I recently wrote about five habits that ‘create safety’: connecting, asking, focusing, scanning and speaking-up. Many organizations use policies and processes to drive these behaviors: forms to fill out, rosters to sign, cards to submit, etc. These processes are rarely effective. Usually workers do the bare minimum to comply, ‘pencil-whipping’ the forms before they go to work. What’s a manager to do? How can we influence the actions and attitudes of our workforce? How do we get people to make good on the intention of these processes? I believe the answer lies with front-line leaders. Whatever you call them — fore-(wo)men, supervisors, team leads, crew captains — no-one has greater influence over performance and culture than those who direct front-line workers. At Humanus Solutions, our Front-line Leaders Development Program focuses on six habits — actions, if taken consistently over time, influence the way workers think and act, leading to a safer (and more productive) workplace.
  1. Build relationships. People are more likely to ask questions, raise concerns, share ideas and accept feedback when they feel a personal connection to their supervisor. This does not mean being friends with the people who report to us, but it does mean connecting with them as people, rather than means of production.
  2. Get them talking. We often lead meetings by talking at people. But when we hog the microphone, we also hog responsibility for the topic we’re discussing. In order to engage people — to get them thinking and feeling ownership — we’ve got to get them talking. The best leadership tool is not a speech — it’s a sincere, provocative question. Speak less, ask more, and listen.
  3. Set expectations that empower. Being a supervisor usually involves assigning work. There’s a temptation to tell people how to do things — especially if we have more experience and skills. But when we proscribe how to do something, we undermine out team’s ownership of the work. The best supervisors describe the results they want to see — do this, by then, with these outcomes — and ask team-members how they will do it?
  4. Give balanced feedback. Supervisors are often problem-solvers: removing roadblocks, getting help from other teams and explaining delays to management. We tend to focus on the mistakes of our team-members. Giving timely, specific, and constructive feedback regarding poor performance is important, but we are well-served to also ‘catch’ people doing things right — and let them know we appreciate their efforts.
  5. Represent the organization. Supervisors often the channels of communication from upper management to the front-lines. When the news is bad, there’s a strong temptation to distance ourselves from the organization, and emphasize our connection to the team: “I don’t like this any more than you do, but management has decided to…” No supervisor wants a team of disengaged, whiney ‘victims’. And yet when we distance ourselves from company decisions, we are modeling irresponsibility. Best to play it straight and represent the organization: “Our organization has decided to…”
  6. Be the example. What we do (and don’t do) speaks louder than what we say. Our teams watch us closely, and infer our values and priorities from our actions — whether we are conscious of them or not. At the end of the day, our best way to influence others is by being the way we want them to be.
The processes we ask our people to follow (the paperwork, checklists and forms they complete) are necessary and important — but they are not sufficient to cause a safer workplace. When we manage through compliance, our teams give us what we want: compliance. But if we want more, we have to lead people — we must influence the way they think, feel and behave. The most influential people on any team are front-line leaders, and their influence occurs through the relationships and conversations they have, the things they notice and react to and the example they set.

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