It’s time for leaders to get out on the shop floor

Simon Jones of Hidden Value Partners writes about the challenges and choices facing leaders in moving beyond their comfort zones.

It’s time for leaders to get out on the shop floor and learn what employees are really thinking.

As World Thinking Day approaches, many organisations would benefit immeasurably if top managers asked staff how to solve business problems, writes Simon Jones.

If you are drawing up plans for growth, investigating a failing part of a business or going through a change of ownership or CEO, to whom do you turn to for help? Consultants? Your middle managers? Peers you’ve met at networking events? Google?

It is tempting to think that, one way or another, we have access to all the information and ideas we need. It may take a bit of time, require some cash or late-night analysis, but we can do it. We can find out whatever we need to know. But isn’t there someone we are forgetting to ask – our employees?

This month’s World Thinking Day (22 February) provides us with a nudge to find out what people beyond the boardroom are thinking. To go beyond consulting with those we hear from every day, and instead to listen to and take notes from the people that make up our organisation – the hands, eyes and ears that produce our products and services, day in, day out.

I haven’t got it in for business leaders; they aren’t the only ones who become disconnected from what is happening on their frontline. We see it in politicians, too – both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair gradually became distanced from their voters. We see it in journalists; witness their surprise at the Brexit vote, which they failed to predict (and believe). And we see it in sports coaches, who fail to collate the view of their players when things are going wrong.

There are good reasons for this. First, some of us don’t like going out of our comfort zone. What will we discover? Will it be at odds with, and challenge, our ideas and way of working? Second, if the going gets tough, many of us find it easier to retreat into our shell than confront the issue at hand. It’s what we think will enable us to survive – or make the issue go away. Third, we might think it is up to middle managers to report upwards, rather than us going out of the management suite. And, finally, we might believe meeting people way beneath us in the office hierarchy will make us appear weak, threatening our position.

Whatever the reasons we fail to do it, there are several benefits for the taking – if only we give it a try. Listening to staff can alert you to problems before they get out of hand. It can bring you in touch with new and untried ideas. I say ‘new and untried’ because many staff aren’t asked, they are afraid of speaking out, or when they do they are ignored. And, most importantly, if you proactively go out and listen to staff you will be more likely to engage their support for whatever you then realise needs feeding into your business plan – be it ways to resolve problems, requirements to turn your business around or conditions for higher growth.

This invisible information, the ideas and insights of staff, is what I call the ‘hidden intelligence’ of a business. Clearly, it can be ascertained in different ways. But from our experience, to get staff to talk freely and openly requires four conditions to be met. You need independent and trained inquirers. They must meet with a wide sample of employees, from the shop floor to the boardroom. Their approach should be to conduct in-depth, one-to-one conversations, which ideally should take place away from the workplace. And they need to assure people of their confidentially and anonymity, so they feel able to talk.

As one company leader told me recently: “In many organisations, employees know what the problems are, but fear to raise them at the risk of being seen as trouble-makers. If you can ask people to talk anonymously, you get good feedback to improve the company.”

So, remember World Thinking Day. Why not make it an annual day for listening to staff? Above all, don’t allow issues in your organisation to be suppressed and become invisible; it will cause more harm than good in the long run.


First published in Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s People Management magazine 21st February 2017.

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