10 Tips for How to Lead Your Fence-Sitters Off the Fence

Fence-Sitter Workers are methodical and not lazy but may need more help when it comes to going the extra mile for your construction company

Fence-sitters are literally the “backbone” of most construction companies but need leadership, oversight, support and patience.
Fence-sitters are literally the “backbone” of most construction companies but need leadership, oversight, support and patience.

The Fence-Sitter Worker (FSW) is the type of worker who is more “wired” to do what she specifically is asked to do…nothing more, but nothing less. She is a methodical worker, moving through each and every step that she has been instructed and trained to perform. In short, she will appear at times almost to be watching and waiting to see what direction the wind is blowing before making a commitment one way or another.

While she is a responsible and accountable worker to what she’s been assigned, the Fence-Sitter Worker can complete her work and stand by and watch her peers performing work, not thinking to ask if she can provide any assistance. She will wait until asked before doing something outside her own personal scope of work. The FSW is not lazy, but she will seldom initiate offering her services without being asked.

Does the Fence-Sitter Worker show up to work? Every day…BUT often just at the exact starting time and then just as often she is ready to leave exactly at quitting time. Don’t even think about asking her to volunteer for OT on the weekend; she’s got things to do at home. Give the Fence-Sitter Worker instructions on Monday and you will most likely have to repeat those instructions again Tuesday, probably Wednesday, and just when you think she’s got it…yep, you have to explain things again on Thursday.

Fence-Sitter Workers are not lazy, but they will not always impress anyone with their great speed for performing work or their overt enthusiasm while at work. The FSW style of work is primarily methodical, by the book, and “stays within the lines,” but they are at work every day. The good news on the FSW is that they need and respond to good leaders. They can be coached!

The Center for Construction Innovation & Development research has found that Fence-Sitter Workers make up 55% to 65% of all workers. They are literally the “backbone” of most construction companies but need leadership, oversight, support and patience. They are good people, wanting to give of themselves to a company and can be very loyal to effective and sincere leadership.

Before we jump into how to lead the Fence-Sitter Worker I want to clarify how important this work profile is to your company. As I shared earlier, the Fence-Sitter Worker is not lazy, in fact, she may be as hard working as your Thoroughbred Workers, but she will not always display an outward expression of her pace. She tends to be consistent and steady. Think of the children’s story about the “Tortoise and the Hare” and you’ll soon realize that what the FSW may give up in speed is often more than made up in fewer mistakes made.

Thus, what we have in the Fence-Sitter Worker approach to work is, first, they make up the majority of the workers, the “backbone” of our companies. Second, we have a worker type that responds to effective and clear leadership that respects the skills and talents brought to the job by Fence-Sitter Workers. And finally, we have a huge section of workers who, if we will educate, coach and encourage, will respond with better-than-projected results and will bring a consistency that can be counted on!

So, our leadership challenge should be to readjust our approach motivating the FSW that it is in her best interests to move “off the fence” and to fully engage her work. Making use of the techniques listed below, you will see greater performance and results from this very large and important section of your workforce!

Present the most-basic job expectations

Depending on the job level that the Fence-Sitter Worker is fulfilling, be sure to present the most basic of expectations for the job. This is before even discussing the FSW roles and responsibilities. For this “how to” I am suggesting that you be clear about when she should arrive to work, what time does her work day begins and what is expected from her in regards to job clean-up, organization and maintenance.

If your company has an orientation commitment to new hires then some of this type of information should be covered. However, I’ve found that when contractors hire for management level positions they can assume that who they hire already has an understanding of what should be the “basics.” Remember, don’t ASSUME! Attending meetings on time, expected follow-up with peers or senior leaders, turning in of expenses, even the wearing of company logo clothing can be examples of what would be considered “basic job expectations.” Trust me, if you don’t present such information the Fence-Sitter Worker will not let you down in demonstrating a lack of understanding.

Over-communicate roles & responsibilities

Leading the Fence-Sitter Worker should always begin with clearly communicating what the specific roles and responsibilities are for the job the FSW is to perform. Such an effort should be made for all employees but sadly often is not. Contractors should assume little when it comes to working with employees and even less when dealing with the Fence-Sitter Worker.

If you have a worker who appears to be confused or slowly is making her way around her work area, quickly inquire if she understands what she needs to do. Spend more time discussing with the FSW about her job, what areas she is free to execute on her own and what you expect her to do when she is finished with a work task. For example, if you expect an FSW to assist other workers when she has completed her effort, then make that a very specific expectation.

Again, don’t take anything for granted; if you don’t spell out exactly what you want an FSW to do during the workday then be prepared to be frustrated.

Walk through new changes or work adjustments

Most Fence-Sitter Workers are very bright people; in fact, they may be some of your most knowledgeable workers. But many FSWs are humble, not wanting to bring attention their way. Part of this includes their not wanting to make a mistake, which would tend to “red flag” them as not knowing something. So, one of the best things a contractor can do with Fence-Sitter Workers is to be sure that any change in the routine, work process, etc., new for the FSW always includes a “walk through.”

This term is actually quite common for football and basketball coaches who often have their players do a “walk-through” the day prior to a game. It’s a chance for the players, in our case construction workers, to talk through the new process or at least the portion that is different, before the real action starts.

