Cleaning Up the Ointment
Earlier this year I wrote a Tailgate Topic titled “The Fly in the Ointment” (see https://incident-
prevention.com/blog/the-fly-in-the-ointment) – but I probably should have written this Tailgate
Because sometimes, the fly becomes a problem because of the ointment. By that I mean a work
environment can become toxic due to one or more of the people managing it. Like many of you
who have had the same experience, I have worked for people whose management skills were so
poor that it negatively impacted my performance and the performance of others on my team. In
fact, one of the greatest gigs of my life was destroyed in large part by one such manager.
Have you seen the image that shows the difference between a boss and a leader? In it, the boss
sits on a large rock, cracking his whip, while the rest of the team drags the rock using a rope. The
leader, on the other hand, is on the ground with the team at the front of the rope line, helping to
drag the rock while shouting words of encouragement: “C’mon, team, we can do it!”
We have a choice in how we develop our ointment – i.e., the culture of our working environment.
If we truly choose to lead, care about and empower people, chances are we will create a healthy
and psychologically safe environment in which our employees thrive. If we choose instead to
employ and promote individuals with poor management skills who help to establish a toxic
culture, it is more likely that we will create a lot of flies in our ointment.
Great Leaders Needed
In our industry, we sometimes work in intense physical environments. For instance, I’ve worked
in 110-degree heat wearing a stainless-steel suit from head to toe. I’ve barehanded a structure
change-out on a 115-kV, 90-degree hard-angle structure with the pole butts rotted off at the
ground. I’ve been at the top of a steel tower, clipping static in the Adirondack Mountains in
February when the temperature was 25 below zero with 20-mph winds.
And you know what? Each time, I found myself laughing and commiserating with the other guys
on the crew who were experiencing the same fate. I’m sharing these experiences with you
because I want to emphasize that our jobs can be incredibly challenging – which is exactly why
we need great leaders who bring our crews together, make our safety a priority, actively listen to
our input, demonstrate servant leadership, advocate for us to upper management, and ensure we
have all the tools, materials and equipment necessary to effectively complete our work.
A Real Problem
Most people I’ve worked with, if asked, would tell you I have a bubbly personality. But that
doesn’t mean I haven’t been a fly in the ointment at times. We all have those days – and yes, that
even includes great leaders. That’s OK, though. We are human, and bad days are part of the
However, if constant negative energy continues to emanate from company management, that is a
real problem that needs to be addressed. A consistent bad attitude from someone – or multiple
people – who has been tasked with leading workers will toxify your culture, distract employees,
and potentially lead to incidents, turnover and other problems.
No Quick Fix
The unfortunate reality is that there’s no quick fix when it comes to getting rid of flies and
cleaning up your ointment, especially if you don’t work in management at your company. But we
must start somewhere. Personally, I have met many flies during my time on this planet, and one
way I’ve learned to handle them is by having direct conversations with them about what I’m
seeing and feeling.
Experience has taught me that some people will become upset and deny that they are a fly. Those
are typically the most difficult people to change. But others will be surprised when it’s brought to
their attention; they’ll say something like, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry, I didn’t even realize I was
doing that.” They may even thank you for pointing it out.
Years ago, when I joined IBEW Local 1249, it was all about the “B” – Brotherhood – for me.
Today, I still feel the same way; I don’t think that will ever change. My point is, we don’t always
know why someone is behaving like a fly in the ointment, but we must do two things when it
comes to our brothers and sisters: (1) learn to manage our emotions so we can respond to
problematic people in a healthy way and (2) have open, honest conversations with those people
with the goal of detoxifying their management style and cleaning up the company’s ointment.
About the Author: Steve Martin, CUSP, has worked as an outside utility contractor for 20 years,
including 17 years with IBEW Local 1249, primarily as a journeyman lineman. He currently
holds a safety role at H. Richardson & Sons.