Good leaders can assess employee morale, read cues in the workplace

For years, miners used canaries to test the underground atmosphere for adequate oxygen content. Some of the older miners believed rats could sense a major roof fall or explosion and left the area before an accident occurred. In reality, when accumulating methane displaced the oxygen, the rats detected it and left, seeking better air.

Rats and mice follow men into the mine as the mine advances in search of scraps miners discarded after meals. One older miner was diligent in his feeding of the rats, bringing in extra food for them daily. He often said when the rats leave, I leave.

Some miners played games with mice and rats. One game I observed began when a miner caught a mouse and forced it into a pop can whose opening had been enlarged. Then, the miner rolled the can up a moving conveyor belt. Finally, the mouse was forced out of the can so the miner could watch his disorientation. It walked like it was drunken but soon recovered.

During extended contract strikes the rats got extremely hungry because there were fewer people (only the foremen) there to feed them. They became very aggressive, coming right up to you while you were eating. During this increasing state of hunger, one foreman put pieces of food on a water hose and while the rat was scurrying toward the food on the hose, the foreman whipped the hose sending the rat flying. Another foreman put a piece of meat on a wire long enough to stretch to within two inches of the rail and placed it on the trolley wire. He poured some water on the rail. The starving rat stood on its hind feet to grab hold of the meat and received a strong shock.

Stories were prevalent about supervisors being bitten during contract strikes. One story I heard concerned a bite on the nose and the other described a bite on the cheek. Generally, rats aren’t too dangerous. They flee the presence of miners, but hunger changes a rodent. Rats are like sharks. When checking out a potential food source, first rats tend to squeak at their food. Then, if the prospective food doesn’t move, they take a bite and back away. If it still doesn’t move, they will approach and eat it.

For coal miners, rats were a daily part of their environment. They could be dangerous when their food source was diminished. On the other hand, some of the older miners saw them as air quality or even roof safety detectors. As long as they were around, the miners felt safe to work.

Most good leaders identify detectors to help them assess the quality of the work environment and adequate productivity levels. One leader could predict the productivity level of the day by the type and volume of conversations among workers. Other leaders tune into the sounds of specific pieces of equipment. Regardless of the mechanism, the best leaders understand how to assess the morale of employees and the smoothness of the work processes through unique cues that occur daily.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray’s completely revised, third printing of The Facilitative Leader: Behaviors that Enable Success, visit his Web site, or call him at 740-629-4536. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.