Following these 10 C’s can lead to longtime employees and company success.
By Ed Butts, PE, CPI
Assembling a group of individuals to perform a task towards achieving a common objective—generally referred to as “teambuilding”—is a critical element of any successful enterprise.
Although I am not a human resources manager or recruiter, I have spent a lot of time participating in ways to get people with disparate backgrounds, personalities, and work ethics to assemble as a cohesive unit in my roles as either an employee, manager, or employer.
This month’s Engineering Your Business column will outline my philosophy and experiences in teambuilding, along with some of my successes and a few failures.
Teambuilding is truly an art and a science. It is a skill that many would like to have but few actually possess. It requires patience, a knowledge of people and their diverse personalities, organizational skills, and most of all, dedication to an often-thankless task that demonstrates the character of the teambuilder.
I have been involved on both sides of the effort in my groundwater career: the person enlisted to become part of a team and one who has tried to form them. The experiences were unique, hard, and rewarding in many ways.
They demonstrated to me the intrinsic value of being part of a cohesive unit with a single goal in sight as well as a leader charged with building a team from individuals with different goals and aspirations.
Trying to Do It Alone
My first exposure to actual teambuilding occurred when I joined Stettler Supply Co. in 1976. For more than a year prior to my start, my experience in wells and pumps had been as a quasi-lone wolf, someone who generally loaded up the truck; drove to the site; installed the pump, offset, and pressure tank; and plumbed and wired everything in a single day.
It was a lot to ask of a 17-year-old! It was often quite the task, especially on deep sets, where I had to hook up to each length of drop pipe, tail it to the hoist, start and tighten the pipe threads, and lower the assembly into the well—all while being careful not to scrape the insulation on the submersible drop cable against the well casing edge.
The process was even worse and more time-consuming when a long offset between the well and pressure tank location was involved, which usually ran into a second day. I eventually developed a system that enabled me to become self-sufficient and reasonably efficient, but I’m quite sure the total accumulated man-hours for one person were more than it would have been for a two-man crew.
Learning to Accept Help
When I arrived at Stettler, I was a more seasoned 18-yearold who was suddenly surrounded by many other pumpmen with similar or greater experience than myself, but who generally worked as part of a two-man crew. Stettler had a fairly firm policy, although unwritten, that two-man crews were always sent out for new sub pump installations, submersible and turbine pump pulls and replacements, jet pump well pipe and ejector pull jobs, and in general, any task that required the use of a pump hoist.
This was as much for safety as efficiency as Stettler handled bigger stuff—irrigation and municipal water pumps—than I had been a part of.
In fact, about the only task that didn’t routinely require two-man crews was the normal service calls, although they usually turned into two-man assignments when the need to pull the pump was relayed to the office.
The service man would often disassemble the piping and wiring while waiting for a second man to drive to the site with the pump hoist. If his service call backlog was too great, he would usually leave the job and be replaced with a separate two-man crew to pull the pump.
As I had considerable troubleshooting experience, I was one of three service men on the crew who was often asked to remain at the site while my helper and the pump hoist were dispatched. This was totally foreign to me as I was unsure how to act since I had been used to simply driving back to the shop, trading my service truck for the pump hoist, traveling back to the site, and pulling the pump myself.
On one particular service call in 1976, I radioed the office after discovering that a 400-foot-deep submersible pump had to be pulled and was told they would send out a helper with the hoist truck.
This new experience of a helper was something I was not only unaccustomed to, but in the first few months, often ignored and tried to do the work alone as I previously had. This meant my helper would simply stand around and wait for me to finish.
I readily admit now that I had a little too much of a self-assured attitude (over-inflated ego) back then with a desire to prove myself to my new big-time employer. Although I was the new kid on the block, I felt I didn’t need help from anyone to do the job.
Looking back, I now realize this bravado was selfish, potentially foolish, and caused from a combination of the success I had from my past experiences doing this same work alone, coupled with the typical arrogance of a teenager. Obviously, I still had some growing up to do.
Someone Who Taught Me Teambuilding
This attitude was not well received by my two superiors, Jim Grimm, the general manager and firm’s president, and Gene Byce, the assistant manager and crew supervisor. While Jim was more inclined to fire me (although he always denied this), Gene, an old pumpman himself, recognized this same trait from himself decades earlier when he too had to rely solely on his own ability and skills.
I respected Gene greatly for both his knowledge and experience with pumps and his gentle manner in handling the crew of multiple and disparate personalities. Calmly, Gene sat me down and explained the company’s policies, not as a threat or punishment for violating a policy for what had already happened, but to convey the importance of being part of a team.
He stressed the safety of using two men to conduct this type of work was not only important to the company but to the employees as well. By using two-man crews to install, pull, and reinstall pumps, the effort needed to do the work was shared rather than having only one do it all.
