I want to share a personal experience I had early in my career. My decision to share this now comes from hearing the story of another person struggling with a similar issue. I could hear in her story my own experience as a supervisor/manager learning to balance compassion with accountability, fairness to the team, and support for an individual who was struggling.
Many years ago I unexpectedly became a manufacturing production supervisor with 14 United Auto Workers (UAW) – all men – reporting to me. I had limited management experience and it was in a retail environment supervising other women. So I was in unfamiliar territory and in an environment that was unreceptive if not unfriendly to women in the workplace¾at least in the production area.
Early one morning (3 am) I reported to work as a management intern on the manufacturing floor of a million-square-foot UAW plant. To my surprise the UAW workers were seated in the production room waiting for my arrival. I had been working in the area for less than a week under the supervision of a long-time manager. The workers informed me I was now their supervisor because the regular supervisor left the plant in an ambulance the day before. To say I was surprised would be to understate the situation. But, I was smart enough to know what I didn’t know – and in this case that was pretty much everything. I didn’t know the inventory levels, couldn’t tell one part from another, had no idea of the production schedule (or where to find it), and no idea how to get them paid. To their surprise I admitted all of this. It was no surprise what I didn’t know; the surprise was that I was willing to admit it. I made them a deal: they would make the right parts, etc. and I would learn how to get them paid and do everything that was needed to be a true supervisor/manager for them.
To say I won them over at that moment would not be an understatement, but it wasn’t a home run yet. Inevitably I have found that on any team there is at least one member who wants to test the boundaries. On the second day, one team member failed to show up on time. I spoke with him, but the next day¾and the next day – he was still late. I spoke with someone experienced in the UAW rules and he said the most I could do was write him up and charge him vacation and personal time for the length of each absence. So that is what I did.
Soon it became apparent that wasn’t going to correct the behavior and it was causing an issue with the rest of the team who had to pick up his slack. The rest of the team talked to me about this, because it clearly wasn’t fair to them. I had to agree, but was unsure what to do. I talked to the consistently tardy team member. Nothing changed. Then I talked to one of the long-time supervisors. I knew the written rules of action, but I also felt there had to be another way. He gave me the 4F’s of supervision:
He explained that the workplace needed to have a degree of fun or the routine would bring down morale, but the fun had to be contained within the boundaries of acceptability. The harmless pranks and nicknames were part of the fun atmosphere. I didn’t mind the pranks and soon found I had a nickname of my own: “The Lady.” This nickname reflected two things: my ability to laugh at the pranks and the fact that I would not use some of the existing nicknames for my team (remember, this was a male-dominated, blue-collar work environment so you can use your imagination). For me many of the nicknames given in fun by co-workers were not something I was comfortable saying. In the instance someone’s nickname was outside the bounds of my comfort level, I would ask what his mother called him. It became part of their fun to see how I would deal with introductions to workers whose nicknames were borderline, if not totally obscene.
The other aspect of the fun, friendly, and fair work environment came from mutual respect. These workers may not have college educations, but they knew more than I ever would about making parts. I respected who they were, what they did, their life and work experience. I learned to deal with difficult situations and challenges with humor and by being frank, direct about the situation.
I had to deal with the perpetually tardy team member by sitting him down and explaining how he was hurting not just the team, but he was disrespecting me. He had me in a difficult situation – I understood he had personal things going on, but it was causing issues for the team and me as a rookie supervisor in an environment where many wanted me to fail. When he understood that, he was not only on time, but early each day.
My experience also translated into being known as someone who did what was right. Who spoke the truth. Who respected everyone. Who had standards of conduct. In an environment where obscene language was the norm, I never heard an obscene word spoken from one of the UAW team members.
One of the biggest lessons I have learned in life is that I have to stand up for my values and hold firm to my faith. People may not agree with them, but most respect my willingness to stand firm. I have to live my faith. Whether someone shares my faith or belief in Christ, I will show courtesy. If they challenge my beliefs, I will defend them when necessary and stay silent when it would be futile to engage in a dialogue (a dialogue takes two who are truly listening to each other). Standing firm in my beliefs is about my relationship with God.
Copyright ©2015 Lea A. Strickland, MBA MA CMA CFM CBM
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