09 September 2006

Role of First- Line Supervisors-Promotion of Harmoniouns Labour – Managemnt Relations

Role of First- Line Supervisors-Promotion of Harmoniouns Labour – Managemnt Relations

Dr.A Sreekumar Menon,
Psychologist and Specialist in Management Sciences

Satisfactory Industrial Relations at the Plant Level is essentially a process of developing harmonious relations between management and workers vis-à-vis trade unions and real concern about each other. Satisfactory bi-partite relations create a climate in which management and trade unions bargain effectively and reach agreements on terms and conditions, based on consensus and management implements collective agreements promptly. Both parties adhere to certain voluntary codes of conduct, so that they are able to resolve conflicts peacefully through negotiations and contribute to productivity and overall efficiency of the company. Under healthy Labour-Management Relations, neither the management nor the labour resorts to coercive methods in order to make the other party comply with their demands. For instance, workers do not get involved in such unproductive practices, as ‘go slow’, tardiness, strikes, gheraos, etc., They, on the other hand, put in their best efforts into work, develop a sense of positive discipline, reveal overall satisfaction with their job and commitment to company goals – all of which are mutually related. Similarly, the management reveals authentic and supportive relations with the majority unions and implements collective agreements, in all fairness, shows employee orientation, avoids pressurizing and victimizing union representatives for their union affiliation and resorting to dismissals of employees and lock-outs.

The quality of Labour- management Relations at the plant level is usually judged in terms of such indices as man-days lost due to un-authorized absenteeism, strikes and lock-outs, number of workers involved, and so on. It is also understood in terms of the failure on the part of management and trade union to reach collective agreements, resolve shop-floor grievances, and deal with disciplinary problems in a positive way.

There are certain limitations in using such indices. For instance, these are “post hoc” measures in the sense that they tell what happened already. These criteria are not much helpful in identifying conditions within the organization, which can be controlled in order to improve labour-management relations. These indices, at best, help to understand the gravity of the Industrial Relations situations.

Because of the predominantly labour-oriented polices of our Government, in consonance with the ideals of democratic socialism and the welfare state, we find, that the balance of power between employers and employees and their trade unions, in the area of Industrial Relations is shifting and, in many cases, in favor of employees and their trade unions. The top management experiences increasing constraints in using their traditional authority over the workforce in ensuring satisfactory employee performance and discipline, because of increased worker protection through labour legislation. The disciplinary procedures, for instance, are so complicated and legally involving that it is easy for an employer to get rid of his wife than perhaps to get rid of his unsatisfactory employee. Again the management cannot expect an outcome in their favour when a dispute is referred to an outside party, for conciliation and arbitration. Due to number of factors obtaining in the Industrial relations scene, such as populist and political pressure on Government to pass labor-oriented legislation and the popular stance of our democratic Government to meet minimum needs and raise the standard of living of the masses, we find amendments to every labour legislation bringing more and more concessions to labour. The latest example is the amendments to the E.S.I act of 1984, which has extended its coverage considerably. This trend in our Industrial Relations system is not only going to stay, but also going to be increasingly pronounced in time to come. What are the implications of these changes in our labour policies and for formulating Personnel and Industrial Relations Policies of the management? Some of the following implications are clearly discernible.

1.The top management cannot solely rely, as it used to, on conventional legalistic and administrative approaches, such as collective bargaining, disciplinary procedures, running of bipartite consultative committees, administration of labour-welfare, etc., to sustain and promote harmony in labour–management Relations. Again, the conventional way of handling these Labour Relations practices betrays the spirit with which they were formulated. These are practiced in such ritualistic and routine fashion that they are robbed of their real meaning and value.

2.They can no longer take a narrow view of Labour-Management Relations, judging its satisfactoriness from such criteria as successful negotiations, exchanging concessions largely monetary, across the bargaining table, nor by considering such indices as the number of ma-days lost due to ‘go-slow’, strikes, lock out, negligence, accidents, damage to machinery and equipments, absenteeism and so on, from the point of ‘action plans’. Going by these, diagnosis and prevention of labour problems are analogous to conducting a post-mortem examination of a patient to diagnose his disease and prescribing therapy. On the other hand, they should consider the overall job satisfaction of shop-floor employees and their positive attitudes and sentiments, which emerge from the former as true reflections of the quality of labour-management Relations.

