Never do work that's below your pay grade

Aug. 5, 2010
Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, contributing editor, explores the phenomenon of performing actions at the wrong level.

How many times have you seen a foreman push a craftsman out of the way and begin fixing a problem? How many times have you seen a manager jump in and start directing team members instead of giving the foreman the room to do the job? This is what I call performing actions at the wrong level.

As usual, please allow me to qualify my statement. A supervisor or manager needs to provide coaching and guidance as part of the job. And, of course, I’d never advocate idleness in the face of avoidable catastrophe or when an emergency response is needed. I’m thinking here about the typical case of a mechanical upset of some sort.

If you’re the boss, your job is to provide support and cover to allow your lead person or team members to do the jobs they’re paid to do.

Supervisors taking on actions at levels below their pay grade are most apparent when there’s a problem to be solved. You might think that it’s your job to solve problems — to react and make things happen when they need to happen. As a supervisor, though, your job is preparing your team to handle situations, and to get them what they need to do it.

The problem with supervisors working at the wrong level, even during a pressing situation, is that the people who have the responsibility to react and address the issue might never gain that experience. They get discouraged, and they don’t get to be recognized for being good at their trades. In these cases, the supervisor also demonstrates not having made the transition to maintaining the right work values and focus for the pay grade.

The supervisor needs to enable the lead person or team members to deal with stressful situations. The boss needs to identify training or skills gaps, and provide learning opportunities through formal training, tool box meetings, task assignments and on-the-job-training. Put the team in the position to be skilled and confident in their abilities. The boss also needs to ensure procedures and policies are up to date, and that the required tools or resources are available.

A great boss encourages and provides opportunities for the lead persons or team members to take the lead on both routine and pressing issues.


Supervisors also must provide cover. Providing cover means keeping upper management pressure off the team members who are focused on solving the issue firsthand. In almost all cases, the lead person or team members fully understand the implications of the situation. Having the director of operations or plant manager knee deep in the corrective action rarely is a good thing. The best bosses know how to deflect the understandable, but unhelpful, interference by people who can’t actually contribute to restoring mechanical equilibrium.

While personality certainly plays a role in a person’s propensity to take on activities that they should not, anyone can learn proper behaviors. If you’re a boss, whether that means you’re the plant manager or a lead craftsman responsible for the actions of others, take time to reflect on the previous day or week of activities. Set aside 10 minutes to think about how to do better. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What situations did we encounter that weren’t handled at the right level?
  2. Was the person who should have handled the problem prepared to do that job?
  3. Why did the wrong person get involved?
  4. What can I do to hold myself accountable to correct this for the next time it happens?

Holding yourself accountable can come in many forms. Sometimes it means finding a few minutes to talk with the person who was pushed aside and simply saying, “Hey, I know I jumped in and took over and that you were fully capable of doing the job. How can you help me to recognize when that starts happening again?”

Perhaps it’s finding a mentor within your organization, finding a good book on leadership or finding support from a coach to help you become a better boss.

When you recognize these tendencies in yourself or in others, begin to work toward making improvements in this area. It’s one clear way to demonstrate an empowering leadership style. Your team members will recognize and appreciate your efforts and the organization will be better for it.

Setting aside 10 minutes is less than one-half of 1% of a 40-hour work week. It’s well worth the investment.

Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, is president of Alidade MER Inc. Contact him at [email protected] and (321) 773-3356.

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