Juggling with different personalities? Watch out for the tightrope!

The Tightrope

I would argue that juggling different personalities is a huge tightrope that people do not always succeed in walking very well. It’s one of the tightropes that you have to get used to in many companies.

 

The problem is that you often will come in not prepared. You won’t know it until you get in what it is really like. Perhaps informational interviewing and tapping your professional network (assuming you know someone who works in the company or that industry) can help, but there are few other opportunities for truly learning. This is not the type of information that you will find on the Internet. Typically in a website or on the media, you will find an “About Us”, some history, the latest press releases, and major events covered in the media. What you be hard pressed to find is the kind of news about “what is the situation like on the ground?” that you really need.

 

Certainly, there are some websites, blogs of employees, and the like that might be able to offer you some advice. Glassdoor and similar job review websites have been cited, but experiences vary widely. Your manager, geographical location, office, and unique conditions where you are all can very closely affect you. Nothing really is going to be a substitute for you experiencing it yourself.

 

Manufacturing

 

There seems to be the perception from those outside of manufacturing that manufacturing is medium-to-low skill and more labour-intensive than anything else.  That is not always the case. Perhaps in lower end manufacturing, but in higher end manufacturing, nothing could be further from the truth. Manufacturing can be very capital intensive, requiring very specialized skills. Sometimes new facilities can easily cost billions in capital costs. There are other benefits too, such as spin-off industries, a complex supply chain, and R&D facilities that are needed to support that manufacturing base. For that reason, I think that it is extremely good policy to keep a large manufacturing segment.

 

There is however one area that I would like to focus on. From my experiences in manufacturing, one of the most fascinating things I had to do was to interact between the hourly and the salaried employees. It was a pretty big divide and quite fascinating at times.

  • The hourly workers generally came from a mixed education background. Some are complete with university education and even graduate degrees, while others did not complete high school. Depending on the plant, they may or may not be unionized. As the term implies, they are generally paid by the hour and are eligible for overtime. With overtime, they could sometimes make more than high ranking salaried employees.
  • The salaried workers were usually complete with university education, although it was not unheard of for an hourly worker to advance into the position where they became salaried. Salaried workers are paid a fixed salary and sometimes long hours are expected (it depends heavily on position, company, and location). Certain times of the year can be very busy for various reasons, and

 

There was this bridge between the salaried and hourly workers. Many hourly workers tend to act “tough” (which they often are as their job requires them to be in excellent physical shape). By contrast, hourly workers often feel a certain degree of pride over salaried workers, because they feel that they are doing the “real work” (which is to say, physically intensive labour and in some cases may even be contemptuous of salaried employees for doing what they might call “paper pushing”). In practice, this is not always the case, as although the stereotype is often correct, it is not always the case. Do not be surprised to see salaried workers are often on the floor doing labour-intensive or complex tasks with machinery that could be quite exhausting as well. Likewise, hourly workers often find themselves doing complex tasks as well required specialized training that may not always be physically intensive. In general, the more capital intensive tasks will see very highly skilled hourly employees too.

 

As a salaried worker, one challenge you often will have is that you often need to get information from the hourly workers that they might not want to give or to get the hourly workers to do something that they might not want to do. That can be very challenging at times. You have to assess the situation very carefully, including what is the ultimate goal, what you are trying to accomplish, and the state of you relationship with the other party in question. Often you need to appeal to their ego and to approach the problem very carefully. You may ask, is that not true in every office? Particularly ones where office politics reigns supreme? Yes, but in manufacturing, the differences can be much bigger. In particular, the difference between hourly and salaried becomes like two different ethnic groups in a contested area. In theory, both groups are supposed to be on the same team trying to accomplish the same goal, which is to say, make great products. In practice, that is seldom achieved. The end result is that regardless of whether you are salaried or hourly, you will have to move very carefully.

 

The challenge is getting the task done, but not just getting it done, it is also about keeping a lasting good relationship with the hourly employees. You may need them in the future and they may need you. One way the best companies in manufacturing I find distinguish themselves is to have a culture that understands that work needs to be done,  and that they can separate the work from the personal.

 

Other Industries

I used manufacturing because it may be the area that the differences are the most visible. However, most stark does not mean the only example. Outside of manufacturing, there are other big differences elsewhere.

 

One example I can think of is during a takeover or a corporate merger. If two companies have competing cultures, that could lead to strife immediately. This is particularly problematic where one company has a very political culture or one that was dysfunctional. Often the company with the dysfunctional culture was in difficulty because of its culture and was acquired for that reason. That can backfire badly on the buying company.

 

Technology might be another example. IT Departments are filled with people who are typically very “computer literate” (a job necessity, to say the least). I have often heard people in IT or technical support find themselves bemoaning the ignorance of their users or who they are trying to help, as their users often struggle with (what seems to the IT at least) relatively simple tasks. I wanted to explore this in greater depth because one thing I have found that is very important is to act as a “bridge” between the different departments. That can be very good for smoothing tensions. The bridge concept is something I would like to explore in my future postings.

 

Yet another example may be the internal teams versus external consultants or auditors. This can lead to unique tensions, particularly when the external party is itself inexperienced in an industry.

  • For consultants, it can be difficult because the external consultant often is talking to people who have worked in the industry for a very long time when the external consultant may be new to the industry. Who is “right”? The problem becomes that being right becomes more important than finding the truth. I have seen it go either way. Sometimes the internal party is right and that acting on a consultant’s advice would lead to disaster, while in other cases, the consultant is showing something their client cannot or will not see. The point though is that this can create tensions, especially if one party feels threatened by the other.
  • There will always be a level of tension between auditors and their clients, at least if the auditors are doing their job well. Financial auditors by nature must express some degree of professional skepticism to spot what could lead to “material misstatements” on their client’s financial statements.  That by nature leads to tension as the auditor is looking for something wrong. Errors can be intentional, unintentional, and in accounting, there can often be a great deal of subjectivity or areas open to interpretation that require careful professional judgement.

I would like to explore this concept like the other one I listed in greater detail in my future posts.

 

Conclusions

I think that to an extent, all companies and all industries have this problem. However, in the areas where the differences are particularly big, there is a very delicate tightrope that you have to walk.

 

It is not an easy task and I would argue that most people do not do very well at it, were they placed in that situation. I will be the first to admit that there have been times that I have done well and others where i have learned some very difficult lessons. I think that one thing that sets apart the great employees is that they can extract the useful information, yet do so in a very diplomatic manner.  That may sound like a basic requirement of the job, but the problem is, it is harder than it looks. It is not just in the industries where I have listed. It is everywhere. Hence my emphasis on the tightrope that one has to walk.

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