Expert Commentary

Construction Frontline Supervisor Essential Skills and Competencies

In industry, management generally selects a competent worker who excels at their work for promotion to the supervisor (foreman) position. This is generally a person who is exceptionally good in doing their job by having a good grasp of the skills of the trade, is self-directed, productive, shows initiative, and is a problem solver, to name a few.


Construction Safety
January 2019

This person was basically promoted to the supervisory position by virtue of having good technical skills. But to be an effective supervisor, this person needs to acquire certain basic management, leadership, and administrative skills. Unfortunately, the organization does a less-than-effective job in making sure that this person is provided the education and training in these areas so that they may become an effective and efficient supervisor.

The first-line supervisor, who may be known as the foreman, is a critical link between management and the workforce. The foreman plays a crucial role in managing productivity, quality, and safety outcomes by virtue of the fact that they to some degree oversee, organize, direct, and control the work during field operations. To accomplish this, the supervisor must be able to be an effective communicator, be able to forge good working relationships with the crew and management personnel as well as others, be an effective planner, good decision-maker, able problem solver, etc.

Unfortunately, the fine points of these skills are not readily learned on the job, so management must make a determination of the strengths and weaknesses of the newly promoted supervisor's skills in these areas and devise a plan to provide such information to them so that they may become an effective member of the organization's management team.

To be an effective supervisor, one has to understand the organization's culture as well as its climate. The organizational culture can be defined as the underlying shared core values, norms, beliefs, and assumptions held by its members about their organization. The culture influences the adopted policies which represent the operating and performance standards for the organization. The organizational climate is the meaning members assign to various aspects of the workplace. So, the employee's perception of the organizational culture and leadership's actions and behavior in a way helps define and shape its climate. The climate shapes the accepted organizational procedures, which are the means for achieving the formal policy's intent as well as the accepted expectations and performance procedures. The employee's understanding of the operating procedures and their interpretation of them leads to the day-to-day work practices.

To be an effective supervisor requires a good understanding of the organizational culture as well as climate. In a construction company, the frontline supervisor (foreman) generally plays a key role in achieving project goals and objectives through the effective management of the crews. To accomplish this successfully, the foreman must have a number of essential skills and competencies.

Managing the Work Climate

The organizational climate, as well as the supervisor's actions and behavior, shape the work climate. This influences and determines the employee's perception of the job in particular as well as the organization and its leadership in general. The work climate shapes the employee's understanding of the overall policies as well as operational procedures, which then guides their interpretation of them, resulting in their day-to-day work practices and behaviors.

Another aspect of the work climate is the individual employee's perception of the impact of the work environment on his or her own job satisfaction as well as their well-being. For instance, job-specific properties such as role clarity, workload, human dynamics, fair treatment, and other aspects unique to a person's specific job have a psychological impact that can be attributed to the effects of the work climate. Crew relationships or team cooperation and effectiveness, as well as leadership and organizational support, are other dimensions of a shared experience that factor into the work climate.

Surveys are the most common way of quantifying the organizational, operational, or work climate. Aspects of climate that influence the performance of specific sets of actions, behaviors, or outcomes can be defined or addressed in specific areas such as the climate for production, quality, innovation, goal attainment, customer satisfaction, interpersonal relationships, and more specifically in safety.

Leadership

Leadership is critical to organizational success. The development of individuals expands their capability to perform as leaders within organizations. Leadership roles are those that facilitate execution of a company's strategy through building alignment, winning interaction, and growing the capabilities of others. Leaders need three fundamental areas of competencies to be effective. These are leadership, attributes, and practices.

Attributes are the basic elements of performance that are the capabilities needed by people to effectively do their jobs. Practices are what people do with the attributes they possess which manifest themselves as observable on-the-job behaviors. Leaders focus on the "big picture." To successfully function as leaders, superior language skills are a must, which translates into effective 360-degree communication. Other salient factors are good business acumen and ambition. Practices entail the skill with which the leader utilizes these factors when interacting with the employees.

As far as the competencies necessary to effectively lead people, several come to mind. The leader must have good mental acuity, analytical and strategic thinking, emotional intelligence understanding interpersonal dynamics, business and technical acumen, self-improvement by being inquisitive and thirsty for knowledge, a strong sense of "self" by being confident and decisive, being proactive by taking initiative, being persistent, taking charge or setting direction, the ability to influence others, the ability to build strong and enduring relationships, and by being empathic and supportive of others.

