Hearing not listening — Let’s bridge the gap between office and frontlines

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It’s a complaint so common, we stopped noticing it: “The people in the office make bad decisions. They don’t know what’s actually going on out here.”

This is something people across industries are frustrated about. The worker at the construction site, the quality assurance worker in a pharma lab or the marine engineer in the engine room on a container vessel.

It almost seems like an unwritten law of modern day work, that somehow there is a gap – a disconnect between the frontlines and the management of an organisation.

Often when managers talk about this they go on to talk about things like inefficient work, mistakes being made, people losing motivation and quitting their jobs.

Because this problem is so common I have collected some thoughts on why this exists and what we might be able to do about it.

A brief disclaimer: The collected thoughts below are mere observations and opinions and not scientifically proven facts in any shape or form.

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The great divide

Over the past century, the hierarchical, division of labor based approach to organizing companies has brought us a lot.

A lot of productivity gain, structure at scale and organizational efficiency no one could have dreamed of before.

But one other thing, a byproduct so to speak, this hierarchy and division also carries with it: A divide between the people who make the decisions and the people that execute them.

Of course, this is an oversimplification, but it helps to make a point.

So what is causing this gap?

First off there is the obvious one, the division of tasks.

People making decisions spend most of their time on tasks related to decision making and don’t have much time to engage with the detailed minutia and context of the people executing work.

Secondly, we have physical distance. In many cases, the people who make the decisions sit in an office somewhere and the ones executing them are working in the front line, whether that be shop floor, hospital floor or ship at sea.

This means of course that the divide is twofold (in fact you can add a multitude of layers on top of those two, such as culture, technology, etc).

So we have a physical and an organizational divide. And really those two coming together creates the gap between office and the frontline.

This gap seems pretty much implicit in the concept of the division of labor, it might even be unavoidable to a certain extent.

Deciders work on making decision and workers spend their time executing.

The only issue arises of course when deciders have to make decisions (or take actions) about things that most concern the workers in the field. They then lack the overview, context, and insight to really know what’s going on and make decisions that work for the people in the frontlines.

Hearing not listening — Let’s bridge the gap between office and frontlines

Why companies need feedback from their staff

Given that most companies, above a certain size that is, are organized this way we have to find ways to work around this.

But this gap could be bridged if the people making decisions had a way of learning about what is actually going on in the front lines.

So what is needed is changing the typical top-down channel of communication from management down to workers.

If this could be transformed into a continuous stream going top-down as well as bottom-up we might be able to, at least, narrow the gap.

Many companies do attempt to create this bottom-up flow of information. They introduce employee surveys, one-on-one review and generally encourage their staff to come forward themselves.

Some organizations definitely manage to make this work. But in many cases, this is more of a farce than something that actually helps narrow the divide between office and frontlines.

There are a number of problems with approaches such as employee surveys and audits.

Staff doesn’t tell you the truth

First off, most likely anyway, your staff won’t tell you the truth.

Employees might not necessarily think that their company is outright spying on them, but they might also not be 100% convinced that their answers of the survey are completely anonymous.

It is quite natural, really: If there is a possibility that giving my opinion to someone might have consequences (negative or positive for that matter) I will inadvertently self-edit what I say.

And if the consequences could be non-trivial, such as being overlooked for a promotion, my contract not being renewed or even just tainting the relationship to my superior then my barrier to being honest in an employee survey is quite high.

Culture of coping

Another factor is that in many work contexts and cultures people don’t like to complain.

Often, people don’t ask for help and don’t mention things that need improving — notably in workplaces with a strong “we can fix it” attitude, and where it means losing face to ask for help.

People do speak with their peers and direct colleagues about issues and challenges — but something prevents them from saying the same to their superiors.

Especially talking about “softer” things, such as suffering from stress, loneliness or anxiety — all proven to have serious implications — can be perceived as a weakness in male-dominated work environments.

Listening the wrong way

Survey and surveillance do sound pretty similar — and that’s not by coincidence.

Many times efforts to understand more about what’s going on in the workplace are perceived as a means to keep tabs on people’s performance.

And more often than not measuring performance is actually part of the goal of data gathering initiatives.

Hearing — not just listening — is hard

“We said something at some point and nothing changed”

Not just listening to but actually hearing what employees have to say can be hard.

It is even harder to make the changes that are needed. It is almost always a considerable investment in effort, time and money.

Also, change can be risky and unpredictable.

But not changing also means not moving forward.

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Where to go from here

If you don’t want to create or maintain a gap between management and frontline staff or if you want to narrow it down, if you want to enable your managers and decision makers to make decisions based on the actual, not the assumed, needs of your frontline staff then you need to find ways of gathering honest feedback from the frontlines.

At the same time, you need to align your company with the actual needs of workers.

This means fostering a culture of listening and change — which can be a herculean task indeed.

But let’s promise each other one thing: No more bullshit and lip service surveys. Let’s take the experience and needs of frontline staff seriously!

Sebastian Nause-Blueml, Co-founder at www.scoutbase.com, [email protected]

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Hearing not listening — Let’s bridge the gap between office and frontlines was originally published in Scoutbase — Realtime Leading Safety Indicators on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.