Canadian Consulting Engineer

Be a Good Boss

In 2002, Statistics Canada claimed that approximately 1.3 million Canadian workers were dissatisfied with their jobs and that stress levels at work related directly to their job dissatisfaction. The n...

October 1, 2007   Canadian Consulting Engineer

In 2002, Statistics Canada claimed that approximately 1.3 million Canadian workers were dissatisfied with their jobs and that stress levels at work related directly to their job dissatisfaction. The number of sick days taken by dissatisfied workers is almost three times that of happy workers. Evidently, then, self-assured, contented employees can have a marked effect on a company’s financial performance.

Your own management style has a great deal to do with determining whether you have healthy, productive employees who provide stability in your work force and benefit your bottom line. Employees who are motivated and happy will feel appreciated and are not afraid to take chances. They are far more productive than people who are always concerned about how their immediate superior will treat them.

The Golden Rule of managing people is: treat others the way you would want to be treated. When supervising people, it is important to treat them as adults who are capable of making good decisions.

The case of Uncle Lynford

My Uncle Lynford was my first example of a good business manager. He operated an A&W drive-in in a part of town where there were competitors such as Burger King and McDonald’s. These were the days when food was delivered to customers to eat in their cars. My uncle’s A&W parking area was always full. Cars were continually circling, waiting for someone to leave, while the competitor’s parking lots were more or less empty. My uncle had a gift for working with people. As a result, his employees were happy, gave good service to the customers, and business boomed.

I spent time with my uncle when I was a teenager and his approach with employees left an impression on me. He knew, for example, that I liked cars. During one rush hour after I had just arrived at the restaurant he took one of his young employees out of the kitchen and told the young man to show me his hot rod. This took the employee away from his kitchen duties for about 10 minutes and did not impress my Aunt Sally. It did impress the employee though. To be noticed for his car, which was his pride and joy, and to be able to show it off, feel appreciated and respected, meant that the 10 minutes would be repaid many times over in loyal service.

Uncle Lynford continually spoke highly of his staff and they knew how he felt about them. He understood that they constantly needed to feel appreciated and respected. They worked hard and his business was successful. When he sold the A&W franchise he got a very good price. Unfortunately, the new owner did not have my uncle’s abilities and the business went downhill.

I’ve tried to learn from my uncle’s example. At one of my first jobs as an engineering student I was responsible for the carpenter/gun crew at a ballistics research facility in Quebec. The crew I was assigned to supervise had a reputation for evading work. They all spoke French. My knowledge of French was limited and whenever I asked for Raoult, the head of the crew, everyone feigned that they couldn’t understand me. This was typical of their attitude, and they grudgingly complied with my directives.

Then one day I caught the crew in their shack during their lunch break playing cards, which I’d been told was not permitted. I followed my instincts rather than the rule and told them to keep an eye out for anyone coming and be sure to not play past the lunch hour.

I followed my uncle’s practice of showing respect and interest in the crew. Certainly, I expected hard work and efficiency, but I respected their pride. My response paid off later that summer when they went out in heavy rain to finish setting up the range for a shell stability field test. Raoult said that they didn’t want to let me down. They did not want me to have to explain why my crew had held up a shot. They had developed pride in their work and achieved results above expectations. When I left that summer, they gave me a party I still remember.

Accept imperfection

As a manager, you have tremendous power over the people who work for you. Some experts say you cannot be “one of the boys”; you must separate yourself, as you are responsible for discipline and work output.

There is some truth to this, but if you take your authority to an extreme, your staff will not feel secure in your presence. They will be less willing to come to you with concerns or problems, which could result in loss of productivity and increased costs.

A motivated, confident employee who is comfortable talking with you about a problem will likely present you with a solution at the same time (if not, you should ask him or her for it). As the employee is closer to the issue, his suggestion will probably be sound.