Essential Management Skills of a Construction Frontline Supervisor

To successfully manage, one must be able to effectively communicate, make decisions, give direction or guidance, set goals, provide feedback, and reward or recognize good performance. Basically, managers are either directing, delegating, or discussing when interacting with direct reports. Managers use any one of these approaches depending on the situation or experience of the employee's in terms of capability, knowledge, skill, or experience. This usually provides the necessary guidance and support to accomplish the task at hand.

Management's focus is more on performance and/or production, which hinges on effective execution. Effective execution hinges on senior management support and leadership; an involved and dedicated middle management; an effective, immersed, and committed supervision; and a knowledgeable, capable, informed, and motivated workforce. Robust execution requires a company-wide dialog over direction and a concerted effort to link functional and individual goals with those of the corporation. Strive for innovative, effective, and efficient operations. Celebrate wins, and learn from mistakes and losses. All of this results in creating value for the customer.

Effective Communication Skills of a Construction Frontline Supervisor

To function effectively as a foreman within the organization, the supervisor has to be able to effectively communicate horizontally as well as vertically. People in organizations spend over three-quarters of their time in some form of interpersonal situation. Poor communication skills carry a great deal of liability. Employees and especially supervisors who do not communicate effectively are at a disadvantage and do not thrive in organizations. Communication is more complex than just saying something to someone. The message has to be clearly conveyed as well as understood. The choice of words or language used in the message will influence the quality of communication.

By understanding this, you can choose the words you'll need and decide how to use them to ensure that the desired outcome is achieved. Research has shown that there is a 40–60 percent erosion of meaning in the transmission of information from one person to another. Given this fact, it is not surprising that a substantial number of misunderstandings, interpersonal issues, and performance problems result from poor communication. So, it is critical to appreciate and be aware of the potential barriers to effective communication. For greater detail, see "The Role of Communication in Effective Supervision" (October 2014), "Communication Insights for Supervision" (November 2014), and "Effective Communication in Construction Safety" (February 2017).

Planning

Operational (production) planning is a must on construction projects. But its quality and comprehensiveness are a function of the organizational requirements, operational planning, and oversight as well as the ability of the people engaged in it. But it is a different story when it comes to safety, which is treated as separate from operations and overseen by a safety practitioner. There is minimal risk assessment if any of the planned means and methods by supervision to identify hazards as well as exposures prior to starting work when the solution is easier, less disruptive, and more importantly is not left to the safety practitioner to discover after the fact, when the fix may cause disruption to the smooth flow of work and more importantly allowed the operation to proceed at risk up until the time the safety practitioner finds the discrepancies.

The goal of preoperational production planning should be the reduction of risk that will minimize disruption, increase efficiency, and lower costs, as well as result in safer operations. Preoperational safety planning should involve the integration of safety into the construction operational plans and procedures. It looks at potential risk in the operational plan, construction procedures, or work processes and either eliminates the risks or provides for controls that will minimize their adverse effect. Exposures resulting from procedures and work methods are anticipated, and reviews of applicable safety program elements are made to make sure that the operations are in compliance with the intent of safe work execution. For greater detail, see "Managing Construction Risk through Pre-Operational Planning" (September 2006).

Directing

When assigning tasks or providing guidance, the foreman needs to provide the worker or crew with clear direction on goals and objectives. This involves the necessary information so that they understand the associated expectations, such as what it is they have to do, how to do it, and the importance of accomplishing the task safely within the allotted time. The supervisor must ensure that everyone clearly understands this. Effective communication is obviously critical when it comes to providing direction. The supervisors must figure out the most effective way to relay the information to the workforce so as to enable them to successfully accomplish their assignment.

Delegation

Delegation is one of the basic functions in management. A capable supervisor must be able to delegate effectively so as to meet production goals for which they are responsible. To effectively delegate, the supervisor must understand the relationship between authority, responsibility, and accountability. The supervisor is accountable for the work the crew performs. The supervisor has the authority to assign work to anyone in the crew and is responsible for ensuring that it is done well and within the allotted time. This is where task design and demand come into play.