Jobs provide several sources of satisfaction. Conflicts between management and workers do not always occur on financial issues, although the apparent cause always is some sort of financial consideration. Underlying frustrations, due to reasons other than money, are easily articulated in the form of money demands, as being more tangible than others, can be articulated easily. Money demands, many a time are compensations for lack of other sources of satisfaction on the job, negotiated by the employees at the sub-conscious level.

When the employees are generally contented in their jobs not only financial terms, but in non-monetary terms, they develop loyalty towards the organization for which they work, and they support only responsible union leadership and throw their weight against irresponsible outside influences from persons and political parties with vested interests. They do not allow the mature union- management Relations to be exploited by outside agencies. Outside leadership in unions is invariably a constant menace facing the managements and under the socio-political conditions existing in our country today, we cannot hope to root out such external interferences through legislation. To keep the external influences at bay, the management should maintain a generally well-contented workforce and develop “rapport” with them. If the managements cannot develop rapport with their workers, who are with them for the most part of their working life, the outside leaders are there to fill in the vacuum and gain control over the workers.

Supervisory Role in Harmonious Labour-Management Relations Vis-à-vis Maintaining Generally Contented Workforce.

When we consider the harmony in Labour Relations, essentially as maintaining a generally contented labour-force, the role of supervisors becomes clear to us.

The attitudes and behaviours of the First-level Supervisors contribute substantially to employee satisfaction of several jobs related needs and there positive sentiments towards them and towards their organizations. Improper attitudes and behaviour on the part of First Line Supervisors generate employee frustration, negative sentiments, low morale and motivation, employee grievances, resentment, rigid, and rebellious attitudes, dodging their duties and skapegoating, resistance to change, work apathy, inter-personnel, group and inter-group rivalries, (as opposed to inter-personnel trust, support, mutual respect, spirit of accommodation, desire to work as a member of a team and co-operate in work towards a common goal,) developing clichés,etc.

Generally, both top and middle managements do not realize fully how the First Line Supervisor can make or mar harmonious Labour Relations. Maintenance of labour Relations is often considered as a function to be carried out by the top management in consultation with Personnel, Industrial Relations and Labour Departments of the Unit. In other words, it is considered as a “staff function” and line managements such as Departmental Heads and the First Line Supervisors are generally kept out of the picture.

The First Line Supervisors represent the first line management. They occupy strategic position in the organizational hierarchy. They often referred to us “middle-men”. They are members of two subsystems, Viz., the managerial structure and the immediate task force. They are the one who are in day-to-day contact with the work force, rather than the middle or the top managements.

First Line Supervisors, such as, Foremen and Shift Officers, perform broadly two types of duties:(1) technical tasks and (2) personnel. Their technical role may include giving job instructions, solving work related problems, providing facilities and resources, maintaining production targets through supervision of individual and group work, appraising individual performances for maintaining work standers, and so on. Personnel duties may involve employee appraisal for administration of rewards (such as merit increments, promotions) as a regular feed back to the top management and career development, training employees, enforcing work discipline, handling employee grievances, administering labour welfare programmes etc.

In discharging these duties, the supervisors should maintain a fine balance between the organizational needs of productivity and employee discipline and employee needs-physiological, social and psychological and maintain their effective and positive control over shop-floor workers by (1) exercising their operational and technical skills, and (2) by using Human Relations or behavioral skills, including proper use of their organizational authority.

The First Line Supervisors should enjoy the confidence of the workforce, whom they are supervising. They enjoy their confidence, if they are technically competent and if they themselves show signs of motivated performance such as drive and enthusiasm, perseverance to work through difficult problem and situations, and if they are impartial in handling the labour-force, for whenever workers come up against difficulties they cannot solve, they must be able to fall back upon their supervisors. They will never retain their confidence, if their subordinates feel that they know more than them. Theoretical knowledge and practical experience should stand them in good stead. Their perspectives regarding the operational situations should be much broader than those of the workers. They should be able to think about more viable alternatives (options) in doing a job and should have good judgment of the feasibility and safety aspects of mechanical situations. They should themselves be efficient, and be prompt in discharging their supervisory duties. If they are diligent, hard working and well disciplined, they can expect their subordinates to follow suit. There is a proverb: “As the king, so the people”. Supervisory jobs always generate high role pressures. They have to reconcile opposing forces, and strike a balance between incompatible demands.

