Threats from a leader indicate failed leadership

While a production foreman in an underground coal mine, I had to mediate a conflict between two crew members. I had two roof bolting machines on my section. The scoop car man, who supplied the bolting machines, and the roof bolter operators were aggravated with each other because the scoop car man was slow getting the supplies to their machines. When one machine operator, Jim, used all of the bolt blocks on his bolter, he angrily informed me that he was done until he got more bolt blocks. I asked him to get half the supplies on the other machine. He refused, explaining, “I ain’t no supply man.” (The union position was that each miner had a finite job classification. The company held a broader view of job responsibilities).

Jim had a point. It was my responsibility to supervise and ensure the scoop car man did his job. This incident was not my first problem with my scoop car man. I tried to calm Jim and keep him working but his emotions escalated. I emphasized the importance of his job to the section’s production. He was firm, believing that shutting down his machine would force me to solve the problem. Jim continued to refuse so I finally told him to do it or else. He saw my point after that.

He walked over to the other bolter, picked up a pine bolt block that weighed less than a pound and started to carry it back to his machine. I told him to carry more than one block. A union mining tradition is that the boss can tell you what to do but not how fast to do it. A miner could also refuse to carry more than he/she thought he/she could carry. I replied, “If you can’t carry more than one block, we’ll get you a physical to find out why.” Again, he saw my reasoning and picked up a couple more blocks. After carrying the blocks back to his bolter, he turned to me nose-to-nose and said, “If you ever come to Clarington (the town where he lived), I’ll kill you.” I looked him in the eye and said, “If I have a reason to come to Clarington, I’ll come; if I don’t, I won’t.” Jim had a reputation for gunplay, but at a bar a week or so later, we both apologized and seldom had trouble after that.

With hindsight, and maturity, I would have addressed this conflict differently. In the middle of a heated event, I placed a threat. When a leader results to threats, the employee’s commitment to the task is reduced even further.

With Jim’s situation, I should have considered his needs more. Jim and I both had the same objective, to have the section work more smoothly. I should have made a statement reflecting that common objective.

The real problem was the productivity of the scoop car man. Rather than threaten Jim, I should have asked the scoop car man to run up a supply of blocks immediately to the bolting machines and then complete the supplies later.

Leaders need to be considerate and creative when solving conflicts.

There is always more than one way to address interpersonal conflict among team members. Threats usually indicate failure of leadership.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.