Managing outside the span of control

A supervisor has many managerial responsibilities, such as worker crews, materials, equipment and the work site as a whole. However, let’s focus on what often is most difficult: things outside the span of control. The key is to elicit the desired response from others.

To clarify, remember supervisors manage people. If they want to manage materials or equipment, they manage those handling the materials or running the equipment. If they want to manage the schedule, they must manage the people contributing to the work on that schedule. If they want to manage the site, they must manage the people who control the site, defining what goes where and when and what happens where and when.

For example, the work of other contractors on-site affects a supervisor, and it is outside of the supervisor’s direct control. Other examples include supervisors and managers on the project higher in the chain of command or people in the supervisor’s company that are resources to his work: They provide something the supervisor’s craft workers need to get their job done. Also outside the supervisor’s control are contributors to the project who are both outside the supervisor’s company and farther up the chain of command, such as the electrical engineer, the architect or the owner.

Managing within the supervisor’s span of control is more science than art. Supervisors can put together procedures and forms, and through training and vigilance, they generally can ensure those working for them can move the work forward. Certainly, this employs many nontechnical skills, such as leadership, communication and motivation.

Additionally, supervisors have authority, both direct and implied, if someone reports to them. That person must conform to the supervisor’s direction. Implied authority means a subordinate must do what he or she is asked to do. Direct authority means if the subordinate balks at following direction, the supervisor has authority to require the subordinate to conform or suffer consequences.

On the other hand, if someone is outside the supervisor’s span of control, authority disappears. Gaining performance of those things that need to be done is now dependent on such skills as leadership, persuasion, communication and motivation. A supervisor cannot compel someone outside the span of control to act. The supervisor must depend much more on influencing their actions through compelling arguments and persuasion. This must be done in a timely manner. The action sought must be well-defined and communicated clearly. The response must be monitored to ensure the appropriate action is taken, and if it is not, the supervisor must engage again.

In addition to persuasion, supervisors occasionally can add some coercion by indirectly gaining the assistance of someone in a more authoritative position. For example, if the project will be held up if the submittals on the designer’s desk are not more rapidly reviewed and returned, a supervisor could let the owner know, who could in turn ask the designer to work on more timely review of submittals. This approach can be very powerful but needs to be wisely and infrequently used, or relationships with the one to whom pressure is being applied might suffer.

The success of managing outside your span of control depends on building the proper environment well in advance. There must be an environment of honesty, trust and professional respect, so when the supervisor asks for something, the other person will take the request seriously. A supervisor’s subordinates must recognize the request is based on a commitment to the wellbeing of the project and the success of all project participants.

Finally, when action has been taken and the job has been moved forward, a supervisor should express appreciation and provide recognition for the contributions of all.

Subsequent articles in this series will focus on the skills required to be a successful supervisor, many of them listed above, because each is a topic on its own.

As an experienced supervisor, what you are beginning to recognize is today’s highly sophisticated construction environment is taking place in a vastly different culture than that in which our parents and grandparents worked. Therefore, managing those within our span of control is accomplished most effectively if it emphasizes the skills used to manage those outside the span of control and de-emphasizes coercively exercising authority.

Look for the opportunity today to hone your skills of leadership, persuasion, communication and motivation, and observe how effective these can be.  EC

ROUNDS is the AGC endowed chair and professor of civil engineering at the University of New Mexico. He has worked with electrical contractors in training focused on field supervision and project management for 20 years. He can be reached at jlrounds@unm.edu. segner is a professor of construction science at Texas A&M University and has taught at the university level for 30 years. Contact him at RSegner@archmail.tamu.edu.