Lead by asking questions
Something beautiful just happened to me. I’m at work, and in between tasks sometimes I work on my site Chance The Hacker or write blog posts on google docs. I was fiddling with another blog post I’m working on and stopped to check in with a new guy on site. I spoke with him for a couple minutes, getting to know the guy.
As I walked off, he said "Hey Chance?"
"Yes?” I asked.
He asked me "Why do I respect you so much?"
Yea I know, pretty heavy stuff right? And I just met the guy. I didn’t really have an immediate answer for that, I had to think a bit.
I said, "Well I hope it's because I treat you like a person instead of like a tool I can use to get the job done."
He nodded and walked off.
Now, if you were of a skeptical persuasion, you could be excused for thinking maybe he is just a kiss ass. You may even be right, but it got me thinking. Why should people respect me? If I don't know the answer, how could others. Is it my intelligence? Well here's a hot take. Am I the single smartest person in the room? Ok, let's pretend I am. Will I be the smartest person in every room? Should they still respect me when I’m the dumbest in the room? It happens more often than I’d like to admit.
You can’t demand respect by just being better at things. Well you can, but it’s not going to work out for you very often. When someone bigger, better, and faster comes along, you will have to guard your pack like a lion, and lie to them to keep them complacent. No, what you need to do is gain respect, through respect. That’s not easy. You have to actually care about other people. You have to know their wants, and you have to help them get there. Does this sound simple to you? Caring about people you love isn’t too hard. Caring about people you like can be trying, but not too bad. Caring about someone you can’t stand is damn near impossible.
I hate to tell you this, but to truly be a leader you are going to need to care about people that really piss you off. Those annoying people, can sometimes be the most valuable members of a team, and if you can’t utilize them to their full potential, then you aren’t a good leader.
My main gig is Demolition site supervision. This is what I do 40 hours a week and have been for well over a decade at this point. It gives me a lot of time to think about how people tick, and how my actions affect them. One thing I never forgot is how I felt when I started out as a laborer. If a boss was rude to me, or condescending, I always got them back. Mostly, the boss never knew, but I always got them in the end. How I did it was always different, but usually as soon as he wasn’t looking, I’d drop my tools and find my buddy. We’d both stop working and just chat for a bit. Maybe look at facebook, or talk about last weekend at the bar. I think back on those days often, and try to remember how I felt, and how I reacted to my bosses. My own actions taught me, you can’t rule people by fear. If you think talking down to, lecturing, or threatening your workers is going to push them harder, let me tell you, it won’t. The best and the brightest of them are going to rebel the second you are out of sight.
Ok, so you can’t yell at them, got it. So what do you do when your workers aren’t being productive, or are just plain lazy? There’s no easy answer. You have to actually know the person, their goals, and their desires in life. I can’t tell you exactly how to handle it. So instead, I’ll tell you a story about a man who we'll pretend was named Konah. A long time ago, on a demolition site inside a medical R&D facility far far away…
Konah was an African Immigrant working for me. He had been in this country for around a year, and he had never done demolition in his life. Konah came to America from an entirely different culture, and his outlook on life is nothing like mine. Projecting my outlook on life onto him, is completely counterintuitive. You have to get to know him to even begin to understand his motives. America is a fast moving country. We want things done, and we want them done quickly. The majority of the world does not function this way, and that's something hard for us to grasp at times.
I was having a big problem with Konah being slow, and even other members of the crew were complaining to me. Konah had been quietly removed from the sites of 3 other supervisors in the company. No one had bothered to explain to him why, they just moved him. I was his last Chance, pun intended. So I started to eat lunch across the table from Konah, and I would ask him about himself during lunch. I would ask him about the food he was eating, because it’s different from mine, and I would offer him some of my food, and ask for some of his in return. I asked Konah one day what his favorite type of meat was. In his country they eat what is available, not what walmart has on sale. I’m not joking when I tell you he told me his favorite meat was monkey jerky. Some other people at the table laughed, but I made sure to let him know I wasn’t judging. We talked some more and he said if he could find me some he’d bring it in for me. I told him that I believed eating monkey in the US may be illegal, but if he found it, I would at least try it. He never brought monkey in. Thank god, because I really would have tried it, and I really did not want to. We shared food of the non monkey variety, and he would tell me about how americans hated his food because it was way too spicy. His food was very, very hot and was often too much for me, but I still liked to try it. Maybe I’m a masochist. I asked tons of questions, and a repertoire grew between us. We accepted that we’re very different, but also have a lot in common.
As a result, I saw a slight improvement in Konah’s working, and I could speak to him and ask things like “Hey whats up, how come you’re not moving as fast” and I didn’t have to worry about him taking offense, because I had built up a real camaraderie with him. He knew it wasn’t just an attack, and that I respected him. He still wasn’t the best worker, but he was improving.
As it turns out, Konah was working an 8 hour shift, then after work he was going directly to college classes, without even the time to shower on most days. He was going to college to get into cyber security. In my spare time, I enjoy learning about ethical hacking, even though I’m really not very good at it. Now we had common ground. We could speak to each other about our shared interest in computers and networking.
