Alpha Dog: The Power of Direct Communication

Today was a stellar day at the job site. I wired fluorescent lamps, then flicked the switch and saw light emanate from the new fixtures. This is the magical part of being an electrician! A glamorous achievement? Probably not; but magical, in my opinion: yes yes yes! It was a reminder of why I was drawn to this trade. For a first-term apprentice, this moment of satisfaction is a rare one.

My journeywoman was looking out for me. Despite her blustery, gruff exterior, she has always been gracious (in her own way) in looking out for me; and I wish I could figure out how to express my appreciation to her. Today, she pointed out the semi-protected panels I should avoid, then she barked me into a “non-live” work area away from the panels. I think she chuckled under her breath when I growled at her. She gave me a hard time for reading the specifications on a package (even though she has emphasized to me the importance of reading directions and paying attention to product specifications). “I told you these will fit…” she started to say while grabbing at the package; but I cut her off and growled, “I can read! Would you please let me see for myself?” I snatched my reading material away. Later, she saw me having a hard time removing a sheet metal part (which is aptly called a knock-out) on the ceiling. Normally, some swift stabs with my wire cutters can punch the knock-out through with no problems. For this one, however, I was balanced strangely atop an eight foot ladder and had to use my non-dominant hand. She asked if I’d knocked out the knock-out yet and before I knew what was flying out of my mouth I snarled, “Does it look like I’m done yet?” She made me descend my ladder so she could do it herself and – lo! She had a hard time! Imagine that! I said nothing about “lacking in mechanical ability” though I wanted to so badly. I badgered her from the ground until she relented and: (1) admitted the part must have been manufactured to make the knock-out harder to release; and (2) let me finish what I’d started.

Despite it being a good day, I was still stinging from Friday’s review. I explained my actions more than usual. I asked for clarification – directly – more than usual. And I issued caveats, heads-ups and warnings (especially when it came to explaining WHO had the keys!). And you know? It worked! Since day one on this job, I have stayed receptive and hard working. In my opinion, I’ve been neither too assertive nor too meek; yet the gruff and direct overtone seems to resonate better with her. Humans and our communication quirks just crack me up.

I remember now when a new journeyman recently joined our small crew. It was on a day my journeywoman was out, so when she came back the next day, she looked over “Chet’s” work and I could see the feathers on both of them starting to puff up. Oh no: it was bluster time! Marge is an eldest sibling and prone to steamrolling people. And Chet – well, he’s a youngish dude in the trades so of course he’s going to puff himself up in front of a female foreman. At this point, he probably didn’t digest or appreciate her eighteen years of experience. He has only been a journeyman for two months. The differences in experience simply can’t be compared. Oh, and I’m sure Chet is neither the first nor the last youngish new journeyman to react this way. Aigh yai yai. After half a day of puffery and bluster, Chet made a very wise decision. He was about to get harangued by Marge. I’m not sure why because I was too busy keeping my head down and trying to finish my own task in a timely and craftswomanlike manner. I heard Chet set down his tools then say, “Hey Marge – I gotta be honest with you. I really don’t have a whole lot of experience in these kind of conduit runs.” My sister calls this “being the submissive puppy” and I think she has a valid metaphor. Of course Marge pounced on him and basically asked him what the hell he’d been doing his whole apprenticeship. But something in her also relaxed and soon, she was giving Chet a run-down on the compact electric conduit bender. She started showing him techniques and tips: all because he had the wisdom and humility to relent and be receptive. The alpha electrician had been identified – much to my relief.

Until now, relating to coworkers while working as an electrician has been about the same as other jobs. People need to have their own subtleties heard and understood. Sure, egos can get injured, tantrums occasionally get thrown and if we’re lucky and with just the right mix of people, laughs are shared. Overall, people are decent and usually help one another out. Before I fully committed to pursuing a path in this trade, I conducted informational interviews with working electricians. I remember one of them telling me that being a tradeswoman was about being good with people. (I suppose some mechanical ability doesn’t hurt, either) Of all my work situations, I am starting to see how this one thrives on above-average people and team skills: more than the typical office job. Being a tradeswoman means I will be absorbing knowledge from my journey-level supervisors and coworkers. At some point, I will be passing down my own knowledge and skills to an apprentice. We have to work as a team or we all suffer. Chet was smart to be the submissive puppy because he opened his own door to strengthening his skills. It also preserved our team harmony. For me, I think I have nothing to lose in exercising my snarls and snaps: based on today, it means better communication flow between me and my journeywoman.

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