By Jeff Sanford
Toronto, Ontario – July 12, 2018 -- The latest Guild 21 teleconference took place last Thursday. Taking a break from recent discussions of technical advances on the shop floor, the most recent presentation was led by management consultant Ken Perlman.
Technical skills are what a collision repair center relies on to do business. But managing a workforce is an art in itself, and so the discussion of concepts managers in a collision repair shop can use to successfully direct with employees will be welcome advice to anyone in a management position.
Perlman is a recognized thought leader, consultant, and presenter with 20 years’ experience consulting to executives and teams at Fortune 500 companies. According to a bio Perlman has built a practice based on expertise in leadership, program management and communications. He currently teaches leadership and management at the University of Southern California. His industry experience has been shared at major corporations like Levi Strauss & Co., Warner Bros., Strongroom and Nestle. And so he has deep experience in the challenges managers face leading their employees.
Management is a tricky thing. There are no hard and fast KPI scores or physical parts to replace. It’s a soft skill that can seem vague in its application or effects. Perlman accepts this ambiguity. “The definition of a leader is someone who makes something happen that would not have naturally happened on it’s own,” he says
But there are also management tips and tricks that have proven effective over time--Perlman discussed the techniques that leaders can use to manage the performance of the organizations they lead.
According to Perlman it is important for leaders to create a space where the employees can feel psychologically safe to, “… take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.” That is, it’s important to create a sort-of psychological safe space where team members can feel that they can talk freely to management and others about issues in the workplace.
“Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. It’s essential to high performance,” says Perlman. Creating the space for team members to bring up suggestions or complaints will eventually lead to a team that will be defined by “dependability,” will be a team the members of which, “get work done on time,” according to Perlman.
Creating a team in which members experience a sense of inclusion is important at several levels. Team members are able to develop a sense of meaning about their work which is important for ongoing mental health and, ultimately, performance.
“I think it is personally important to team members that they feel like they are engaged in meaningful work. They feel like they have a say in what happens. They feel connected,” according to Perlman.
Obviously, employees that don’t feel connected, often feel they have to keep quiet and keep their heads down. This often results in staff members that are not as high-functioning as they might have been. But giving employees a stake and voice in their workplace doesn’t mean employers are giving up control over the direction of the business. According to Perlman managers need to hand down a set of expectations that form a baseline in terms of performance. The tone and manner in which expectations are delivered is important.
“Be clear on goals. Remember, clarity creates speed,” says Perlman. “Deconstruct complexity for your employees. Enable excellence by setting and modeling the standards employees are expected to abide by.”
Sources of conflict in a workplace can arise from “goal incompatibility” according to Perlman. And while it’s not always possible to perfectly align goals of employees, clients and business partners (say, insurance companies)—the fact that resources are always limited will ensure some goal incompatibility—it is a fact that the task interdependence of those working on the shop floor does allow for some alignment of goals among employees and employer. Acting as a guide and mentor to employees can be one way of aligning interests and goals.
“A huge element in being a leader is setting a standard,” says Perlman. Part way through the call he went on to ask attendees to name one person in their life who stepped forward to make a difference in the professional career. Asking who was the one person who “stood out in your life and made a difference,” teleconference attendees were polled on their answer. The most popular answer, the largest percentage by far, was a former boss or supervisor.
Perlman asked those in the crowd to think about what it was that person said or did that made such an impact on their life. “What are some of the actions or attitudes that they did that they had that om pace on you? My most influential leader was my first boss in consulting,” according to Perlman. “He treated me like a whole human being. He was concerned about my success. He wanted to make me a better person, not just a better consultant. That personal approach changed how I coached and allowed me to grow into the person I am today. Whatever you say to your employees, you want to make sure you are saying, ‘I will make you sound smart. I will have your back.’… We had that psychological safety.”
The successful manager is one who can balance the needs of the business with the goals of the techs on the shop floor. “The successful manager is clear. He knows what he needs. He also makes things simple,” says Perlman. “If there is a way for you to deconstruct the complexity of the business to make it understandable to the employees, do that.”
But the successful never loses site of the bottom line either. “You have to have a set of core values… and one core value that has risen to the top time and again--Star Trek fans would call it the prime directorate--when all else fails, the most important thing is the customer,” says Perlman.
Whatever else is the case, the “... boss sets the standard, and is the role model. It’s the setting up of the expectations and then the tracking those and making sure the employees live up to them that is an important task of leadership,” says Perlman. It’s in this monitoring of expectations that managers are able to construct a solid team. “If employees aren’t living up to expectations, then at some point you might have to ask if we have the wrong techs here. Set the floor for what's expected. And then follow-up and enforce those expectations.”
Communicating these expectations, however, has to be done with tact and skill. It is important for managers to listen to what employees are saying; it’s not enough to simply issue commands. “When you have conflict, sit down and ask where this is coming from. You have to listen. So often when someone begins talking, the other person will think, ‘I know what they're going to say,’ and they stop listening. But you have to flip the script on that. Even if you think you know what they’re going to go say, listen carefully to the worlds coming out of their head. That will help you understand what their goals and concerns are. Stop trying to predict and just listen.”
According to Perlman the smart manager is going to realize that the thing that is probably frustrating them is goal inconsistency. “There is a hero in their version of the story, and in that story they’re the hero. But in your version of the story, you're the superhero. And so just have to flip how it is you respond to employees. If you can flip that script, you can let them drop their shield. And that’s going to allow you to come together as a team,” says Perlman.