4 Things Every Transit Leader Should Know About Their Front Line

Posted on June 8, 2016 by Zach Stone - Also by this author

All images courtesy Red Kite Project
All images courtesy Red Kite Project
Sun Tzu, the famous tactician and the author of "The Art of War," wrote “To lead people, walk beside them.” As leaders, we sometimes forget to step outside of our own job duties to understand the unique needs and perspective of our workforce. With the many vital roles we play each day to keep our companies running, we may think our time is too scarce to walk beside our most entry level workers. It's a belief that has resulted in many organizations’ lowered morale and catastrophic financial losses.

As transit industry consultants, we’ve had the opportunity to listen to more than 6,000 frontline, middle management and executive transit leaders in the U.S. This article will cover four of the most salient concepts the industry’s actors have identified as essential for operating at top potential. If you are able to implement these research backed ideas, you will see positive shifts around your company’s absenteeism, retention, customer service and morale.

 1. Relationships Matter

Yes, you’re busy. But your people have no idea what you do, or why you do it. Too often, we see or hear of managers and leaders who don’t leave their office, only speak to employees during disciplinary measures or don’t get to know their people. If you aren’t visible, your work efforts are also invisible to your team. Resentment grows for leaders who are perceived as too busy to connect. It also doesn't require much effort to earn a reputation as a hands-on leader who is concerned about the well-being of his or her employees.

Jeff Kneuppel talking to his frontline people at SEPTA.
Jeff Kneuppel talking to his frontline people at SEPTA.

“I truly believe that engaged employees are the key to satisfied customers. Frontline personnel represent SEPTA’s eyes, ears, and voice, interacting directly with our customers every day. One of my top priorities as General Manager has been to establish two-way communications with frontline employees — to inform on strategy, and to be informed on issues they see and hear in the field. I regularly shadow employees, everything from bus operators to maintenance custodians. Every six weeks, my executive team travels to a SEPTA field location to introduce ourselves and gather feedback from operators, mechanics and managers. Every quarter, we host a breakfast with operators, mechanics and managers from selected locations for more in-depth discussion on their experiences and concerns. Each engagement has resulted in meaningful improvements. This positive feedback loop demonstrates to our employees we value their efforts and input, which I believe results in a better product for customers. This is why effective employee communications is so crucial to our business.” - Jeff Knueppel, SEPTA GM

Solutions that have worked in different authorities and industries:

  • Cross teaming (have operators work alongside managers, control center operators, dispatchers for the day to better understand their roles and reasoning).
  • Riding along with operators.
  • Taking runs in uniform (routes suggested by operators) if you are CDL certified.
  • Have union leaders shadow managers for the day.
  • Running dialogue groups, listening, then implementing reasonable solutions suggested by workers.
  • Taking the time to get to know your people by speaking to them, asking questions and learning about them as people rather than account numbers.

 2. Conflict is Contagious

“When one driver is hurt, all drivers are hurt.” One bus operator told me when I asked him what had caused the high level of fear that was gripping his authority after a driver was hit by a stray bullet. In professions where there is a strong sense of collective identity, when an assault, death or even a public firing happens to a worker, it sends ripples through the whole workforce.

After an incident occurs, anxiety, fear, anger and helplessness become contagious throughout the frontline. To stop the negative assumptions and rumors generated in the depot, the incident should be acknowledged rather than dismissed as trivial. That increased fear or frustration is often accompanied by an increase in assaults or confrontations out on the street. A cycle begins that may end up leading to a very high amount of operator assaults or violence against customers. In addition to the physical harm to your frontline workers, periods of unmanaged fear and resentment are marked by increased absenteeism, workplace violence, lawsuits, distracted driving and lowered on-time performance. The months leading up to contract negotiations may be accompanied by an increased level of "us vs them" mentality from all parts of the organization. This can engender lowered compassion (drop in customer service), increased aggression, distrust and a breakdown in efforts to improve organizational performance. It’s vital that company-wide events like this be handled with care and deliberate effort to minimize the mental and physical harm that occurs.

Best Practices:

  • Release a company-wide statement or make an announcement to acknowledging the event and explaining what action steps are being taken to rectify the situation.
  • Act decisively and without half measures to end the current epidemic of operator assaults (many authorities continue to see rises in violence) through Increased police presence, training, enhanced response time of supervisors to deal with unruly passengers and incident mapping to identify trouble spots.
  • Conduct "innocent until proven guilty" disciplinary interviews, by withholding judgment and doing extensive incident report research.  