Although you must keep yourself somewhat separate from your staff, you must still be seen as human, understanding, accepting of imperfection and someone who allows for honest mistakes. One way to accomplish this is to continually ask yourself whenever you give a directive: “How would I feel if it were me?”

As a manager you will have to abide by your company’s rules and procedures, or you will face the consequences from your superior. But to be a successful manager, you must also be willing to put yourself on the line and be prepared to accept that sometimes rules should be used more as guidelines.

Take, for example, the employee who was on salary and was not paid overtime. He had worked a 60-hour week. He asked his supervisor for the next Friday afternoon off as he wanted to get an early start to go to his cottage for the long weekend. His superior told him that the company policy was that all time off requests had to be taken as vacation. How committed would you be if you were that employee?

Company policies are very handy when it comes to discipline, etc. as they give you something to refer to and to use as back-up. But eventually, unfair or unreasonable company policies affect morale. Employees might not express their concerns out of fear of losing their job, but their resentment will manifest itself through decreased productivity and increased absenteeism.

If you have to refer to company policies continually with someone, there’s an insurmountable problem and this is a time when you should take firm action. Terminate their employment. It is disrespectful of good employees to keep bad ones.

You must be able to trust your employees and not waste too much time checking their attendance, etc. I tell my staff that it will be quite easy to fool me for some time (as I won’t micro-manage), but eventually the truth surfaces, and then the situation will be dealt with quickly.

If an employee must be reprimanded, do it privately and quietly. You want them to know you’re disappointed that they did not live up to expectations, but you don’t want to lower their self-esteem. Don’t embarrass them in front of their peers if you want their best efforts in the future.

You should keep your employees informed of any company changes, even if the change doesn’t affect them directly. This will keep rumours and gossip to a minimum. It will also minimize “Us” vs. “Them” thinking.

Step by step coaching

Managers must be approachable to be effective. There is no point in saying your door is always open if you pass everyone with your head down and never speak unless it is giving some direction or work.

When someone comes to you, you should immediately stop what you are doing and give them your full attention — make them feel important and worthy. You are likely to be very busy yourself, but as a supervisor your first priority has to be ensuring that your team can do their job.

Years ago I was assigned a technical support worker, Joe, to help me with a project. The department head told me that Joe was a slacker, but he was the only technologist available. This was certainly not a good beginning to my relationship with an employee I didn’t know.

I gave Joe the work, and then after a few hours, I went by his desk to che
ck on his progress. Nothing had been done. I was upset as we had a deadline, but rather than expressing my frustration, I sat down and calmly talked to Joe about the job.

As I talked I realized Joe was lost, and that despite having years of experience, he could not lay out the necessary steps that were required to complete the task.

I had to break down the project into mini-steps that could be accomplished one at a time. I gave Joe a few of these steps and told him to see me when he had them done. Joe came to me a short time later asking what he could do next. He turned out to be a conscientious, hard worker and the project was completed on time.

Joe’s problems were similar to those of a new employee who requires a lot of direction. Do not give a new or inexperienced employee the end result you want and then walk away. Instead, give them pieces of work with a description of what you expect when that part of the work is complete. As the employee learns, he or she will need less and less direction. It is then up to you to allow them to have more ownership in the project. Imagine Joe’s years of frustration, knowing he was missing some of the basic training that would have made him a good employee.

Listen hard

Listen to and implement your employees’ ideas whenever possible, even if you think they have not suggested the perfect solution. If you stifle their creativity, pretty soon you won’t get any individual thinking from them either.

No matter how good your own idea is, those employees who don’t like change will resist it. Force a change and it will fail if your employees are not committed to the plan.

Therefore, if you have an idea that you want enacted, it’s worthwhile talking around the subject until one of your employees comes up with the same or similar concept. People often don’t like change, but they do like their own ideas. Use that.

Similarly, always look for ways to give credit to others. If something goes wrong on a project, take responsibility as if it’s your fault. If the project does well, acknowledge it as being the direct result of your team.