One of the key functions of supervision is task assignment. To do this effectively, the supervisor must know the task demand and be able to match it to the worker's capability. A mismatch in this regard will adversely impact the worker's productivity, could affect the quality of the work, and may even possibly cause the worker to suffer an injury. The next step is to ensure that the worker is effective in performing the task efficiently, which involves task design.

Task design involves the characteristics of the environment where the task is to be performed, the tools to be used, the manner in which the task can be performed, and its flow organized. The supervisor should watch the worker perform the task to ensure the worker is doing it effectively as well as efficiently. This means understanding how the worker is planning on performing the work as acceptable. If there are any doubts, the supervisor should offer some guidance or consider modeling the procedure to ensure the worker clearly grasps the suggestion and observe the subsequent behavior to confirm this.

Expediting and Follow-Up

Expediting and follow-up are critical functions in construction project management to ensure the timely production or submission of information, documents, materials, goods, and/or services. This ensures the proper flow of production and eventual timely completion of the project. To perform this function effectively, the organization must have a written and effective expediting and follow-up process, with the supervisor's oversight and required periodic (weekly) written progress reports. 

Forward-looking expediting ensures that potential problem areas are addressed before they occur, which reduces the risk for disruptions in the progress of construction as well as reduces the cost of the expediting and follow-up activity. A more efficient approach to expediting and follow-up is to reduce or eliminate the need for it. This can only be achieved by a robust prequalification process of the potential subcontractors, vendors, and suppliers to ensure they will deliver on their promises.

Decision-Making and Problem Solving

The key difference between the two is that problem-solving is a method while decision-making is a process. Problem-solving is an analytical aspect of thinking, while decision-making is more of a judgment. After thinking, one takes a course of action. Decision-making involves choosing between different courses of action by selecting the "best" alternative from among a number under consideration. Problem-solving involves finding the actual cause from among many possible causes of the problem. The focus of problem-solving is to bring the operation or activity to optimal performance.

Coaching and Developing

Most people rate "coaching and developing others" among the top three most important transformative leadership competencies, but it was found to be rated lowest in practice. That is because most leaders feel they do not have the time or a methodology to do this effectively and still concentrate on their own performance. Regardless of the reasons, learning a practical, direct methodology to coach and develop oneself as well as others is exceedingly critical to high-performing leadership.

For coaching to have a lasting, positive impact, three interrelated factors need to be developed: building awareness, building commitment, and building practice. If all three are present and functioning, then breakthroughs are possible, and development will be sustained. If any one of the three factors is missing, the benefits will disappear over time. If you lack commitment, you will stop pursuing improvement; if you use the wrong practices, you will get nowhere in spite of enthusiasm and commitment. Without an awareness of your strengths and weaknesses, you will not know what you need to do.

Employee Engagement

A supervisor has considerable sway over employee engagement. An engaged employee is one who is fully involved as well as enthusiastic about their work and will act in ways that furthers their organization's interests. A number of research studies have found that organizations with high employee engagement excel in customer satisfaction as well as loyalty. They achieve high productivity and operational efficiency, which enhances profitability. Engaged employees are loyal, have lower absenteeism, and have reduced turnover. They tend to be safer as well as healthier. For greater detail, see "Employee Engagement and Organizational Performance" (December 2018).

Motivation

Our motives give us a drive to achieve our goals. Anything that motivates us provides us with satisfaction or feeling good on achieving our objective. When things go wrong, or we encounter barriers, our motivation keeps us persevering through the difficult times and keeps us focused on the goals we are trying to achieve. Depending on how a person's brain is wired, they will tend to be either more positive or negative in their emotional outlook.

There are two kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation comes from outside (your boss), and intrinsic motivation comes from inside you. You believe it is important or the proper thing to do. Intrinsic motivation is the more powerful one. Supervisors need to have a good understanding of motivation in order to motivate their direct reports to want to do their best and exceed expectations rather than have to do their tasks to meet goals.

Managing Performance

Traditionally, performance has been managed by setting goals for employees to achieve. These goals may be related to production, quality, or safety. When the goals are not achieved, a series of actions invariably follow. The worker is then trained, counseled, retrained, admonished, possibly punished, demoted, or let go. Generally, the interventions are directed at the worker, ignoring the fact that in operations there are two sources of failure risk: people and processes. For more information, please read "Performance Management and the Human Error Factor: A New Perspective" (December 2010).