He added that this not only built comradery but allowed the job to be completed faster and safer and lowered the chance of work-induced fatigue that could result in job burnout, eventually leading to possible quitting or firing.
In addition, he pointed out the likelihood of incurring injury from the task was greatly reduced and there was a better chance the employee could continue to work for decades rather than having to go on disability from a crushed foot or back or eye injury.
I finally got it. His rational explanation was more constructive and useful to me than any angry reprimand or other sanction could have ever been. From that day forward, whenever I needed legitimate help, I willingly and happily accepted it.
Further, I not only felt part of a team, but was enjoying the work experience more. Whether he knew it or not, Gene was truly a great teambuilder.
Wanting to Be on a Team
As the years went by and I transitioned from the field into management and began engineering work and crew supervision, I tried to use the same tactics and subtle teambuilding that Gene had used on me 20 years earlier.
Sometimes it worked, but it certainly did not on occasion. One of the elements of teambuilding I quickly had to learn was avoiding the “us versus them” mentality common with many groups of employees and management.
This occurs when employees feel management is inherently against the employees, and they must stand up and fight for whatever gains they feel they need or deserve.
It is often caused by only one or two individuals in the group with perceived, or sometimes actual, grievances against the firm. These individuals are called, and often unfairly so, rabble-rousers. With enough cajoling and peer pressure, though, these individuals can often sway fellow employees.
I quickly learned that teambuilding cannot be applied to each person in the same way and for the same purpose. The teambuilder must use different tactics and methods to be able to meld each member into a single and cohesive team. After all, everyone is unique with different goals and aspirations. Something that may work with one individual may not work at all with another.
It’s not simply trying to make the individual part of a team but making them want to be a member of the team. I eventually developed a series of teambuilding strategies over time with the guidance of a website called Leadership First (www.leadershipfirst.net). I first used this as a crew supervisor and later on as the firm’s president to try and instill this attitude into our employees.
The Ten ‘C’s’
Although I wasn’t always successful, I feel we were eventually able to forge a pretty good team concept at our firm. Thus, based on an employer’s perspective, here’s what I refer to as the “Ten C’s of Effective Teambuilding.”
Coaching, or mentoring, a team is vital to the team’s overall success. Knowledge and competency of a particular trade or profession is neither a given nor automatic. It requires time, patience, and effort through adequate training, education, and experience.
This must be conducted by encouraging, and sometimes mandating, participation in seminars, courses, and workshops relevant to the employee’s tasks and pairing them to a more seasoned and experienced coworker who can pass down their accumulated knowledge of the business.
Coaching a new employee can often be a tenuous task as the personalities of the mentor and mentee must mesh to gain the maximum benefit in the shortest possible timeframe. Daily disagreements or lack of respect on the part of either employee are definite red flags that the pairing of these individuals may need to be revised.
Employer reimbursement or payment for qualified education and training not only encourages the employee to further their knowledge of the firm’s business, but reinforces their belief that the firm truly cares about them.
Although it is not always easy to define, character is an important characteristic of any organization and their team members. As there is no definitive test for character, it is often difficult to perceive if an employee or new hire has or lacks the degree of character needed to become an effective team member or if that will become an impediment to teambuilding.
This does not include simple differences in opinions, personalities, or attitudes towards work. Individuals with or who display short and irrational tempers, obvious disregard or contempt for authority or coworkers, start rumors, treat clients poorly, pad timecards, backstab coworkers, lie incessantly, or cheat and steal can quickly poison morale and induce damaging relationships and feelings within an organization.
Although these traits are often not present or visible during an initial interview, they will generally show up within a few months or sooner as fellow employees will often display resentment towards the offender, often making disciplinary action from management necessary.
Any discipline must be conducted in uniform accordance with established company policies, due process, and by observing all relevant employment laws.
Ignoring the impact from these acts is not an acceptable alternative as they will fester within the remaining staff and begin to create ill feelings and resentment towards management due to their inaction. Therefore, the situation must be quickly and legally resolved by initially applying appropriate discipline, which can include possibly dismissing the offender.
Ensuring proper communication exists between coworkers as well as employers and employees is critical to effective teambuilding. Improper communication between parties can not only disrupt the daily work process but result in mutual contempt and the inevitable finger-pointing
when two individuals claim they each heard different accounts of a managerial instruction.
Communication between management and staff must be clear and concise, and if possible, written to convey the intended directions such as with a work order.
Although an ongoing commitment from an employee to the firm is an assumed requisite of the mutual relationship, commitment from the employer to the employees is just as important but frequently overlooked.
For effective teambuilding, employees must feel they are valued and an integral element of the firm’s success. This requires a degree of visible commitment towards the employees from management beyond a simple paycheck.
This can include reimbursing or funding employees for local schooling, distance learning, or correspondence courses with relevance to their daily work. Or membership dues to professional associations, and sending employees to seminars and training sessions with the specific goal of improving the workers’ skills in their field of work.