They have to attend to several problems simultaneouslyontheshop-floor- such as machine breakdowns, speeding up production in a particular production line to meet urgent delivery schedule giving alternate assignment to idle hands due to machine breakdowns, running about for timely delivery of spare parts, supply of raw materials, drawing out the best efforts of employees, etc. And handle all these problems with dexterity. Employees watch with what amount of dexterity they resolve these issues. They should be able to tolerate ambiguity of the situation in the system. They should emphasis on achieving production targets by providing proper facilities and needed help rather then leaving the production decisions entirely on employees and thus following a laissez-faire approach. For want of clarity on work- related matters, the shop-floor workers may suffer from anxiety and insecurity.

There is sufficient evidence from many studies that predominant use of formal authority of the punitive type by supervisors (such as ordering, criticizing, etc) leads to loss of their status in the eyes of their subordinates. The workers resent overtly such an approach. Use of such negative power by supervisors does not help full improvement in the quality and quantity of output; on the other hand, it develops negative attitudes on the part of employees. In contrast to the close punitive type of supervision, often called “breathing down the neck of the workers”, there are situations in which close supervision, followed by guidance and concern for employee welfare, yields good results. Favourable sentiments on the part of workers are likely to be generated by supervisors, the subordinates are benefited in a situation in which the subordinates seek assistance and in such situations, the bonds of relationship between supervisors and shop-floor employees get established.

First Line supervisors who display Human Relations skill in supervising people express the following kinds of behavior:

1. Being permissive rather than being coercive, using their knowledge more often than their formal authority, providing facts and information, being open in giving and receiving feed back and accepting self-responsibility for failure rather than passing the buck.
2. Being friendly and easily approachable, showing a sense of respect towards and confidence in subordinates as opposed to being farmland impersonal (keeping social distance) and encouraging group efforts rather than supervising them individually.
3. Being fair and objective in dealing with subordinates, not playing favorites in the hands of a few workers, not practicing “divide and rule” and not going by caste, community and other considerations in taking personal decisions. Treating all workers as equal, having faith in their skills and capacities, considering every worker as having potentiality and as capable of contributing her work, Objective in assessing the performance of workers, and keeping training and development as one of the objectives of employees appraisal. If a supervisor is empathetic, workers are likely to bring problems to him. This gives him opportunity to influence their behavior.
4. Giving due appreciation to the work of the subordinates through favourable assessment for promoting them and through oral appreciation of the work when the workers put in extra work and show extra enthusiasm. Some supervisors may think that, after all, workers are expected to give their best returns for the money they are paid and why should they get extra reward through verbal praise?
5. Granting enough freedom to them with accountability, involving them and allowing their participation in planning work and other decision matters, depending upon their capacity to share responsibilities. Providing additional responsibility is an act of recognizing their abilities and transposing confidence in them, which acts as an incentive.
6. Representing the workers whom they supervise, speaking and acting as representative of the group before top management. Maintaining cordial relations and having influence with supervisors (middle and top management). Just as the management would consider the supervisors to be their representatives, so also the workers. They voice their needs, grievances and aspirations regarding earnings, working conditions, and welfare facilities before their supervisors who can play a role in meeting their expectations by the top management. It is quite likely that that the scope and extent of authority, which a supervisor wields and can exercise, is delimited by work rules, management policies and authority structure existing in an organization, for example, some of the employee demands like those for higher wages, bonus, etc., may have a bearing on wider company policy and the supervisors may hardly have any say in the matter. However, it is conceivable that the outlook of the supervisors towards such employee grievances and the approach they adopt in dealing with such grievances and the approach they adopt in dealing with such grievances may reflect how well they have played their roles. Even if they cannot solve their problems, they contribute to healthy Human Relations, if they show interest in employee problems, interest in patient listening and sincerity in solving them. By listening to their complaints and advising (counseling) them, they will also be providing the workers the opportunity “ to let off their steam”.

Top and Middle Management Practices regarding the Role of First- Line Supervisors.

First Line supervisors do not function in an organizational vacuum. They have role and Authority Relations with the riles of middle and top managements. Thus, their contribution to harmonious Labour Relations depends not only on their operational and Human Relations skills, dealt above as also upon the following parameters.

1. Authority delegated to them in operational and personnel matters, such as grievance redressal, and employee discipline.
2. The degree of equalitarian relations, shown by the middle and the top management towards the supervisors and the promptness with which they act on their feedback.
3. The extent of participation they allow to supervisors in departmental decision-making.
4. The extent to which they support legitimate supervisory authority over workers and
5. The extent to which the supervisors are involved in Industrial Relations matters by higher levels.

