Expert Commentary

The Construction Foreman—Working without a Net

The first-line supervisor or the foreman is a critical link between management and the workforce. The foreman plays a crucial role in managing productivity, quality, and safety outcomes. But traditionally, the foreman is not provided the critical skills and knowledge with which to effectively carry out this important undertaking.


Construction Safety
May 2007

Craftsmen who excel at their work are usually selected for promotion to foremen. They come to management's attention because they have good technical skills, are self-directed and productive, and show initiative. Though these skills are necessary to successfully do foremen work, there are a host of other skills and knowledge that are required to be an effective first line supervisor.

Since supervisors (foremen) are the link between management and the workforce, they have to be able to successfully respond in multiple directions. The supervisor must understand and be sensitive to management, to employees, to staff specialists, and other supervisors, and possibly maintain a relationship with the union. Of all the supervisory skills, four loom the largest:

  • Meeting production or operating goals
  • Meeting prescribed quality standards
  • Being sensitive to cost and resources
  • Maintaining a cooperative attitude with the employees

Supervisors' primary responsibility is to management, and therefore they have to understand and follow company policies and procedures and to ensure that those reporting to them do the same. Another critical responsibility of the first-line supervisor is to ensure that the production, quality, and safety goals of the organization are met. To facilitate achieving these objectives, supervisors have to ensure that the workforce has the necessary resources, tools, and equipment with which to execute.

To accomplish this, foremen have to be able to utilize some basic management skills, such as planning, organizing, staffing, energizing, directing, and controlling. Planning is essential in achieving production objectives and requires goal setting, organizing the various resources and the workforce to achieve those objectives. Important to goal achievement is controlling the process so that deviations may be identified and changes implemented to overcome any barriers to reaching the organizational goals. Though managing somewhat varies from company to company and project to project, there are a number of regularly performed supervisory duties that are universal. In the broadest terms, we may call them performance management.

Performance management is an ongoing process of clearly communicating performance expectations to employees so that they fully understand them. Then the supervisor must provide coaching, counseling, and feedback to ensure they perform according to expectations. To successfully achieve this critical task, the supervisor must balance the need for production with the concern for the people who perform the work.

People versus Production

People versus Production

Figure 1 presents four possible outcomes:

Quadrant 1: The supervisor's concern for both people and production is low. The result is that both the workforce and management will be unhappy, and in all likelihood this person will not be a supervisor for very long.

Quadrant 2: The supervisor's concern for people is high but low for production. The result may be a happy workforce, but an unhappy management, which will not bode well for the supervisor.

Quadrant 3: The supervisor has high concern for production and low concern for the workforce. The production goals may be reached, but the workforce will be dissatisfied, requiring a lot of supervisory effort. The company may have issues with turnover, absenteeism, and other workforce issues. Maintaining production goals in this situation may prove difficult as well.

Quadrant 4: This is the best situation, where the supervisor has a balanced concern in both areas. In all likelihood this supervisor will not only meet but exceed the production goals and have a cooperative and involved workforce, with a myriad of secondary benefits.

Most managers will agree that the mark of a good supervisor is getting results. But to consistently meet and exceed the organization's expectations, the supervisor must understand the workers' expectations and build a good working relationship with them. So what skills does the supervisor need to achieve quadrant 4 results? Leadership is the term that comes to mind. The supervisor must lead the workforce as well as the process to get outstanding results.

This may be the time to address the difference between leadership and management. Both are necessary skills for an effective supervisor. To be a good supervisor, you have to have good management skills but to be a great supervisor you also have to have leadership skills. Managers do things right while leaders do the right things. Managers get the workforce to achieve their goals while leaders get them to exceed their goals.

Management Flow

Management Flow

Leadership is a way to focus and motivate the workforce to enable them to achieve both their and the organization's goals. There are a number of leadership styles, (Autocratic, Democratic, Participative, and Situational), and the foreman would best be served in understanding and learning more about the situational style of leadership because it provides the greatest flexibility and utility.

The autocratic or directive style of leadership vests all decisions with the leader, and the workforce must obey the edicts. In the short-term they may produce results, and in certain situations, may be the style of choice (when schedules are tight, or there is an emergency, etc.) Over time, most employees will not function well in such an environment and morale issues will develop.

The democratic or consultative style of leadership involves the workforce. The leader presents the problem, solicits input, allows discussion, and takes the team's input into consideration in the final decision. This style of leadership promotes involvement, gives the workforce a sense of control, and is good for morale. Though this style tends to be popular, it has its drawbacks. Decision-making takes more time, the results may require consensus, and may not be optimum from management's perspective.

The participatory leadership style allows for the greatest involvement, fosters empowerment, signals trust, and allows the team to select the "best" solution. As a result, the team is highly motivated, and has ownership of the implementation and results. This requires a lot of highly skilled, motivated, knowledgeable, and well-informed team members who also have to have good judgment and be "vested" in the outcome. It also requires the supervisor as well as the organization give up some authority. The risks are that the workforce may not be able to effectively handle or willing to take on such a responsibility and not all decisions can be made at the task level.

Situational leadership selects the style that is most appropriate for any given situation. This approach also mixes the styles to varying degrees so as to best meet the needs of any group or situation. This gives the supervisor the greatest flexibility in meeting any particular job condition.

Employee Maturity Continuum

Employee Maturity Continuum

To effectively lead the workforce, the supervisor must have influence and gain its trust and respect. To accomplish this, the supervisor must demonstrate integrity and treat the workforce with fairness and respect. To effectively lead, the supervisor must also be able to motivate the workforce. To effectively motivate, the supervisor must understand and be sensitive to the needs of the workforce. Understanding those needs, the supervisor must then use persuasion and influence to show the workforce how it will get what it wants by following the supervisor's lead and direction.


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