Insubordination With An Incompetent Supervisor

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about supervisor with poor people skills:

I am a lead person in maintenance. We are required to work with several supervisors in different departments. One of my mechanics that has 20 years of experience in our field has to work under a young engineer who has recently transferred to production. While he was a good engineer, he is not so good at being a production supervisor. He has poor people skills and doesn’t like the way the mechanics assigned to his area work. Most mechanics around him resist his orders resulting in insubordination. I am on the sidelines and sometimes asked to intervene when discipline issues come around. What’s the best way for me to handle this?

Signed, Lead In Between

Dear Lead In Between:

Yes, in one sense you are on the sidelines. In another, you are in a central position to model how to make supervisors in different departments pleased with what maintenance does. As you well know, maintenance ignored costs; sometimes it costs big when its neglect shuts down production. Maintenance doesn’t always receive the applause and support it merits. However, in some factories, the value of maintenance workers is acknowledged by higher pay than production people and also they benefit from overtime assignments. So whether or not this is the case in your workplace, you can help your coworkers be proud of their important job.

I don’t know what kind of authority being a lead has, but I’ll assume that that at the very least you are a lead because you have both the smarts of your trade and the people smarts needed to represent yourself well in the work setting. Specifically what’s the best way to handle discipline situations when asked to intervene? An answer to such a question hinges on several factors: the cause, type and seriousness of the behavior that might call for discipline, whether the incident is one of a kind or part of a pattern of conflict, the history and guidelines of your policy book regarding conflict, whether you have a union, why you have been asked to intervene and when.

If you have been asked to break up a heated argument or a nasty refusal to do what is ordered or requested, you might need to call forth your people skills, such as raising your arm and firmly saying to one or both of the disputing individuals, “Stop. Cool it. I’m calling Time Out! We can talk this thing out.” And afterward you might be requested to ask Human Resources to investigate what provoked the conflict and to offer your opinion of what might prevent such future blow-ups. After a blow up or an accusation of insubordination, the best next step is not disciplining the maintenance individual who refused to follow an order. Rather it is getting the facts. So investigation is a way to hear the he said–I said, to learn why conflict escalated, and to learn how a request or an order progressed to failure to honor it. This usually also entails clarification of job descriptions and more importantly, coming to an understanding about what and when supervisors are authorized to do.

Both when discipline is expected and deserved, I think that that is a time for the accuser and accused to hammer out rules for their interaction. And as a lead you could be a facilitator, just as a parent might be for siblings in conflict or a coach might be if her/his players rubbed each other the wrong way and came to blows. Have you ever thought about the unwritten rules that are at work in your own working relationship with supervisors? Here is a time for you to jot down the dos and don’ts you have learned about maintaining civil working relationships with supervisors even before you schedule a head-to-head time out confrontation between a maintenance guy/gal and this young engineer who is now a supervisor with inadequate people skills. What are the five or six do and don’t things about communication you have learned?

Once you have thought this through, you are ready to lead a maintenance man/woman and a supervisor with whom she/he had a blow up to do the same thing. Such rules as: · Do ask. Don’t assume. Don’t order. · Do be willing to describe something that needs fixing. Don’t blame someone you want to fix it for not preventing it. · Do work out a schedule of maintenance and be flexible. Don’t be rigid about when something has to be done unless it is a pressing matter of safety. · Do talk respectfully. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Don’t raise your voice, point an accusing finger, or cuss out another person. · Do see maintenance as continuous problem prevention and solving and innovation. Do enlist suggestions from those closest to a machine and job. · Do smile and laugh off some frustrations. Don’t allow slights to fester. · Do see your self, whether maintenance or in production, as part of the big picture; applauding cutting wasted effort, time, supplies; delivering and sometimes delighting your internal and external customers. Don’t be obsessed with the small stuff. Might meeting with those in a dispute to work out an understanding about their interaction prevent and/or solve some of the conflict you’ve observed? Might a group meeting with you maintenance co-workers to create such a list of communication rules improve their working with supervisors, both old and new? I hope these thoughts spur you to be pro-active. My thoughts may not fit your situation; so feel free to think of other ways to facilitate. Work is hard enough without hating to work with one another. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. I assume you can figure out what I mean by that.

William Gorden