The Second Most Important Lineman Skill

The Lineman Life Podcast

Many things have changed over the last 30 years for Lineman in the Utility industry. 30 years ago there was no FR or Hi-Vis clothing, 30 years ago there were no harnesses in the bucket, 30 years ago yelling, bullying and screaming for communication was common on the crew, there is less of that type of thing going on today, but we still could use some improvement. Linemen are not known for liking change, some things take a while, this bad communication is one that is taking awhile.

We can’t operate like we did 30 years ago. If you go about communication the wrong way you could find yourself out of a job, under investigation or with all the lawyers today, maybe even wrapped up in a lawsuit. Also, when you don’t communicate well with your crew-members, people can get hurt or die.

You know that to be good at your job you have to know how to do line work, but what about your communication skills? Communication skills are a close 2nd behind knowing what to do when you are up there in the bucket. Every Lineman can be a better lineman by learning these communication skills. We all have communication challenges while we are working out on the crew. We work with all kind of people, people are going to push your buttons, they won’t listen, you have to deal with someone you don’t like. It’s easy to get mad, shutdown, blow your stack. Lose your focus.

But you don’t have to go through that. Good communication is something you can learn just like when you learned how to frame out a pole or hang a transformer. Once you learn how to deal with people and situations you can move to a new level, avoid stress and enjoy what you do for a living.

Learning communication skills is important for every person on the crew, not just the foreman, because everyone on the crew is a mentor for someone. If you are the foreman you mentor your lineman, if you’re a lineman, you mentor apprentices, if you’re an apprentices, you mentor younger apprentices and helpers. Good communication is needed if you are going to mentor someone.

Today we are going to talk about 3 key communication skills that will help all lineman improve and be better at their jobs.

Emotional Control

One of the first things you need to learn is emotional control. If you can’t control yourself, how do you expect to work with other people? This was a huge challenge for me.

For several years I worked as a one man service truck, I caught all the trouble, ran services and worked on the 6000 St. Lights in our service area. There were also a couple of line crews working out of the same baseyard.

My truck was a 35 foot HI Ranger, best truck I ever had. Just large enough to have a good reach on the bucket and just small enough to get in tight areas. The guys on the crew liked my truck too.

On occasion they would borrow my truck on call-out. So when I would come in in the morning my truck would be trashed with old materials and all of my truck stock was missing.

I would blow up like a volcano, yell at people, start thinking how I was going to pay them back. It would ruin me for the rest of the day.

So one day my Manager, a young baby faced engineer right out of college saw I was pissed off “David, you need to change your approach, they are just doing it to push your buttons and watch the reaction.” “Next time, walk off for a while, calm down, then come back, ask for help to clean it off, and see how that works out for you.”

A couple weeks later when I came in, I saw my truck was trashed. I was fuming, but I didn’t let it show, I took my managers advice, walked off for a minute, went in to do my paperwork. I then headed out to the warehouse. I walked up to the foreman of the crew and said “Can you guys help me clean my truck off?” It was all I could do to stay calm. I was thinking if you give me a smart ass answer, it’s on. “OK Spooner, no problem.” He told a couple of Apprentices to go clean off my truck.

You know what? I actually went out there and helped them clean off my truck and then I helped them clean off their trucks.

I used this process every time in the future and 90% of the time my truck was cleaned off before I finished my paperwork in the morning.

Getting mad, blowing up, wanting to pay someone back, make them suffer doesn’t do anyone any good. It could be holding you back in your career as a lineman. This kind of behavior is frowned upon today. Treat them just like you want to be treated. Think, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” it’s a great motto.

The next skill goes hand in hand with emotional control, it is assertiveness.

Be Assertive, Not Aggressive

Notice I said assertive not aggressive. 30 years ago all lineman were aggressive or borderline aggressive. I’ve seen people have hard hats thrown at them, put in headlocks, people screamed at, right up in their face. I worked with a couple of lineman that if you were a smart-ass they wanted to whip your ass, I’m not kidding these guys were serious. On more than one occasion I’ve seen lineman holding people back from duking it out on the crew. That was how we were taught; aggressive was normal, apprentices and helpers were expected to be submissive.

One thing about it, you knew where you stood, which in my opinion was a good thing. If you got out of line as an apprentice there was always someone to set you straight. I always knew it was about work, nothing personal, so I just learned to deal with it. But society has changed and so we have had to adapt. As a Lineman you are responsible for training the apprentices that come up under you. It’s what we do, someone taught you now you pass down what you learned. You also are partially responsible for their safety as well. Do what is right for them, the old way doesn’t work anymore. Aggressiveness is wrong today and a one way ticket to a pink slip.

So how do you tell if you are being aggressive? If you are being aggressive it’s all about you and winning, you are not respectful of others and consider hurting others as successful. If you curse, swear or belittle others that is aggressive. Today, you can’t be aggressive. In this day and age it will get you terminated and I mean quickly. I have seen it.

