One of the biggest opportunities missed by companies everywhere is knowing how to tap into the power and potential hidden within the organization—the front line employees. What can companies do to create a culture of engagement that benefits the company, the customer and the employees? Focus on Super Vision versus supervision.
When I was authoring No-Drama Leadership and seeking various viewpoints on what culture is, how it is defined, and how leaders shape culture, Dr. Edgar Schein, MIT Emeritus professor, and one of the top thought leaders on culture graciously agreed to be interviewed.
Schein told me, after hearing about my experience as a blue-collar worker for over twenty years at Kraft Foods, “The best place to start understanding culture is to look at your own. As you work with your clients, your best resource is your own understanding of what it’s like to be at the bottom of an organization. Very few managers have even a clue as to what that’s like and therefore don’t have any empathy or humility or any way of thinking about it. If you have an insight into hierarchy from having been there, that’s an enormous asset in your own understanding skills.” 
I’m honored to share the perspective from the bottom: What employees want, what they won’t tell you, and how to tap into their power and potential to benefit the company, the customer and the employee.
While working on the lines at Kraft Foods, and finishing my bachelor’s degree, I started to see that I had more to offer than working on the lines, stacking skids, weighing product, and cleaning equipment. I had a burning desire to discover, develop, and deliver my gifts to the workplace. The advice I received at college was to start where I was, so I started looking for opportunity right in my workplace. There were opportunities to join steering committees and other initiatives. As much as I tried, nothing inspired me, and as a result I was not engaged.
As a front-line employee ready for growth, my greatest desire was to be encouraged and to open the door for future opportunities, but initially the factory culture simply did not support my skills and interests.
Eventually an opportunity to present a safety program got my attention, and not because of my love for safety. (Anyone who has attended an OSHA safety class knows they are anything but enlightening; safety meetings are boring but mandatory.) I was interested because of the opportunity to use my creative skills, to make something boring into something interesting, and to improve my presentation skills.
The Risk of Engagement
I volunteered to do the training, which consisted of showing the proper ways to use chemicals, and demonstrating the proper way to wear protective gear during sanitation. I got the support of management to use creativity in creating quizzes, role-plays, and colorful slides. I asked if I could get some product, (macaroni and cheese) and some T-shirts to give away for prizes when people engaged. As a side note, it’s often risky for employees to engage in management initiatives. You risk being called a “brownnoser” or having co-workers say “you are sucking up to management.” This is a cultural barrier at the bottom, but one for which I was ready.
To my surprise, after the safety presentation, I got rave reviews from my co-workers. Many said it was the best safety program they had ever attended. I was elated. Then my balloon deflated. I received no acknowledgement from my boss or any of the middle management. They barely noticed. It was simply an item on the checklist to be checked off.
Meeting date set, Check.
Room Reserved, Check.
Notices sent, Check.
Sign-in list available, Check.
Volunteer presenter, Check.
Determined to move forward, I set up a meeting with the plant manager. (Employees are often told about an open door, but rarely take the invitation when the status gap is so wide.) I decided to set up the meeting nonetheless. I walked in and said to the plant manager, “I want something more and don’t know how to make that happen here.”
He rolled his chair back, and assumed the prayer-hands position as he tried to figure out what in the heck I was talking about. “Go on,” he said, looking perplexed.
“I am good at teaching. I’m good at training and development. I know how to motivate people who work here. I would love to find a way to use these skills but I don’t know how. Can you help me to figure it out?” I asked.
The only thing he said was, “What is your credibility? What gives you the right to step into that kind of position here?”
I didn’t know what to say. What I heard was, “You aren’t enough.” I felt demeaned and defeated.
Crossing Cultural Boundaries
My plant manager was not a bad person, and I was not a bad employee. Much of this issue boils down to the culture of factory life, the culture of hierarchy in manufacturing—the history of who we are, what we believe, how we do things, what is appropriate, and what is possible, regarding the various roles and points of view. But most of all the issue is about how we see each other.
When I shared this story with Edgar Schein he said, “We don’t encourage the bottom because they’re at the bottom. Your plant manager had no insight into potential, not because he was a bad human being but because that was his job. It was his understanding of his role in the culture.” 
What Employees Won’t Tell You
Employees will not come straight out and tell their leaders that they want to be acknowledged and noticed. Front line employees generally want to do a good job. They want to be respected. They will engage when the right opportunity meets their interests, skills and readiness.
Many employees on the front lines, and in jobs like factory work, housekeeping, nurses’ aides, start their jobs only to meet their financial needs. One reason employees do not seek growth is due to the cultural boundaries. The beliefs, and history does not support employee empowerment, engagement and personal growth. In addition, many front line employees come from backgrounds and family histories that are all about survival and not about vision, choice, and personal development.
What I learned from my combined experience (as a consultant, author and former blue-collar worker) is this: Until employees see something more for themselves and have the desire to reach for something higher, they do not know how to articulate their desires or how to take the first step to achieve more.
The greatest gift a leader can offer an employee is to see more for that person than he sees for himself. I call this trait focusing on Super Vision rather than supervision. When a leader sees something more for the employee, and when the employee sees something more for himself or herself, the culture has the power to shift in small ways that benefit the company, the customer, and the employees in big ways.
Are there cultural boundaries in your workplace preventing the development and growth of your front line staff? If you could remove one obstacle, where would you begin? Please share your comments below.
Adapted from No-Drama Leadership: How Enlightened Leaders Transform Culture in the Workplace by Marlene Chism (Bibliomotion, 2015)