Some of the studies done by the author in Indian enterprises reveal that the higher levels do not involve First-Level Supervisors in decision making in general and in Industrial Relations matters in particular. The top management and the Personnel Department deal with the shop-floor employees and or their union leaders directly in matters, such as grievance redressal and disciplinary procedure, without taking the supervisors into confidence. They keep a social distance with them. They maintain formal relationship and the communication is minimum. Similarly, no weight age is given to their assessment of employees in promotion and other rewards by the administration. The higher levels of management may condone the serious disciplinary problems in the shop floor, thinking that it may develop into serious and volatile Union-Management conformations. The supervisors who initiate disciplinary actions against the erring workers may not receive support from higher levels or may be rebutted. Sometimes, the decisions taken by the supervisors in matters of employee discipline may be reversed at the instance of union pressure on top management, causing considerable embarrassment to supervisors.

Thus, their legitimate authority over the shop-floor employees is eroded because of the above practices at higher levels of management. With very little authority and carrying a load of personal frustration, we can hardly expect them to contribute much to the harmony of Labour Management Relations.

Many scholars have studied the conditions in the organizational situation, which hinder supervisory efficiency. For instance.

Rangnekar says that in many cases, the top management continues to put pressure on the first line management to get results. However, people in these levels are often unable to pass the pressure, as it is confronted with organized employees at the lowest level. In the case of serious conflict between management and workers, lower levels of management get squeezed, between the two sides. The new manager at junior and middle management levels has often received some degree of management education. This has led him to expect participation in the management decision-making process. However, in actual life, he finds himself more as the implementer of decision arrived at without the benefit of his thinking a-real messenger of the so-called “decision-makers”

Indian studies on the Motivation of Managers and Supervisors have brought out the following findings.

There is absence of a number of incentives in their jobs. They feel that jobs are monotonous and that they are unable to test their skills and make use of experience. They perceive that their jobs do not allow them sufficient freedom to take decisions, nor do they provide them with opportunity for sharing adequate responsibility and for learning developing new skills. They feel a sense of being left out of the mainstream of organizational events due to inadequate communication and supportive feedback regarding there and other’s jobs. These imply that the organizational structure, design of jobs and authority-control patters at the middle and First Line Managerial levels are not conducive for supervisory effectiveness. The supervisory discontentment with their jobs instigates them to behave in irrational ways. Their work behaviour may be characterized by apathy, lack of result-orientation, shying away from responsibility and passing the buck, sense of alienation, rigidity, resistance to change, a tendency to organize along trade union lines for collective action and identifying more the workers whom they supervise and their unions, with the idea that their bargaining position with the management will be strengthened. Thus, though the top management may exhort that First-Line Supervisors are a part of the top management, their policies and actions in regard to supervisory jobs may be such that the above kinds of feelings are not developed in them.

In addition to the above kinds of frustrating experiences on the part of supervisors which give rise to frustration-instigated behaviour, they may also copy the bad examples of authoritarian and autocratic leadership styles of their bosses and may exercise this kind of leadership on the rank and file, which meets with resentment. Thus, if the first Line Supervisors were to provide a productive and humanitarian social climate to the rank and file, they should in turn receive the same treatment from their superiors. The old adage “ Love begets love and hanred begets hatred” is truer in organizational actions than in anything else. An organization is composed of inter-dependent parts and we cannot cleanse one part of the organization, if the other inter-related parts are far from being hygienic.

Thus, in short, it is necessary to maintain a supervisory team, which is high on motivation and morale, in addition to ensuring there operational and Human Relations skills, through supervisory training and development. This also paves the way to positive contributions to Labour- Management Relations from supervisors.

1. Sharu S Rangnekr Middle management in search of identity paper published in the proceedings of the conference come seminar of Officers organistions, Bombay, June 3, 1973, p.10-15
2. For elaboration for the above findings see Dayal Ishwar and Sharma B A Strike of supervisory staff in State Bank of India, Bombay, Progressive Corporation, 1971.
3. A.SreekumarMenon Managerial Unionisum in Indian Business an Industry and its Management, Lok Udyog, March 1975
4. Lakshmi Narain Manangerial Compensation in Public Enterprises, New Delhi, Oxford,I.B.H 1973
5. J B P Sinah Some Problems Of Public Sector Organisations. Delhi, National, 1973.


1 comment:

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