A sign that an employee is unappreciated or under-used is hearing them say things like, “I just work here,” or, “I work to live, not live to work.” You must encourage the employee to feel that they have ownership of their work.

Few managers are good at taking the time to give positive reinforcement to their staff. When they do attempt to give someone recognition, it’s often too vague. They say something like, “You did a good job with that project,” or even less effectively, “You are doing a good job.”

For positive reinforcement to be effective, it must be specific and it should be timely. You might say: “Your report/letter regarding the (specific project) was well written and your comment regarding (the sequence of operation of the controls, for example) was very appropriate and clear. Good job.” This shows you actually read the report and the employee will remember your appreciative remarks when they write the next one.

Every employee should be working towards a goal. Employees who are involved in learning more about their job or profession are more motivated and work harder than people who just put in their time day to day. It’s the manager’s job to encourage their staff and to provide incentives for them to commit to doing this extra work.

One way of inspiring them may be to have short seminars put on in-house. Knowledge gained through the seminars can then be a springboard for further learning.

The employee should feel it is his or her own idea to take an educational course as it will usually need a long term commitment. There are numerous things the employee can be working towards, whether it is earning a degree, training for a more senior position, or researching technical information related to their job. They could even be encouraged to develop a software program to enable them to do a portion of their work more efficiently.

Finally, remember no one person can do it all. It takes teamwork for a department or company to be successful, and good teamwork is a result of good leadership, coaching and management. CCE

Lee Norton, P.Eng. is a principal with TMP Niagara, consulting engineers in St. Catharines, Ontario. He is also an editorial advisor to Canadian Consulting Engineer.

Use the “How would you feel?” test when giving directions.

Administrative work and employees come first; your project work comes second.

Treat others like you want to be treated.

Respect everyone.

Bosses are intimidating — you can’t just say the door is open, you must continually make sure your staff knows it is true.

Speak to your staff; say hello in the morning, say goodbye at the end of the day.

“You are doing a good job,” means little. Be specific.

Be interested in your employees’ endeavours, even if they’re not directly work related. But don’t pry.

Doing overtime is not always a good measure of an employee’s value; not everyone needs to have your dedication; they can still be excellent employees.

Assume and believe that everyone wants to do a good job.

Be willing to do whatever you ask others to do. Be hands on.

Be compassionate and sensitive: allow for some personal phone calls and e-mail, internet time, occasional time off, or the need to leave early sometimes.

Rules are guidelines and should not be punitive. Never raise your voice, yell, point fingers, berate or do anything else that affects their self-esteem.

Give credit to others whenever you can.

Allow for failure and mistakes, we all make them.

Employees are not machines; they’re going to have good days, and bad days when they don’t perform up to your or their own expectations. Take this into account.

Do what you say and say what you do.

Tips on managing staff

Use the “How would you feel?” test when giving directions.

Administrative work and employees come first; your project work comes second.

Treat others like you want to be treated.

Respect everyone.

Bosses are intimidating — you can’t just say the door is open, you must continually make sure your staff knows it is true.

Speak to your staff; say hello in the morning, say goodbye at the end of the day.

“You are doing a good job,” means little. Be specific.

Be interested in your employees’ endeavours, even if they’re not directly work related. But don’t pry.

Doing overtime is not always a good measure of an employee’s value; not everyone needs to have your dedication; they can still be excellent employees.

Assume and believe that everyone wants to do a good job.

Be willing to do whatever you ask others to do. Be hands on.

Be compassionate and sensitive: allow for some personal phone calls and e-mail, internet time, occasional time off, or the need to leave early sometimes.

Rules are guidelines and should not be punitive. Never raise your voice, yell, point fingers, berate or do anything else that affects their self-esteem.

Give credit to others whenever you can.

Allow for failure and mistakes, we all make them.

Employees are not machines; they’re going to have good days, and bad days when they don’t perform up to your or their own expectations. Take this into account.

Do what you say and say what you do.


Print this page

Related Stories

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*