It was at this point now, I can finally start to really be a leader for Konah. I understand him, I understand his hopes and dreams, and I also understand that he’s very smart but also lazy. However, now I know why he’s lazy. He is lazy because his body is completely exhausted and running on empty. You’d be lazy too.
Every day, Konah began stopping 5 minutes before lunch time to go to the bathroom. This becomes his new habit. Each day he tacks on a few extra minutes. At first, this is fine. I understand he’s tired, and people are entitled to a bathroom break. The poor guy is working a lot of hours, and also attending night school. If he wants to take a break, alright. The job is still getting done at a good pace and we’re on track to finish the job early.
I want to just step back a moment to point out how important that distinction is to make. Your goal as a supervisor is progress, not making sure people stay busy. You are not the twitter police. It does not matter if someone spends an hour talking on the phone. What is important is results. Are they productive on a large scale? If they are accomplishing equally as much or more than average, well then don’t worry about it. Some people need time to unwind so that they can really focus 100% when they are working. If you try to push that person too hard, you will end up with an unhappy worker who accomplishes less. Their work will also be lower quality, but every time you walk by at least they look busy right?
But I digress. So Konah, began pushing this bathroom thing further and further. At this point I need to mention that these bathrooms were locking single person bathrooms, and air conditioned. He would come into the lunch room straight from the bathroom, eat as fast as possible and go to sleep. Eventually one day he left 30 minutes before lunch to the bathroom. He walked into the lunch room 15 minutes late looking bleary eyed. We all know what's going on at this point. He is napping in his own private bedroom. My crew is getting frustrated that they have to work while he’s in there obviously asleep. These people are paid by the hour. They are required to be working if they want to be paid for that time.
So at the end of lunch I say to Konah, “Hey, stay with me for a moment let’s talk.”
Once the lunch room is empty, I ask, “Are you feeling ok lately?”
I don’t go directly into reprimanding him. I want to give him the opportunity to explain himself. This isn’t me just being phony, I really hope he will give me some explanation that makes sense.
Sadly, he does not. He says, “I’m fine, I don’t know why you’re asking.”
“I’m asking because I have noticed that each day you’re going to the bathroom before lunch, and each day you seem to leave a little earlier. I’m wondering if everything is ok with you.”
He stutters a bit and responds, “Well sir, I don’t know why you think that. I think maybe you have made a mistake.”
So at this point I have to say the hard thing. It’s hard because I do care about Konah. I feel very strongly that I need to tell him things he does not want to hear so he can have the opportunity to change them. Often supervisors skip this step, because it is hard to have a face to face talk with someone and say “Hey you’re doing bad.” Instead they choose to write them off as a bad worker. This is not a worker being bad, this is you. If they think their actions are acceptable, they have no reason to change them.
What is vital, however, is that you tell them these things in a way that they will genuinely listen to you, rather than feeling attacked. There is no easy way to do this. For me the best approach has always been, only state the facts! For example, I do not know for certain that Konah has been asleep. It’s as obvious as day, but I did not see it with my own eyes. So instead, my response is…
“Konah, I want to be honest with you. I believe that every day you go into the bathroom and sleep before lunch. It does not matter if this is true or not Konah, because it is what I believe is true. I understand why you would be sleeping. You do physical labor all day, and at night you labor mentally over schoolwork. The problem is, you simply can not be asleep in the bathroom alone for two reasons. Most importantly, it’s dangerous. This is an active plant full of chemicals, and accidents waiting to happen. If you don’t wake up when alarms sound, you could potentially be trapped. Second, your coworkers believe also believe you are sleeping, and are growing resentful. Not only is this not fair to them, but if your coworkers are resentful of you, it will create a hostile work environment.”
He replied “But sir, I think you are mistaken because I do not go in there to sleep.”
My reply was “I understand that, but if you are sleeping, or if you are not, is not the issue. The issue is that I believe you are sleeping, and I must base my opinions on what I believe is true. What I need you to do is simply change my opinion, through action. Don’t allow me to believe you are sleeping in the bathroom any more.”
“Ok, sir, I can do that.” He said.
“Before we go though, I want you to know that if you are tired or exhausted, and you can’t function at work, I just need you to tell me that. Every person on this job is important, but if I know you need time off, I can plan for that, and you can get some rest and come back refreshed later. This is not an issue, I just need you to have open and honest communication with me, If you’re too tired, don’t tell me you have a flat tire, or you’re sick, just talk to me. Tell me what’s going on in your life. I will do my best to help.”
So what happened?
Afterwards, Konah went back to work and he actually started worker harder than he had before. He wanted to prove to me that he wasn’t lazy, and he really did prove it. Now-a-days Konah mostly just works on my crew. They rarely send him to other sites because other supervisors always have problems with him. That’s just fine by me, I’ll take Konah any day. People tend to take notice when they send me nothing but the company’s “problem children” and my jobs always finish up way ahead of schedule.