I spoke to someone recently who was a manager two levels up from front-line workers (they managed the supervisors of the front-line workers). They could see the real benefit in being close to the front-line workers, but in practice, weren’t sure how to do it without looking too informal. So it got me thinking, how can you set up an organisational structure that allows you to do this? And just how important is it to get to know your front-line workers?
If you’re ultimately responsible for your company’s front-line workers then there’s no doubt about it: getting to know them is the right thing to do, for countless reasons. They are the major touchpoint with customers and without their work, the company would cease to exist.
You also need to know their ideas, challenges and how things look on the front-line because it’ll inform how you service the needs of the customers. Their perspectives should be fed into the company’s activities and strategy. But how do you make this connection with the frontline happen?
FRAME YOUR INTEREST IN THEM
You need to balance your desire to get to know them, without it coming across as too informal, or patronising, or trying too hard. Essentially, you want to know how things feel to them, and what’s going on. Because people like to be seen and heard, this is likely to make for a really good basis for a conversation. You care about their experiences, and you want to know more. Also, it’s a common misconception that people on the front line don’t care about the company and they’re just doing it because they need a job. Very often, frontline employees are passionate about the work they do, like the companies they work for, and want them to do well. Recent research in HBR showed this well.
GET TO KNOW THEM
Come up with a way to get to know them that suits the number. If we’re talking ten people, it’s feasible to take each of them for a coffee or lunch. If it’s thousands, you’ll want to think about drop-ins, or choosing a random sample to meet with, or organising some group lunches, or similar.
ASK AWESOME QUESTIONS
Fear of looking silly often stops leaders from asking questions, but it’s a really good way to flatten the hierarchy and show humility. A boss who asks questions is admitting, really simply, that they do not have all the answers and that they need the team to help them. Also, in my experience (and what I’ve seen with coaching clients who’ve tried out this technique), most people really like sharing the knowledge they’ve built up about the work that they do. It can make them feel validated and relevant. And being a great listener will help with this validation and build a connection.
FIND THINGS IN COMMON TO MAINTAIN TOUCHPOINTS
You may well find you have things in common (climbing, cooking, living in the same neighbourhood, shared friends) and you can use that as a basis to start your conversation with them next time you meet. Maintaining a good relationship with the same front line workers will help to establish their trust in you and build good bonds which last. It’s not about friendship, but friendly working relationships. It may be that you end up getting on really well with them, but give it a gentle commercial purpose to start with, make it clear to them that this is important to you, and then work from there
Three resources to help:
- Brilliant questions to ask front line workers:
- The rules of making friends at work:
- Seven ways to empower front line workers:
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