Transit Workforce: Building a Bridge over Troubled Waters

Posted on June 5, 2008 by Steve Hirano


Managers who dread coming into the office because they have to deal with under-performing staff members are not alone. Their lament is common. Managers of all stripes are being challenged daily by the need to inspire and rehabilitate employees, who often seem like they’d prefer to be somewhere, almost anywhere else.


The transit world is no exception. The stratification of typical transit systems, especially the larger ones, creates many layers of management, with all of the attendant supervisorial headaches.


But retaining good employees is a critical task in public transit. Transit systems often find it difficult to recruit top candidates for a variety of reasons. Often, they cannot match private-sector salaries for equivalent positions. In addition, the specialized skills that are required for certain positions make it difficult to hire people from outside the transit world, vastly reducing the number of potential employees.


So it’s essential that transit managers take all necessary measures to rehabilitate under-performing employees. In addition, they need to create strategies not only to retain highly competent staff, but to promote them into positions of greater responsibility as well. But more about that later.



Group therapy can help

Ginny Blair of the Blair Consulting Group in Black Mountain, N.C., says transit systems, like nearly all other organizations, suffer from interrelational problems among their workforce.


“It’s almost inevitable that every seminar starts with a story about a manager’s struggle with an employee,” says Blair, who facilitates leadership development training for transit systems and other organizations.


One of the keys to fostering better relationships is to improve the managers’ and employees’ understanding of themselves. “It’s about personal development,” Blair says. “They get a lot of feedback from us in terms of understanding their own personalities and how their personality interacts with other personalities.”


To that end, Blair uses the Myers-Briggs personality indicator. “It’s one of the most successful tools that we use and has made one of the biggest impressions,” she says. “It helps them learn about their strengths and areas where they need to develop.”


Although much of the training that Blair and her colleague, David Foote, offer is self-guided study, with weekly coaching interaction, they also stress the importance of group meetings. “We like to bring the group together for three-day seminars,” Blair says. In addition, the attendees are required to work in groups on real-world projects, preferably ones that increase revenue, save money or improve efficiency.


“Part of what they learn is how to work together in groups,” Blair says. “This is how we get people talking to each other and working together.”


Blair says it’s important that participants relate what they learn in training to their jobs. “This is an application-oriented development program,” she explains. After each seminar meeting, she asks the participants to explain how they applied the training to their transit responsibilities.


One of her greatest success stories involves an operations supervisor who stubbornly insisted that he had to micromanage his bus operators. After going through Blair’s leadership training program, he created an operators council and let them oversee certain operational procedures. The operators were so enthused by the empowerment that they got a handle on their problems and even created their own Website. Within six months, the supervisor was promoted to assistant general manager.



Talk is cheap — and effective

Many times, the key to a successful employee turnaround is a willingness on the part of both the supervisor and the supervised to speak freely about the problems they’re experiencing.


As an example, a transit director who we’ll call Jim (the interviewees wished to remain anonymous) said he had a rocky relationship with one of his charges for many years.


Jim’s charge, who we’ll call Sarah, joined the transit agency straight from college and felt like she didn’t have time to get oriented before being handed significant responsibilities. “It all happened so quickly,” she says. “I didn’t have time to sit down and have a dialogue about what was expected of me.”


Before long, she was thinking about moving on. “I just wanted to run,” she says. “But my mom said, ‘No, you’re not going anywhere. Just stick it out.’” She took her mother’s advice. “I realized that there are going to be challenges wherever you go.”


“We had a rocky first few years,” agrees Jim, who added that Sarah seemed less than enthusiastic and reluctant to volunteer ideas, especially during meetings.


 Sarah says her behavior was often misinterpreted. For example, silence during staff meetings didn’t mean that she was apathetic, merely that she was focused on listening and absorbing.


Leadership development facilitated by a consultant helped to bridge some of the communication gap. Sarah took a six-month course that helped her communicate more effectively with her coworkers, including Jim, who had already undergone the training.


“It allowed you to sit down with coworkers and share things and to come up with better ways to communicate,” Sarah says.



Multiple personalities

In addition, Jim and Sarah each took the Myers-Briggs personality indicator and discussed the findings.


“The test opened up a lot,” Sarah says. “Jim and I sat down and compared the results. That was the beginning of the process of trying to communicate better and develop a more pleasant and fulfilling work relationship.”


“We learned about each other’s strengths and learned to respect our differences,” Jim says.


The relationship finally turned the corner after both parties sat down with the agency’s executive director and human relations director. “Sarah was talking quite plainly about the issues she was having with me,” Jim says. In response, he related some of the frustrations that he’d been having with Sarah.


Confronting these issues in an open, frank manner helped to relieve the underlying tension in their relationship, both say. “Now we’re not afraid to be open and honest with each other,” Sarah says. “And we understand what each other’s expectations are. After that was put on the table, we got beyond taking everything personally and realized that we’re here to do a job and we’re on the same team.”


Last June, Sarah, whose job was often hanging by a thread, was promoted.


“It was a long haul,” Jim says. “There was a lot of pain on all sides, but there’s also been a lot of growth on all sides. We put a lot of energy into this relationship and we’re seeing the fruits of it.”