Dealing with Risk and Safety

Unfortunately, most construction firms do not do a comprehensive project risk assessment to determine the risk and exposure faced by workers in the planned operations. Typically, the safety practitioner conducts an inspection of ongoing work to identify hazards and unsafe behaviors of workers. This is a highly ineffective approach to dealing with risk and safety. It is the superintendent and, to some degree, the foreman who do the planning, select the means and methods, and assign the tasks, so they are in the best position to assess risk and modify the planned operations so that the work may be achieved at minimal risk.

For greater detail, see "Enterprise Safety Management: Implementing a Framework" (August 2008), "Truly Improve Construction Risk Management: Reexamine Traditional Safety Solutions" (February 2008), "Construction Project Risk Management" (May 2010), "Safety Myths and Wrongheaded Beliefs Prevalent in the Construction Industry" (May 2013), and "Construction Safety Opportunities and Challenges" (May 2018).

The Art of Influence

In all likelihood, to be successful at your job, you must be able to "sell" an idea or project, persuade coworkers or peers to provide support and/or resources, or get people to do something that they may not necessarily want or need to do. The lifeblood of this process is the art of influence. The ability to move others to achieve important objectives is most effective if you can find a way to couch your request in terms where everyone wins (you, them, and the organization). An underlying principle of persuasion is that people expect reciprocity in the process. To be able to persuade effectively, you must create win-win trades when in difficult situations or when dealing with difficult individuals or groups.

This is especially true of construction, where a large number of organizations and the people in their employment have to work cooperatively to successfully complete the project. Safety is another aspect of the building process that requires cooperation as well as active participation from all the people involved to achieve an injury-free work environment. The safety practitioner of the general contractor or construction manager has to influence the crews of the subcontractors to do their work in a way that will allow them to do it injury free. For greater detail, see "The Importance of Influence" (May 2011).

Active Listening

Active listening generally includes at least three elements. The first element involves paying careful attention and being attuned to the nonverbal responses of the listener. The second element involves paraphrasing without judgment the speaker's message (both content and feelings) by restating it in the listener's own words (what the listener thinks the speaker is trying to say). Finally, the most effective element of active listening involves the listener asking questions to encourage the speaker to elaborate on his or her intent, which may bring to light their understanding, beliefs, or feelings.

Conflict Resolution

Conflict happens. It is normal and expected in any social and organizational setting. The causes of conflict are many, anything from poor communication, differing positions, competitive tensions, power struggles, ego, pride, jealousy, performance discrepancies, and compensation issues to someone having a bad day and not effectively dealing with their emotions. Managing conflict as it occurs is a critical life skill and one of the most challenging aspects of workplace supervision.

The ill effects of ignoring workplace conflict can completely railroad any well-planned project or objective, up to and including the complete dissolution of a team. A strong leader must face conflict head-on, identify its sources, leverage it as a constructive process, and move forward while keeping the team's energy focused on desired outcomes. Conflict effectively managed can result in personal and professional growth for all involved and can lead to greater team cohesion.

There are various theories for effective conflict resolution, including the Thomas-Kilmann conflict styles, which are five typical conflict resolution styles of varying efficacy that can be mixed and matched depending on the specific needs in a given environment and situation, and the Interest-Based Relational (IBR) approach, which respects individual differences while helping people avoid becoming too entrenched in a fixed position.

Effective leaders must understand the various approaches to conflict management and learn to utilize the best methods to bring peace, improved understanding, and real closure to any given conflict in their team. In general, a positive interactive approach is best whenever possible, where the discussion is courteous, respectful, and nonconfrontational, and the focus is on the issues rather than on individuals. If these basics can be accomplished, conflict can often be effectively resolved.

Time Management

Time management is about controlling the use of your most valuable (and undervalued) resource. When time is managed poorly, you tend to fall into a "firefighting mode" of management with last-minute rushes to meet deadlines and unexpected crises that seem to materialize out of nowhere. This creates a work environment that leads to excessive stress and diminished performance, which leads to negative outcomes for both the individual as well as the organization.

Conclusion

Effective supervisory competencies are a key to the superior performance of the workforce in the field. Managing people is more about effective communication, empowerment, and support than command and control. The supervisor who understands and judiciously utilizes the competencies described above will go a long way in engaging and encouraging their workforce to perform at a superior level. Empowered, knowledgeable, and capable employees are the driver, and the supervisors are the coach and supporter.


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