A Leader or a Supervisor…Which One Are You?

We spend enormous amounts of time talking about the physical aspects of cleaning: equipment, processes, chemicals, and work loading, but very little time on the social aspects. The social aspects are arguably far more important.

You can hand a worker a backpack vacuum, a power scrubber, and any other

high-productivity tool, but if you haven’t taught him or her to think, exercise judgment, understand and improve the system, and find joy in the process, you have neglected the most important tool of all—the one between the worker’s ears and the real source of sustainable motivation.

For example, one major contract cleaning company hired Fernando, a young Hispanic man to work its loading dock, unloading equipment and supplies to store in the contractor’s warehouse for pickup by the cleaning crews as needed. The young man had little formal education, but most people who spoke with him could see that he was intelligent and possessed “horse sense”.

One afternoon, a truck pulled into the loading bay and began to back up to the loading dock. Fernando stopped the truck about 10 feet away from the edge of the loading dock and began to unload the truck. His supervisor, seeing this apparently wasted effort, accosted Fernando: “Why are you wasting time? You know the rules. Have the truck back up completely to the dock!” Fernando protested, but acquiesced, and had the truck backed up to the lip of the dock. Once the truck was unloaded of eight palettes of floor chemicals, the driver attempted to exit the loading bay, but could not—emptied of its load, the truck was now too high to clear the top of the loading bay. The truck had to be reloaded, moved ten feet forward, and then unloaded.

Supervisors who “oversee”, criticize and correct infractions of the rules build resentment and squander the most valuable asset the business has—its workers and their potential to improve the existing system.

Sheepdog trainers have learned this lesson the hard way by experimenting with different training techniques. One method is to enforce strict obedience to distinct commands and physically punish the animal whenever it does not do exactly as told. The result? A very obedient dog that never thinks for itself, and that can’t do much without constant supervision. Another—far more successful–method is to ask a dog to perform a task, correct him only as needed to accomplish the job, but otherwise leave him alone. The result? The dog must think to reach its goal and will adapt to various circumstances to achieve the desired result.

A sheepdog trainer who was schooled in the “command and punishment” way of training found himself alongside a trainer schooled in the “thinking dog” method. One day, the “command and punishment” trainer was given responsibility for a “thinking dog”. He immediately ordered the dog to go to the right to herd sheep into a pen. The dog went left instead. The trainer began to shout and run after the dog, but the other trainer stopped him and advised him to leave the dog alone. As it turned out, the “thinking dog” had anticipated the direction the sheep would turn and was in a better position to head them off by going to the left. The sheep were successfully penned because the dog had been trained to think and not just to blindly obey.

The question for us is this: Are we encouraging our workers to think or just to blindly comply with the rules? Are we leaders or just supervisors?