Useful tools are available

At Metro Transit in the Minneapolis/St. Paul region, managers go through an in-house new manager orientation program, where they receive information about resources available to them should they encounter performance issues with employees below them in their chain of command.


Metro Transit is an operating agency of the Metropolitan Council and receives its HR support service from the council.


According to Marcy Simon, human resources manager of learning and organizational development at Metropolitan Council, performance measures are carefully developed and based on the results of focus groups and interviews with staff on what skills are needed to be an effective manager. Using a management competency model to measure the assessment of a manager’s abilities and performance, performance reviews are an ongoing process.


“At Metro Transit, we don’t treat the performance review as an annual event,” Simon says. “Rather, it is meant to set goals, deliver at least quarterly checkups on progress toward goals and management expectations. Through these meetings, any festering management issues can be addressed in an open discussion away from the day-to-day press of business.”


Identifying problems early is critical in turning around the performance of a manager who is struggling to perform effectively. Some of the more obvious signs of trouble are a failure to meet established goals, or complaints and negative feedback.


“The supervising manager should be alert to the troubled manager adopting an autocratic style of management or to engage in defensive communication with his boss involving comments, such as ‘I told them what to do, and they won’t do it,’” Simon says. “These are signals that the manager is stuck and needs help.”



Grievances curtailed

Michael F. Komara, director of human resources at CamTran-Cambria County Transit Authority in Johnstown, Pa., has seen first hand the positive effect employee training and improved communication with supervisors has had in reducing the number of grievances filed with his department.


When Komara started in human resources nearly 40 years ago, management employed a more rigid “my way or the highway” approach to employee performance.


Today, senior managers complete training through the Management Development Program at Penn State University in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Public Transportation Association. Part of the training emphasizes the importance of knowing the managers they supervise.


“If a manager isn’t showing the initiative or the drive to meet performance standards or if they are showing early signs of trouble, such as increased absenteeism, they know there’s a problem,” Komara says.


By fostering open and honest communication between levels of management and their subordinates, Komara says it helps gain important insight into the reason or reasons for an individual’s poor on the job performance.


“We used to average about 100 grievances a year, and this year, we’ve had about three or four,” Komara says. “When you have a good relationship established on the front end, you avoid a lot of the problems traditionally associated with poor performance.”


Komara says managers are encouraged to sit down with individuals who show signs of poor performance to identify what it is management can do to help with whatever the problem might be. Often, it may not be a problem on the job that is affecting performance, but trouble at home.


Cam-Tran sponsors and encourages use of employee assistance programs to assist with confidential referral to substance abuse or behavioral health treatment and counseling, if appropriate. Such referral is not intended to be punitive, but is available to help employees deal with problems that may affect their productivity.


Profiling is encouraged

At Metro Transit, feedback from direct reports, peers and senior managers is an important tool in evaluating a manager’s performance. Through the use of what they call “The Profiler,” human resources solicits comment from these individuals and assists the manager in understanding the results, then works with them to develop an improvement plan based on those results.


A strong and cooperative relationship between management and human resources is an important factor in turning things around. Simon says that management has to be open to making changes, such as moving a manager or supervisor to another shift or to another work location in order to provide a fresh start to someone trying to implement new management techniques.


The human resources department, in turn, is responsible for being alert to the more nuanced factors of cultural and gender differences and the role they play in the quality of manager-employee relations.


Komara points to the importance of developing an atmosphere of camaraderie in helping an under-performing manager improve. “We need to understand that we’re all here for the same purpose,” he says. “These managers need to know that we have an obligation to help them, whether it’s in their current position or promoting them into a new position.”



Mentoring pays dividends

At The T in Fort Worth, Texas, work-force development has gained traction in recent years, spawning a mentoring program that has helped to provide would-be supervisors with skills critical to their success.


The program got started in October 2006. One of its initiates was four employees who needed to expand their supervisory capabilities before being promoted into managerial positions.


Terri Moore, workforce developer at The T, says the one-year pilot program helped to elevate the employees from being not-yet-effective supervisors to producing candidates who are “top performers.”


One particular employee really stepped up her game. To reach that plateau, the employee first had to self-assess her competencies, discuss them with her supervisor and then focus on areas where improvement was needed.


Oh, and she also had to complete 142 tasks. “She had to complete writing assignments, presentations, interviews — different types of learning experiences,” Moore says. She also had to complete a personality assessment and shadow one of the more successful supervisors at The T.


Throughout the process, the employee was coached by Moore, who says she provided support approximately five times a week to the employee and three coworkers who were also involved in the program. “I coached them through situations in which they were unsure,” she explains.


The four participants received nuts and bolts instruction in writing, safety, communication, coaching, customer service and legal issues in supervision. The training was provided by Moore and other managers at The T. “We had quite a few people pitching in with information,” Moore says. The participants also got some outside instruction by attending a workshop on basic managerial skills.


After completing the program last September, the four “graduates” were invited to a celebratory dinner. Moore said the mentoring program was so successful that it was expanded to 10 participants from all areas of the company.



Steve Hirano is the former editor and associate publisher of METRO Magazine. He left the magazine in late 2007 to start an online employment service for public transportation called He can be reached at [email protected]

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