“Put on your own mask before assisting others.” If you’ve recently been on a plane, you probably heard this phrase during the pre-flight safety instructions. If there is an emergency that requires oxygen masks, you’re encouraged to put on your own oxygen masks before helping others. If you lose consciousness from a lack of oxygen, you won’t exactly be able to help anyone else.

This phrase doesn’t just apply to planes. On the manufacturing floor, sometimes you also have to attend to your own behavior before you can begin helping your team. Just like you can’t help others unless you put on your own mask, you can’t help others improve their behavior if you’re unable—or unwilling—to make changes to your own everyday behavior.

An Example from the Shop Floor

I recently spoke with a CEO of a manufacturing plant, who was having some communications issues with one of the managers on their team. The conversation with the manager was regarding succession planning, in particular the next level of leadership reporting to the manager, their supervisors. Knowing one of the supervisors was close to retirement and another wasn’t interested in career development, the CEO suggested a change to their duties. They’d keep their current salaries but would receive new titles and have fewer leadership responsibilities. It sounded like a great solution . . . or so the CEO assumed!

Unfortunately, the manager got defensive about their supervisors. The feedback and suggestions were not taken well. As a result, the conversation stalled.

Good Intentions, Wrong Behavior

In this situation, the CEO had great intentions. They wanted to help, came up with a solution, and thought they had the team’s best interests in mind. However, problems arose with how the ideas were presented.

This is common problem for manufacturing leaders. As they move up to higher positions in their organizations, leaders may get focused on changing behavior, rather than focusing on the thinking that leads to the behavior. If they don’t take the time and practice intentionality, manufacturing leaders will not develop skills they need to successfully support their team. This can lead to miscommunications, productivity breakdowns, and workplace conflict.

For Solutions, Look Inward!

When leaders find themselves struggling to communicate with their team members, it’s an opportunity to look inward and approach the challenge with empathy, curiosity, and intentionality. The next time you find yourself facing a behavior issue on the manufacturing floor, consider these three steps:

  1. Ask your team member to repeat what they said, with the aim of listening and taking in their unique perspective. As a leader, it may be your instinct to give directions or do most of the talking. But by taking less of a “boss” role and focusing on listening instead of talking, you might learn something new.
  2. Practice curiosity. Ask questions. Why do they feel that way? Can they give a specific example of their problem? Try to ask open-ended questions, rather than getting defensive or demanding answers.
  3. After listening to your team member’s perspective, don’t be afraid to take a pause. Give yourself and your team member time to sit with the information. Process it and consider your own reactions and behavior.

While reflecting on your conversation, you can also ask yourself questions about your own behavior.

  • What are my goals, zoomed out to focus on the long-term?
  • Does my everyday behavior and language reflect who I am or how I want to present myself to my team?
  • What can I do to be a stronger, more credible leader?
  • How does my behavior affect my team and organization?
  • Can I change the way I show up?

A Better Outcome

In the above example, how could the CEO have taken a different approach? What could the CEO have done to influence the manager’s thought process and find better alignment? In a situation like this, it might have gone differently if the CEO lead with questions rather than going straight to offering solutions. For example, the CEO could have first taken a pause and asked themselves questions like:

  • What is the succession plan for your department?
  • What is the plan to develop and prepare that talent?
  • What support do you (the manager) need to do this?
  • What is your supervisory teams level of excitement in this area of responsibility?
  • What day next week works for your supervisors to roll out to the senior leadership team?

By asking themselves questions like these, the CEO might have realized a different solution and avoided the conflict with the manager.

While this process can take a little more time, taking a look inward and ask questions can have great results in the long-term. By investing extra time now, leaders can see more alignment in the future!