Phase 3 – Enlightened People Motivation – “Workplace Communication Lessons from the Local Lumber Yard.”-09.26.17

by Peter A. Arthur-Smith, Leadership Solutions, Inc.®

“One-way communication – just presenting to or talking at people – is hit-or-miss; whereas two-way communication – gaining people’s input or views – is a home run!”


   A recent trip to the local lumber yard in New York’s Manhattan really got this writer thinking about two-way communication once more. Entering the place was an immediate reminder of a famous comment by a relatively new female Chief Operating Officer for the Long Island Rail-Road Company some years back: “The boys are very sensitive about anyone interfering with their domain of playing with the trains.”


Believe it or not, this writer was completely ignored by the three store clerks when he arrived, as they kept their heads down, while fixated on some computer tabulating task. If you approached any one of them, they automatically pointed a finger toward the next clerk without even looking at you. Not a word was spoken at this juncture.


A tough communication spot: What is a customer or people leader supposed to do in such situations? The last clerk in the line just pointed back to the second person this writer had just moved away from. It was a bit of a helpless feeling. But it’s what’s to be expected in a one-way communication environment, where workplace people are just told what to do and their comments, ideas and feedback are not welcome. They’re just required to keep their heads down and work.


With no immediate joy of knowing what to do, this writer wandered into the adjacent shop where the lumber operatives hang out and their sizeable timber-laden warehouse exists. Those operatives just sat around with a half-glazed look in their eyes. When asked about the possibilities of a piece of hardboard this writer was looking for, they responded by pointing out that they were about to pack up for the day. A quick look at one’s watch showed there was at least an hour to go before normal closing time. A little more poking around and a plea for some advice and assistance did draw the aid of a ‘cutter,’ who, out of the goodness of his heart, cut off a right-sized piece of hardboard; although he wouldn’t accept any money or a tip for it. The yard apparently didn’t deal in such small pieces.


Such a noble act reminded this writer that such workers have a good heart, but our challenge is in finding it. Perhaps this is what more worldly and educated executives seem to find such difficulty in doing. Behavior, as experienced with these lumber yard guys, induces a stand-off where executives and the so-called elite view frontline workers as potentially belligerent; while the frontline workers view their bosses as stuck-up and out of touch. How do we close this gap?


You often get a similar indifferent response from Long Island Railroad ticket inspectors, or frontline staff in hospitals, or the drivers of city buses, factory floor workers and warehouse staff. Despite this reality, this writer’s wife is particularly adept at getting favorable responses from porters or reception staff at hotels. What does she do in these situations?


Extra thought about her skill in such situations, shows how she reaches out to them, treats them with appropriate respect, and talks about issues that are relevant to them. In return, they often display their good-will and good-heartedness to ensure she is well taken care of. By dint of observation, it would appear that up to 80% of workplace people are helpful and responsive to various degrees. It’s just the 20% that have a cold attitude; possibly because they’re in the wrong position in the first place. Most workplace people will treat you with respect, if you show them similar respect.


As this writer trundled home from the lumber yard with his prized, small piece of hardboard, he thought a good deal about what it would take to be a team leader in such a place. Factors that seemed to make sense included:

» Frontline “speak” – It would take a willingness to use language and shop-talk that everyday lumber-shop workers use. There would be no use in talking about profits and losses, or efficiencies, or policies and procedures. Much of that would go right over their heads.

» Sense of humor – It would take humor like you watch in famous TV shows like ‘The Brady Bunch’, ‘All our Fathers’ or ‘Lucille & Desi’ to appeal to frontline people: or  modern day comics thereof. Such humor would break down barriers and get them thinking.

» Involvement – Get their opinions, invite their ideas, ask them to contribute to evolving situations.

» Loyalty – Their loyalty to their leader would only be evident if (s)he was totally loyal to them. Would (s)he watch their backs and try to keep them out of trouble?

» Knowledgeable – Have sufficient knowledge – not be an expert – about the domain you’re leading, so as to win a modicum of your people’s respect and understand the nature of their questions.

» Fair compensation – It would be important for your frontline people to know they’re fairly compensated. They will be well-aware of the going rate for their role. Their expectations would not only be about money but also reasonable benefits. They will expect their rewards to be reviewed on an appropriately regular basis, in accord with their efforts, so they feel well regarded.

» Career interest – Some will care about you showing an interest in their career growth and building their domain knowledge. Others will be comfortable doing a good job where they are and making daily, worthy contributions.

» Camaraderie – Every day or at least every week, they will expect you, their team leader, to acknowledge them and show a friendly attitude toward them. Only then will they reciprocate. Also, you should encourage team members to appreciate each other and discourage the sharing of criticism or bad news behind their backs.

          If you don’t like someone, they will know it despite how hard you try to hide it. So this either needs to be resolved amicably or arrange for a parting of the ways in a respectful manner – all your team members will be looking for you to do that. Occasional team celebrations or events, for the right reasons, will always be welcome.


And so this writer’s visit to the lumber yard served as a useful refresher on the daily gulf that often exists between frontline workers and their executives. It’s a very real issue and is occasionally rampant. Once this stark, two-way communication gap is addressed, productivity and performance will blossom accordingly. Slowly in the beginning because it takes time to win people over, as they’ve been hurt too many times before to just jump on board. However, as you utilize the above suggested, desired factors, they are likely to pay dividends over time. When do you intend to review your workplace two-way communication issues?


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