3. The Carrot, Not the Stick

For more than 60 years since B.F. Skinner, behavioral scientists have been proving that positive reinforcement is much more effective for behavioral modification than punishment. Even when faced with a mountain of evidence, some still prefer to use bullying and fear to try to change performance. Disciplinary measures are necessary, but effective leaders know to speak to their team to make it more akin to coaching and learning, rather than punishment.

When asked what they would change about their job, you’d think most workers would ask for higher pay. However, that is rarely what operators ask for. The number one thing they say they would shift is how they are treated by their supervisor or direct manager. They want to receive more positive feedback and support, not more pay. In fact, many drivers said that they would forego a raise in order to receive more emotional and mental support during their normal job duty. That is not to say that workers would turn down raises; far from it. However, compensation increases do not correlate to increases in engagement or workplace happiness.

“Make sure we get that commendation if someone calls in about something positive we did. Don’t just pull us in for discipline. Tell us that we did a good job. Most of us take pride in our job. We are protective of our work environment (the bus) and when someone violates that space by stealing rides, being rude or destructive, our nature is to protect what is ours and important to us comes into play. I get that I don’t own the bus, but when you care about your job, it’s hard not to assume a sense of ownership. It’s just a reality of being a bus operator. It becomes who we are. I just wish more leaders understood that.” - Ralph Branch, bus operator 28 years, union representative 10 years, Grandfather.

Solutions and Industry Best Practices:

  • Publicly post positive customer commendations in the depot for all operators to see.
  • Give awards and incentives to top performers, rather than focusing on punishing those who don’t make the grade.
  • Make ‘customer service (both internal customer treatment, and external customer treatment) a top priority. Embed it into the culture and the new mission/vision for the company.
  • Trainings, posters, announcements at safety meetings, and company-wide communications should focus on creating positive communication and engagement.
  • Practice positive reinforcement for your own direct reports.

4. A Few Bad Apples Will Ruin Your Harvest.

People don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. It’s a phrase we have probably all heard, but we all need to take it very seriously. Turnover, absenteeism, increased sick time, poor customer service, workplace violence and negligent driving performance have all been tied through research to be a side effect of low morale/engagement caused in part by poor leadership/management. Think of the best leader you ever had. What did they do to inspire you to trust and respect them? Think of the worst manager or leader you ever had? What did they do to cause you to dislike, distrust or even rebel against them? If you are identifying the negative characteristics of the bad leader in any of your direct reports, it’s time to examine further how they are impacting your workforce. More than likely, if you see a problem in their behavior, your team is feeling the effects somewhere and it may be trickling out onto the public.

“We have seen so many abusive supervisors and managers. ‘Petty dictators’ and ‘baby Napoleons’, we call them. You know, the top bosses really care, but somewhere in the middle it gets lost and then it kills morale. If they let their people treat us badly, it's as bad as if they do it. If something bad happens, ask me ‘Are you ok?’ Care about us, and we will care about our customers. This can’t be a ‘do as I say, not as I do.' When I had bosses that rode the system that actually cared about my well-being…that’s contagious. I was out there every run, looking out for my passengers because someone else was looking out for me. It’s really hard to care about your job if you feel like you are expendable or not valuable to the company.” - Road Supervisor of two years, former bus operator of 15 years - Anonymous for fear of retribution.

Solutions and Industry Best Practices:

  • Hold 360 evaluations of your leadership team and supervisors (including operators).
  • Conduct regular dialogue groups to find out which supervisors are respected and trusted vs. those who are feared, disliked, and are hurting your customer service initiatives.
  • Coach, Counsel, Cut - Act decisively and follow policy to remove an overly aggressive/abusive manager.
  • Clearly and regularly communicate your vision and your expectations to all levels of management and frontline about how you expect people to communicate and treat internal and external customers in the organization.
  • Conduct trainings and refreshers to help those who struggle with how to support or talk to their team in an appropriate manner.

At Red Kite Project, we believe that the best answers come from within — the ground troops are often more connected to the battle than the generals. As times change, so does the job, and current front line workers have answers to problems you don't even know exist yet. These ideas and suggestions are the collective opinions of thousands of frontline workers across industries, but specifically in transit. It just so happens that many of the points they make mirror that of the top organizational psychologists, business schools and military commanders. This is not a definitive list, but rather a starting point that leaders can refer to as they seek to be more effective in their careers, create top performing organizational cultures and transform the future of public transportation.

Zach Stone is co-founder/chief strategy officer for Red Kite Project, a resiliency building firm.

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