“But David, how do I get my point across?” You can still get your point across. Here’s the key, you should be assertive, not aggressive. To be assertive it is telling someone, I want this, I expect that, it’s still about you, but it comes from doing what is best for them to learn this profession.

Apprentices need to hear what you want, what you feel, what you need. That is how they grow into competent Lineman. We are not looking for slaves; but people on this job can get hurt if they don’t listen, so you have to be direct.

Here is an example of what I mean, a good assertive example is “I feel like you don’t know how to frame out that cross-arm, you need to study your spec book.” Or “I don’t like how you made that termination, it’s not going to work like that. I want you to do it like this.” Do you see the difference between Aggressive and Assertive? Be as direct as you want just make sure it comes from a teacher or coaches perspective not a “I am better than you” and “I will win perspective.”

Consistent Communication

The third thing you need to learn is to be consistent. Do you know anyone you work with that is not consistent? They don’t treat everyone the same, they overlook bad behavior by some people and get on others for the exact same behavior. They won’t be honest with the people who don’t like feedback, maybe because they are scared of conflict. They also have their pets or little cliques they protect. They come across as in-consistent and un-fair.

This is just not directed at supervisors, we all are a mentor to someone, a lineman, an apprentice, a helper. When you are not consistent it makes people think you are not fair. No one wants to be treated differently. If you find yourself falling into some of these behaviors you need to think about how the people look at you. If you want to get more buy-in from others on your crew you need to be more consistent in your approach. I’m not saying you are a pushover, just treat everyone equally.

The Lineman who trained me, Rick was a tobacco chewing, cursing SOB. He was a great lineman and very knowledgeable. He was consistent in dealing with everyone. He didn’t put up with a lot of nonsense. He expected you to do your job. Rick was always direct in his method to teach people. One day we were working at an elementary school replacing cutouts on a bank pole. It was recess, a beautiful sunny spring day. About 20 4th graders were up against the fence watching us work and wishing they could be a lineman when they grow up. Rick was up in the bucket and I was the ground man, Rick wanted new jumpers on the new cutouts. I was moving right along just waiting until he asked for his material. I saw Rick coming down in the bucket and I walked over to him to see what he needed. “Spooner,” he said. “You are waiting on me to ask for everything. Why can’t you anticipate what I am going to do and have it ready before I ask?” “If I have to ask for everything, what kind of Ground-man are you?” I didn’t have a response. I got him what he wanted and walked off. When I was younger I wasn’t real good at listening to feedback so it pissed me off and it was embarrassing in front of all those schoolkids that had a front row seat for the whole thing.

Now that I look back, I see Rick didn’t just single me out. The one thing about Rick was, he was consistent. He didn’t care if you were a Ground-man, Apprentice or Journeyman Lineman, he was always honest with his feedback whether you liked it or not. We used to joke about it, “watch out for the wrath of Rick.” Rick was tough but always fair. He never let bad behavior on the crew go by without addressing it.

This is how you should be in dealing with the people on your crew if you are in any kind of coaching role. Be consistent and fair when you deal with everyone. When there is bad behavior, don’t wait to deal with it. People breaking safety rules, talking on the phone, deal with it quickly no matter who it is. We all have people we like and some we don’t, deal with the ones you can’t stand just like the ones you really like. I used to work for a VP who used to tell me “you might not love them but you have to work with them.” good advice for everyone.

The consistent approach will be better for the entire crew. You don’t have to be an ass, but people need to know where you stand. People want to be treated just like everybody else. If you are consistent and everyone knows what to expect from you, they can learn to deal with your style even if you are a jerk.

So what good communication skills does every lineman need to become a better lineman? We learned you have to keep yourself under emotional control; there is no need to blow up like I did when the line crew used my truck. If you get pissed off, walk off, cool down and then re-join the conversation. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s a great saying everyone can remember.

We also learned that you have to be assertive not aggressive when dealing with others. Aggressive will get you fired or investigated. Aggressive is all about you. Aggressive comes from an “I’m going to win attitude.” There is no need for cursing, belittling or swearing at people.

Instead, you need to be assertive to get your point across. “I want this, I need that, you did that,” it is still about your wants but assertive comes from a teaching attitude instead. You are doing what is best for them to grow.

Lastly we learned you have to be consistent. My Lineman Rick was consistent in the way he treated everyone. He didn’t care who you were. You must treat everyone the same no matter who they are and whether you like them personally or not. Treat the people who don’t like feedback the same as everyone else.

Let me leave you with this, to be a complete lineman you have to be able to teach and mentor others. You could be the most knowledgeable lineman in the world about how to do your job, but if you can’t communicate what you know and have people want to listen, your knowledge will eventually be lost.

I challenge you to put these 3 things we talked about into action. If you are a helper, apprentice, journeyman lineman or foreman use these skills you learned to improve yourself, help others and enjoy your job more.

Aloha, David