Generally, there is no greater level of commitment perceived by an employee from their employer than the firm’s willingness to spend money to support an employee’s learning opportunity. With some employees believing their employer is cheap, the fact that a firm is spending tightfisted funds to enhance an employee’s work-related skills is prima facie evidence of its ongoing commitment to the employees.
Obviously, monetary compensation is the one element of employment most think about when considering an employee’s satisfaction level and likelihood of teambuilding success. However, while the rate of pay is an obvious part of an employee’s overall compensation, it is certainly not the only one.
In today’s world, a typical employee compensation package includes mandatory contributions to social security and insurance funds as well as various voluntary fringe benefits including pensions, health and welfare, vacation and holiday pay, and sick/disability benefits.
To entice new employees and remain competitive in an increasingly tight job market, though, many prospective employers now offer enhanced benefit packages that include education allowances, up to two months of vacation pay, personal paid days off, travel or relocation allowances, a company vehicle, and greater contributions towards retirement plans.
It is no longer wise to consider the local job market only, as many employers now offer the funds needed to relocate employees thousands of miles to pursue a new job. Thus, the key to attracting new employees and retaining existing ones is recognition of the local and national job market relevant to the profession and creating a compensation package that is competitive to the position to be filled on a national basis, not just related to local market conditions.
Caring is another teambuilding characteristic that is often overlooked but just as important as other elements. Also referred to as empathy, it is not simply expressing sympathy when a member of an employee’s family becomes sick or passes away, but is exemplified through a daily interaction with the employee to stress the firm’s concern for themself and their family’s well-being, happiness, and overall job satisfaction.
I have found these interactions work best when they are not planned around a specific event or unfortunate occurrence, but as an impromptu discussion between two human beings who are truly interested in each other’s lives.
Consistency is a critical element in teambuilding, particularly as it applies to equitable fairness with both recognition and disciplinary actions. If employees begin to sense favoritism or unbalanced treatment of certain employees exist, the resulting backlash can negate all other positive steps made towards teambuilding.
This is not to say that exceptional employees should not be suitably recognized, only that the selection process should be objective with clear and concise parameters, and above all, fair to all.
8. Company Comradery
“We’re all in this together” is the expression that pretty well defines company comradery. It is vitally important for all members of the staff to believe each one has a place in the firm and that every individual has a role in the company’s success. This is truly what being a member of a team is all about, regardless if it’s players in a sport or professionals working for a water well firm.
In my case, our workdays would often conclude with a beer (or two) at the local bar where we would regale fellow teammates on our experiences of the day and try to one-up each other as to whose day was better or worse.
I also eventually became involved with outside activities with employees, such as parties and outings away from work and ultimately made life-long friends. This is comradery.
9. Celebrate and Commiserate
Another important aspect of teambuilding is not to take ourselves too seriously and use the time to unwind. This means finding the time to organize and celebrate the good days of our job and commiserate over the not so good events.
This can include a Christmas party, summer picnic, or simply an unplanned and informal get-together. As I previously mentioned, during my days at Stettler, employees and management would often congregate at a small Mexican restaurant across the street from our office to share beer and chips, review the good and bad events from the workday, and discuss plans for the upcoming better days.
Many ill feelings between coworkers were drowned in the beer and bonds formed over these brief few hours that would otherwise not have occurred. This all greatly contributed towards teambuilding of the entire staff.
10. Caution with Conflict and Criticism
Finally, exercising caution when doling out criticism and trying to avoid direct conflict is an invaluable tool, not only in effective teambuilding but as a good management technique.
There will always be times when an employee must be criticized, reprimanded, or otherwise disciplined for an infraction. The key is to cool down first and not unduly or publicly embarrass the employee, but discreetly handle it behind closed doors without unnecessary character attacks, insults, or yelling. Remember the employee is still a human, subject to the same frailties, hurt feelings, and embarrassment we all are.
Most workers will not recognize the intended message while being criticized as much as the way it was delivered. This means the employer or manager should address the offending employee in a calm and cool demeanor without ranting or overdramatizing the offense. Be accurate and concise and document the discussion with each party’s acknowledgement. Stick to the intended message and do not stray into unnecessary dialog.
Each of these “Ten C’s” should be judiciously applied in proportion and only to the extent required to be effective. Tailor and apply each of these tenets to the actual group and unique personalities of the employees. Some groups may require use of one or two of these 10 pieces of advice, while others may need them all.
Above all, teambuilding must be a cooperative effort that includes all members of the staff and management pulling together towards a common cause. Believe me, the rewards are worth the effort.
Until next month, work safe and smart.
Ed Butts, PE, CPI, is the chief engineer at 4B Engineering & Consulting, Salem, Oregon. He has more than 40 years of experience in the water well business, specializing in engineering and business management. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.