Leaders must encourage open, honest communication

Coal mining throughout most of the 1970s was filled with various types of strikes. Wildcat strikes were the most unpredictable. The actual signal to strike or not to strike often occurred at the elevator doors. A strike leader would emerge who had the confidence of the union members. This person was never the union president because of his legal liabilities in his official capacity.

Bernard, an outspoken, gruff speaking continuous miner operator, was one such leader. When there was a conflict worthy of a work stoppage, everyone would watch to see what Bernard would do. If he walked onto the elevator, the men would follow. If he didn’t, they stood where they were. Sometimes a stalemate would last from 15 minutes to an hour or more.

Prior to one of these strike events, the shower room was a buzz about a contractual issue. We all lined the walls of the ramp to the elevator as usual. At the appointed time, the shift foreman called for the miners to go to work. I stepped away from my spot and took a couple of steps when I noticed no one else was following. Quickly, I regained my spot.

Stubbornly, the miners just stood in place occasionally glancing at one another. Ten minutes passed and the shift foreman continued to beg the men to move from their rooted position and onto the elevator. At a half hour, the shift foreman left us standing and retreated to the foremen’s office. He returned in about 20 minutes and continued to try to persuade us to go to work. The miners stood steadfastly.

Then, as if from a signal from God, Bernard stepped away from the metal wall toward the elevator. Everyone else followed, filling the elevator. Not a word was spoken that could point a finger at Bernard. I have seen a number of the most unlikely miners arise to this informal leadership position.

Once while working with Bernard, I explained to him that in some ways he reminded me of my Dad. He had a similar build, a similar mustache and talked in a similar way. Bernard looked at me and grinned exclaiming, “Well, I’d love to own ya.” Eventually coal was found on Bernard’s property. I heard he received $250,000 for the rights to strip the seam of coal on his farm. Bernard continued to work after that, but he led no more strikes.

When verbal communication is restricted for any reason, nonverbal communication will take its place. Leaders need to understand they cannot demand communication to occur in a certain way. Either it will go underground or nonverbal communication will replace it.

Leaders should make every attempt to create an environment where people can say what they think and choose to communicate clearly. This type of environment is better for the business and for the employees.

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, www.raycomlearning.com or call him at 740-629-4536. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.

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