Why do so many front-line people start their jobs energized and eager to contribute, only to wind up with chronic job frustration?
If you listen to front-line team members for any length of time, you hear certain themes again and again. They do not feel valued or heard by their organizations, and that leaves them feeling powerless. Having seen so many management initiatives fail, they meet change efforts and new ideas with skepticism if not downright cynicism. They feel “one-down” and deprived of the privilege and perks enjoyed by others in the organization.
Yet these same individuals often carry out the organization’s most vital work: managing customer contact, fulfilling promises made by salespeople, executing the plans that are critical to their organizations’ success. No organization can afford to have these individuals showing up as anything other than their best selves.
Including front-line people in decision making and problem solving—actively soliciting their input and inviting them to the conversation—can restore a sense of being valued, heard, empowered, and seen for who they are as individuals. When people have this sense, they are more likely to bring valuable perspectives and information to the organization.
Any change effort around this sort of inclusion, of course, must overcome people’s cynicism that it will soon become just another “program of the month.” If the change effort succeeds, however, it will transform the organization and the people within it by transforming the ways they interact with one another. It will, in short, make the organization more inclusive—with inclusion understood not as a separate program, apart from the organization’s mission, but as a way of life that underpins everything the organization does.
The most common roadblock to front-line inclusion that I encounter is poor communication. “Management doesn’t ask me what I think” is a common refrain, and indeed, few supervisors and managers solicit the opinions and perspectives of front-line team members on issues that impact people’s ability to perform their jobs. “We don’t talk on this shift” is another common complaint. With no communication from decision makers, it is often difficult for front-line people to connect their work with the organization’s mission and strategy. Front-line team members often lack the Big Picture (or, more specifically, the ever changing Big Picture and strategy of today’s organizations) that would give their work context and meaning, so they question whether their performance has any value and whether anyone really cares about them. Often the implicit message is that their ideas and voices don’t matter.
The lack of communication is often a function of a silo mentality.In many organizations, there is little communication between departments, shifts, or even teams, let alone up and down the org chart. In one client, two units with similar functions were located down the hall from each other; one excelled in its work, the other performed below par, and the silo mentality prevented them from transferring knowledge that would help the underperforming unit to improve. (It also prevented the high-performing unit from drawing on the resources of its counterpart to fuel its own learning and growth.)
Of course, people can’t communicate when they aren’t there, and this leads to another barrier: the inaccessibility of leaders.How many front-line team members even know who their supervisor’s manager is, let alone see her or him on a regular basis? From their perspective, the physical absence translates directly into emotional absence and apathy. They conclude that “management doesn’t care.”
If these leaders visited the front lines, people believe, they might discover why previous initiatives didn’t work. Front-line team members know their own environment better than their leaders do, because they live it every workday. All too often, they have seen change initiatives come and go without impact, when a bit of input from the front lines might have reshaped the initiative for greater success. No wonder front-line team members react skeptically when the next new idea comes from leadership.
These conditions create exactly the kind of situation for which inclusion—considered as a howto achieve higher performance—was designed. The challenge lies in laying the groundwork for the inclusion change effort to take hold amid skepticism.
Instilling Inclusion as a Way of Life
Slow, steady, and gentle is the most effective approach when seeking to create an inclusion mindset in front-line teams. Leaders can take the following steps to maximize success:
1. Honor skepticism. We have already seen that this skepticism is usually justified. The very act of respecting it—not belittling it, not embracing it, but being honest and open about it—allows the skeptics to start feeling heard. This approach can lead to addressing the root cause of the skepticism: the historic marginalization of the front lines.
2. Use the soft sell. Introduce the change effort with as little fanfare as possible. While this violates the usual dictum about kicking off programs with a splash, that’s the point—this isn’t another “program” and should not resemble one. The goal is to create a new way of life in the organization. A steady, organic approach is more effective.
3. Manage expectations. Establish and communicate realistic goals. Be clear that changing entrenched habits will take time and people will make missteps along the way. Be explicit about what is expected from people at all levels to make the effort a success. Hold people accountable for starting to demonstrate the new behaviors as they proceed on the journey to making these behaviors a way of being in all interactions. Make sure people understand that hearing more points of view does not mean that each individual’s opinion will somehow prevail in every situation. By managing expectations, leaders will make the effort seem doable and prevent misunderstandings before they happen.
4. Gain allies.Some front-line team members will grasp the change effort more quickly and embrace it more openly than others. Giving early adopters the opportunity to informally lead and communicate the effort on a peer-to-peer basis enables the others to hear positive input from people they know and trust.
5. Break barriers.It is all too easy to unintentionally overlook—and tacitly reinforce—the informal barriers, erected through decades of interactions, that separate leaders from front-line team members. Breaking down these barriers need not require dramatic, confrontational efforts. What would happen, for instance, if leaders casually walked into the front-line break room once a week for an informal chat? The very act of saying “hello” in the hallway or on the shop floor can spark a powerful transformation in people’s mindsets; it makes them feel seen for who they are and valued in a way they may have never experienced before. Some front-line technicians have told us how powerful it is when a leader wants to learn something about them as people, rather than simply telling them to do a task or asking about the equipment or what is being produced today.
6. Model inclusion.No one will believe you if you don’t walk the talk. Listening to people as allies, linking to their thoughts and feelings, and practicing other inclusive behaviors not only models the new way of life in the organization, but demonstrates the powerful effect it can have.
7. Challenge people—gently. This is the flip side of honoring skepticism: rather than leave people simmering in their doubt or negativity, encourage them to own their piece of the issue. Gently steer people toward examining ways in which they themselves can be more inclusive. This helps them lean into the discomfort of challenging themselves.
8. Empathize without colluding.Front-line team members will need support to succeed at inclusion. The challenge is to provide that support without taking sides in old conflicts.It means honoring the pain of the past without perpetuating or enshrining it. Empathy can be the first step in listening to people as an ally and building the trust that allows them to move to a new mindset and new behaviors.
9. Be aware of others’ assumptions.In one consulting engagement, I was sitting by the time clock, jotting down a few thoughts and waiting for my next meeting. As people came through, they eyed me suspiciously. They thought I was recording who was punching out early! Change agents often convey images and have impacts that they are unaware of. If undetected and left to fester, these unintended consequences can reverse a great deal of good work around the change effort.
10. Be aware of your own assumptions.Are you lumping all front-line team members in the same category? Are you projecting the resistance and cynicism you have encountered in the past onto all other people in similar roles? It is important to remember that while there are themes common to the front-line population, generalities only go so far. Just as some front-line team members have “stereotypes” about management, leaders often approach the front line with a predetermined mindset.
When front-line team members see that leadership’s commitment is genuine, when they get to air their perspectives and feel heard, when they learn inclusive behaviors—and see leaders practicing them—they can begin to trust and feel empowered. It is the first step toward enabling them to bring their invaluable insights, perspectives, and skills to bear on the organization’s success. That enabling is the essence of using inclusion to achieve higher individual, team, and organizational performance.
For a complete description of inclusion understood in this way, see Judith H. Katz and Frederick A. Miller, “Inclusion: The HOW for the Next Organizational Breakthrough,” Practising Social Change 5 (2012): 15-21.
Mickey Bradleyhas worked with The Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group, Inc., since 1994 and currently holds the title of Senior Consultant Affiliate. He specializes in effective communication strategies, leadership coaching, strategic interventions, conflict resolution, and presence consulting.
Mickey began his career as a freelance writer, and his published work ranges from articles on organizational development to best-selling books on baseball. Previously, he worked at GE and served as a community college adjunct professor for 10 years.