Trystan, maintenance coordinator for a diesel truck lease and rental operation, shared this story with session 3B of the Leadership Development Lab:
“In spring of 2000, I was working for a railroad contractor in Springfield, Oregon, doing private industry railroad repairs and maintenance. I had recently been promoted to a foreman position with the company. We were working on a set of tracks in a lumber mill that had very limited space to work around.
“While we were installing the steel rails onto new ties, we were using a front-end loader to slide the length of rails down the ties, about 200 feet, to the joint where the repairs were ending. I was re-setting the tool on the loader to move the steel and bolting the steel sections together. I had the rest of the crew at the end of the line to make the connection.
“As the steel was sliding down the railroad ties, it was getting hung up on the ties and rolling them out of position. The solution to the problem was to pry the steel up and over the tie while it was getting pushed forward by the loader. I kept walking down to the end of the rail and prying it up over the tie, hoping the crew would realize what needed to be done.
“I went back and forth between the end of the rail and the loader a few times, when I realized that the rest of the team was just standing there watching me work. I finally asked them to help me pry the steel over the railroad ties and my crew jumped into action, prying the steel over the railroad ties, re-setting the ties that had been moved, and aligning the new track section with the old section.
“The lesson I learned from this experience is that it is not enough to lead by example. If I want my crew to follow my example, I must show and then tell my crew what I want—what they need to do to contribute to our success.
“The action I call you to take is to communicate your needs and ideas with your team. Tell your crew what they need to do and how they can help achieve the desired success.
“The benefit you will gain is smoother operation, increased productivity, and greater efficiency.”
Trystan was first operating with the assumptions that his crew would see the situation the same way he was seeing it, and that they would see his example as a “suggestion” that they do the same. His assumptions were wrong. It’s possible his crew felt hesitant to take action without being told to do so. It’s possible they didn’t notice the problem or Trystan’s efforts to correct it.
Assumptions often get in the way of communication. Remember, no one can read your mind. If you have an expectation, say it. You’ll spare yourself a lot of unnecessary frustration and empower your team for success.