Set targets for expected work production

Tying a goal or production target is good leadership for any group of construction employees; it’s especially beneficial for the Fence-Sitter Worker. For the FSW, the set goal gives purpose, direction and keeps the worker dialed in on what she needs to be doing to arrive at the desired and determined end point.

In the field, the Fence-Sitter Worker needs to know what volume of work needs to be placed or what daily quotas are to be executed. For the field leader who is managing the project the target might include what type of engagement will be practiced with other contractors and how often such engagement will take place. For the office FSW, the goal might be to complete X number of estimates or billing statements prior to the end of the day.

Ask the Fence-Sitter Workers questions & solicit their ideas

I stated earlier in this article that the FSW could be one of your more intelligent workers. She can be similar to a “walking encyclopedia,” but you will need to actually “remove the book from the shelf and open it to get any information.”

The FSW can be quiet during meetings, not wanting to draw too much attention. The Fence-Sitter Worker doesn’t care for know-it-all workers so she’ll be careful how much she says. This trait can be very frustrating for the contractor and construction leader as the FSW may sit through an entire meeting, never once sharing an idea or offering a solution until after the meeting when she approaches the leader with a better solution than was arrived at during the meeting.

As the Fence-Sitter Worker begins to trust people, including her leaders, she will need less prodding from contractors to participate with her ideas. But never think the FSW doesn’t have an idea. She does, but you’ll just have to prime the pump occasionally.

Engage the FSWs on process & methods issues to get their best

Most Fence-Sitter Workers care little for showy work habits and care even less for wasted work steps. They like to see things done simply, with clarity “from Point A to Point B.” Therefore, if they have a real strength to improve your organization it might just be here in this area in answering this question: “How do we become consistent at …. Fill in the blank (producing quality formwork, tying rebar, installing conduit, trimming out sealed parking lots, etc.)?”

Don’t read the FSW body language as “I don’t care”

Remember, most Fence-Sitter Worker are not demonstrative workers; they don’t get overly excited about the positive things and they do not sulk when things are going badly. In short, many FSWs are almost “poker faced” in both their social interactions and their work behavior.

While they may appear to be just “be boppin’ along,” not breaking any records to get to some point or to finish a task, that does not mean that they do not care. If you were to fire every employee who failed to show enthusiasm you would most likely wipe out 60% of your workforce…and this is the Fence-Sitter Worker group. Most FSWs are not working to make their mark on the world, but they do want to do a good job and to be appreciated. So, the next time you suggest something positive and your FSW does not reply in a positive manner, just keep moving forward. Often, the FSW will approach you quietly, telling you, “Hey, I didn’t say anything earlier but I think this will work” or, “This is a good idea.” Again, don’t take such latent admissions personally, that’s just their mode of operations.

Affirm the Fence-Sitter Worker’s commitment to be consistent

The FSW most often shows up to work every day. She may not move as quickly as you would like to see sometimes but she comes to work consistently. Let her know occasionally how much you do appreciate her regularity in coming to work. This little bit of motivation actually means a lot to the Fence-Sitter Worker as she notices the work attendance and tardiness issues of others. Remember, the FSW may not be fancy about how she gets things done but the truth is that she is at work and will do whatever she is instructed and led to do during the workday.

Be patient with the Fence-Sitter Workers as they mentally process

It should be understood by now, but to punctuate an important “how to” when dealing with FSWs, don’t misread the look on their faces at times as the “deer in the headlight” look. Their slower response at times has less to do with them not understanding and more with their need to mentally think through how they see themselves processing what you are presenting.

A slow response from the FSW should not be read as “I disagree” or “I don’t want to do what you are asking.” The FSW may, in fact, disagree with you or have doubts about getting things completed, but you can always ask her to share what she is feeling or thinking. Remember, the FSW is the one that normally is a bit slow to allowing others to know what she is thinking…you can’t afford to be the one slow on the draw!

Focus more on the gains made & the workers making it happen

The Fence-Sitter Worker can actually move “north” toward more Thoroughbred Worker-like behavior if you will spend more of your leadership effort on the more positive happenings of your company. When FSWs see and feel more positive and proactive energy and direction they tend to pick up their pace, energy and focus.

Let your leadership begin to allow for griping, blaming and whining among workers and you will see FSWs starting to drag their feet or demonstrate even less enthusiasm. This doesn’t suggest that you “blue sky” issues or challenges that are negative, but it does suggest that you rethink how you express your frustration or anger when things are not going well. Taking a “Let’s get this corrected and let’s prevent this from happening again” approach will win you the loyal following that most Fence-Sitter Workers want to be associated with in a contractor.

The Fence-Sitter Workers represent the “swing vote” for a contractor. Motivate and mobilize the largest portion of your workforce and you stand to maintain — and increase — productivity. Because the FSW mindset does not like to make mistakes, you should also experience better quality the first time, which translates into greater profits.

Moving your construction company upward and onward can be done with a few Thoroughbred Workers and whole bunch of Fence-Sitter Workers who will respond to your effective leadership by jumping off the fence and on to clear and prepared work processes.

You’re the leader; don’t stand there and check to see what direction the wind is blowing, get off of your own fence and kick into action all 10 efforts outlined in this article. Then, watch your Fence-Sitter Workers jump off the fence and get with the program of excellence and profitable results. They’re waiting for you!

Here’s to jumping off the fence!