

Let them make manageable mistakes so they can learn from them, but don’t set them up for personal and / or career failure by letting them go off the cliff without a parachute.

If you see they are in over their heads, it is incumbent upon you to get them training, or reassign them.  If necessary, you need to let them go.  It does help them or the company to keep someone in a job they can’t learn or master to an acceptable level.

You can learn a lot from Dale Carnegie
If you haven’t read How to Win Friends and Influence People pick up a copy.  It is a wealth of information on the topic of getting along with people.

In the very first part of the book, Carnegie, talks about meeting people and simply asking them non-invasive questions that people would be comfortable talking about.  During the entire conversation he may have spoken 5%-10% of the time.  The rest of the conversation was from the other party.  Invariably, people would remark how great it was to talk to him and what a great conversationalist HE was.

If you respect your employees enough to just shut up and listen, they will open up and share ideas.  In doing so, they will gain tremendous respect for you as a supervisor and your knowledge.

If you don’t treat your employees like dummies, they won’t think you are an idiot

Enough said.

Without pause or hesitation, I agreed with Richard.  I told him I could not begin to tell him how to set up his machine or run his parts.   BUT, what I could do, is program the machine to do anything he wanted.  I further explained that my job was to bring in vendors and tooling experts to insure he had the best tools for the job.

Within a couple years Richard and I had worked on so many projects together that, when he ran into problems, he would actually seek my opinion.   I didn’t need to know it all, I just needed to be smart enough to be willing to learn.

Many years later when Richard was managing a fair sized machine shop, I was the first person he called when he needed to fill a supervisor position.



  1. this advise is worth its weight. Very well written and explained.
    As a (currently displaced) project manager in the machine tool and metal cutting industry i have worked as a manager of the project with many a machinist (the person who actually makes the part via tool selection and program/process understanding), the qc people, maintenance (the ones who install, service, prepare and fix said machine tool). Yes, the owners as well.

    If you treat others with respect and admit that they are the team that will end the end get the project completed and seek their involvement, you 99.9% of the time will come out as a person that ohters seek to manage and get people to work together not defencively.

  2. Well noted. This article has some great ideas in building teamwork and improving efficiency and productivity and getting things done.

  3. Dave, Great article! Thanks. Mike

  4. I work in a small company that repairs machine tool spindles. The owner of our company has built a management structure based on group participation. This is such a specialized industry that each person that works here has a very unique perspective about how to solve problems or increase quality.

    This approch can sometimes feel cumbersome but as the years go by and our employees buy in to the concept the improvement in quality, efficency and overall job satisfaction is remarkable.

    If you give people the ability to contribute in a positive way they will take ownership of their job and you will experiance benifits that you would never expect.

    Christian Stark
    Northland Tool & Electronics

    • Thanks Christian, sounds like a great place to work and to have spindles repaired.

  5. Wish I knew this when I was the supervisor. Being the ‘go to guy’ and the supervisor was unbearably hard and isolating too. In the end, I gave up the job to someone who concentrated on improving the team, not the programs. Mentoring is more fruitful and enjoyable now without being their supervisor. The seasoned supervisor who stepped in gets respect and results with so many fewer fires to tend. He acts just like Christian Stark proposes. Listen to Stark, you’ll be happier in your career.

    • Thanks for commenting Adrian. I agree, there is a lot of wisdom in Christian’s comment.

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