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Mastering Key Principles to Lead an Engaged Team in Manufacturing

Manufacturing leaders need to understand their workers’ motivations and act accordingly to foster and maintain an engaged team.

HR and communications leader shared advice for fostering team engagement at the 2023 PMMI Young Professionals Conference.
HR and communications leader shared advice for fostering team engagement at the 2023 PMMI Young Professionals Conference.

Leading an engaged team in manufacturing is no easy task, and it takes a conscious effort backed by strong leadership values to empower and motivate teams in the long run.

Leaders can follow a few key guidelines to keep themselves and their employees on the right track for continued engagement, courtesy of human resources leader and executive coach Chris Giangrasso.

Giangrasso brought 35 years of manufacturing industry HR and communications experience to the table as he shared the key principles to leading an engaged team at the 2023 PMMI Young Professionals Conference.

An engaged worker is “somebody who’s enthused and involved, not just about their work, but about their workplace as well,” Giangrasso said. It includes a willingness from that worker to give discretionary effort – to go above and beyond for the company without needing a request to do so.

Understanding the talent around you

Cultivating this level of commitment starts with an understanding of what makes a talented employee.

Talent starts with skills and competencies, Giangrasso said. “Maybe you’re really good at influencing people; that’s a skill. Maybe you’re really good at something technical, that’s a skill too.”The four pillars of talent can be split between 'what you do' and 'who you are,' Giangrasso explained.The four pillars of talent can be split between "what you do" and "who you are," Giangrasso explained.Chris Giangrasso

Skills are coupled and fortified with the accumulation of experience that leads a worker to where they are. That can be a degree, one’s upbringing, or any past formative experience, Giangrasso explained.

Just as important as skills and competencies are personality and motivators. “You can’t go somewhere, whether it’s for work or socially, without bringing all of you with you,” Giangrasso said.

Personality consists of how one processes information, thinks through problems, and overcomes challenges. Motivators, on the other hand, are what get workers excited in contrast to things that demotivate.

Assessing a team’s talent

Leaders need a comprehensive understanding of these four columns of talent to understand what areas they can impact or alter.

It doesn’t just apply to employees; leaders need to assess their own talents to understand where they stack up. That’s not as easy as it sounds, said Giangrasso, “you can read all the books this, but you won’t get as far as you can possibly get unless you can read yourself.”

Leaders can also benefit from following the saying “hire slow, fire fast,” Giangrasso said. He acknowledged the harsh edge that saying might have but explained that it doesn’t necessarily mean leaving workers in the dust.

“It does mean if they’re a misfit, and they’re the person who’s not fitting in the organization, you may have to find another spot for them,” he explained. “The faster you do that, the better off your team will be.”

Leadership principles for an engaged team

Once a leader has both a strong team around them and an inventory of that team’s and their own talent, they can follow a few key principles to drum up and maintain engagement.

That starts with knowing one’s limitations or knowing what areas impact potential and what areas are impossible to change.

Limitations and prioritization

Giangrasso suggested that skills, experiences, and competencies are easiest to alter. Changing a worker’s motivations, background, or disposition is difficult, but leaders can offer new experiences and add skills to a worker’s tool belt.

Leaders should also maintain focus on what matters most, setting clear boundaries between the important and the urgent. “You confuse those two, you’re going to give yourself a headache, you’re going to be winded, and it will have an impact on your team,” said Giangrasso.

This prioritization includes protecting oneself from others’ problems. One-on-one meetings can quickly become an opportunity for employees to delegate problems to leadership. Explains Giangrasso, “When you’re having these one-on-ones with your team, your goal here is ‘how can I help you?’ Not ‘How can I solve?’”

Prioritization is also made easier through simplification. An overwhelming list of 15 tasks can be whittled down to five manageable tasks by asking four simple questions:

“What is the goal? What three things need to be done to achieve that goal? What are the three top challenges to achieving those key things? And what does success look like?” Giangrasso said.

Role model responsibilities

Whether they want to be or not, a team leader is a role model.

“Do not forget that you’re being judged,” said Giangrasso. “What you value will show.”

Even inaction on certain topics can send employees a message, so leaders must tread carefully to stay in their team’s good favor.

One value that is especially important to employees is fairness, Giangrasso said. In some cases, “being fair is more important than being right,” he said, emphasizing the value people place on an equal outcome for equal work.

Disengagement is contagious, Giangrasso said. An uninterested team member or one’s own disengagement as a role model will be obvious to workers, and it will transfer to the rest of the team. Monitoring when one or others might be falling behind is important for keeping a team on the right track.

Consistent communication from all angles

Dozens of young manufacturing professionals attended the event to hear career advice from industry leaders.Dozens of young manufacturing professionals attended the event to hear career advice from industry leaders.PMMIClarity also goes a long way in keeping a team’s full support. Giangrasso used diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) as an example.

If a leader truly believes that diversity will strengthen the workplace and wants to build an environment that maximizes its benefits, “don’t just say that,” he said. “You have to say it consistently, and your actions have to back that up. If that’s one of your most important personal values, it ought to be out there.” 

This commitment to consistency and predictability helps employees know how to handle both tough problems and regular workplace interactions.

Listening is a skill and one with which most people are unfortunately underequipped. The good news is that listening is relatively easy to develop, so it’s important for leaders to become great listeners for the team’s sake.

One of the easiest ways to fall out of listening is to attempt to listen while multitasking, said Giangrasso.

“You’re not listening enough [when multitasking] because what you’re listening for maybe is content, but you’re not listening for tone, you’re not listening to all those things that are really most important about somebody’s message,” he said. 

Leaders should listen more than they pronounce and strive to spend at least three-quarters of one-on-one meeting time listening rather than speaking.

When it is time to give input, employees benefit most from directional guidance, asking questions like “’ That sounds like it’s hard, are you okay with that? Can you handle it? And how can I help?’” Giangrasso said. 

Context also makes a big difference in motivating employees, and leaders should be generous with sharing contextual insight.

“If decisions come down that were made over your head, whether it’s for right-sizing, abandoning a market, or going into a new market, whatever it is, if you have information, don’t be passive-aggressive and withhold that information,” Giangrasso said. “It will go a long way for them understanding why they impact certain decisions that you have to make.”

Listening also includes taking in criticism, and leaders should encourage disagreement and debate to sharpen decision-making skills. 

Raise the bar and reward success

Another great motivator to engage a team is a high bar for success, set by the leader for themself and their team. The high bar alone isn’t the motivator, though; the ensuing reward is what drives people.

Leaders need to identify what reward best fits each worker. Increased pay may work for many workers, but the leader needs to know when another form of reward is more valuable for an individual.

“If you don’t know what does [motivate a certain team member], then you have somebody on your team that you don’t really know,” Giangrasso said.

Embrace humility and maintain perspective

Humility is also a key virtue for leaders to gain respect from employees. The team needs to feel valued, so credit should be shared liberally.

“If [credit] comes to you, so be it, but the ones who are most admired really didn’t try to take it upon themselves. They are the ones that were very quick to give credit to the entire team,” Giangrasso said.

Lastly, Giangrasso advised that leaders maintain perspective. Mistakes will happen, and with a bit of introspection or external help, those mistakes can become learning opportunities.

“If you want to be a good leader, then learning about yourself is key,” he said. “Take care of yourself. Know what triggers you, know what things set you off, and don’t become a victim of yourself.”

By internalizing these principles and applying them consistently over time, leaders can create an environment that fosters enthusiasm and commitment among their workforce, driving success for the entire organization.

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