There are some senior- and mid-level leaders who don’t really understand the importance of interacting with the workforce. A lot of the time, it’s because they get mentally tied up in the functioning of the business in profit and loss terms. They view things strategically and are less focused on the tactical issues. It doesn’t make them bad people, it just makes them human.
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Often, when I’m working at a client location, I raise the subject of interaction between senior- and mid-level managers and the hourly workforce. The majority of the time I get one of two responses. The first is that senior managers tell me they make a point of walking through the plant periodically to assess its condition and look for things that need attention. The second response happens much less frequently, but goes something like this: “The maintenance manager (operations manager, etc.) doesn’t like me poking around out there, so I don’t normally walk around.”
For the record, let me state emphatically that it’s considered good practice to make time to walk about the plant to interact with the workforce, regardless of your level in the hierarchy, regardless of their job function. There are two important reasons why. First, the people who come to work every day deserve your respect. Making time for them demonstrates that respect. Second, it keeps you in touch with the issues that are important to the workforce and, therefore, things that are important to your organization. Rules for the walk-around include:
Make the time: How often you go depends on where you are in the organization; the higher you are, the less frequently you might need to do this. A line supervisor should be on the floor every day, a mid-level manager every other week or once a month, a plant manager maybe once a month, but not less than once per quarter.
Thank them for their efforts: Do it often, look them in the eye and shake their hand.
Do some prep work: Know the current and developing issues, give floor supervisors a heads-up, avoid surprises. Learn who’s going to night school, who did something noteworthy. Seek out new employees to see how they’re doing. The best sources of information are direct supervisors.
Ask about their jobs: Show an interest in their answers. Let them do most of the talking. You might hear good ideas. Ask intermediate supervisors their opinions before acting.
Look for positives: Give recognition when you see things such as teamwork, cleanliness and improved performance.
Explain the business: Tell people about the effect their work has on the business and mission objectives. Relate how their efforts resulted in various outcomes.
Play by the rules: If the plant requires steel-toed shoes, eye protection and hard hats, make sure you’re wearing them properly. If there’s a piece of trash on the floor, pick it up. Model the behaviors you want to see. If your walkabout happens during a break period, ask to join them. Don’t assume you’re invited, even if you are the boss. They wouldn’t invite themselves into your office. Thank them if they extend the invitation.
Show respect: Never disrespect lower-level floor supervisors or managers. If an issue is raised, listen carefully, take notes and promise to look into it. Follow through on that promise. Work with floor supervisors to ensure the answer gets back to the person who raised the issue. Answer cut-and-dried policy issues directly.
Remain genteel: Don’t try to be overly familiar with workers. You have position authority. That means you are perceived to be able to say and do things that a craftsman or operator can’t say or do. Workplace communication always should be professional and respectful. Communicate in a way that can be reciprocated.
Even if you disagree with my suggestions, the underlying premise should be clear. Treat your workforce as professionals and respect them for doing something that you can’t do.
Tom Moriarty, PE, CMRP, is president of Alidade MER Inc. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and (321) 773-3356.