Many, many, moons ago while working as a server in a restaurant I noticed something about the working world, which I’ve found to be a constant truth no matter the line of work I have transitioned to.
My epiphany came about like this:
As several other servers and I were feverishly rolling silverware in the “back of house” so we could race back to “the floor” during a rush (rolled silverware ain’t magic folks, someone has to roll that silverware) the typical comments were being made. Comments about the dysfunctional ways in which we were directed to do things and bold statements about how we would do things if we were in charge.
This particular establishment we were rolling said silverware in was owned by someone who’d come into family money and decided to open a traditional Irish pub. No expense was spared to ensure that every last detail was accounted for. Stools, tables, and chairs were flown in from Ireland. Slate floors were laid down while intricately designed wrought iron chandeliers hung above them with the fireplaces giving a gentle glow in the background to effectively cinch the ambiance. The food was fantastic, the whiskey was old and the Guinness was given a “proper pour”, so what was the problem? Daily Operations.
It’s as if holes were added as the boat was being built. Those of us who’d spent some time in the service industry could see the red flags a flying, but the owner (who had never worked in a restaurant or bar prior to owning one) saw nothing but smooth sailing on the horizon. There we were on a sinking ship keeping ourselves within arm’s reach of the life preservers, while the Captain was going full steam ahead into the troubled sea.
So what was the working world truth that I had realized?
The people at the bottom always know what’s broken and how to fix it but the people at the top typically don’t ask for their insight.
The folks at the ground level of any organization are the ones turning the wrenches, interacting with the customers, implementing the guidelines, ordering supplies, digging their tools in the ground, tracking the inventory, reviewing the contracts, scaling the power poles, unloading the semi-trucks, working the hours that were scheduled by some deranged lunatic… It’s the level where “cause and effect” has the effect.
The workers hold the most valuable perspective due to their vantage point. They aren’t looking at things from 10,000 feet; the workers are on the ground with a 360-degree real-time view.
Throughout my life (and surely yours too) I’ve had countless conversations with friends and family across all industries; conversations recounting workplace issues and extreme frustration about the lack of power to make change at their level.
There are few things more frustrating than staring at a problem with a solution in hand, while at the same time having no power to fix it.
And there’s that word, the word that creates struggle, strife, mutinies, and ego trips, power.
Those with the power have the control; those with the power make the rules, set the guidelines, and create the psychotic work schedules. Those with the power make decisions, which have a lasting effect.
This doesn’t mean the people at the top who hold all the power are bad, wrong, or vindictive. However, there is a good case to be made about being uninformed, disconnected, and/or detached in some regard.
The folks at the tippy top are generally surrounded by pleasers; people who are great at agreeing with your perspective and telling you things that you want to hear but leaving out the hard to swallow subject matter.
So there you are with half of the information and a gap of knowledge the size of a lunar crater. Eventually, you are going to fall face first into that crater when the problem, which you never even knew about, turns into a full-blown crisis.
The Irish pub example I referenced, in the beginning, is a great example of this. You don’t know what you don’t know until you don’t know it. By that I mean you are so far out of your depth that not only do you not realize the problem, you can’t even recognize the warning signs leading up to the problem. It’s a pub owner with no practical experience, a construction worker trying to perform surgery, a lawyer attempting to be a plumber, a police officer substitute teaching a kindergarten class.
Each profession requires skill, knowledge, and a general understanding of its subculture at the very least. Without having those basics in place at the outset you can expect large-scale problems in a relatively short time frame.
This is absent leadership; it is seeing the problem and not caring because it doesn’t directly affect you, or knowing the problem exists and turning away from it. This is conflict avoidance, laziness, and a general lack of concern for the greater good of those who work under you.
Now that we’ve identified some things let’s push forward shall we?
I believe that just as there are folks at the top who are disconnected, uninformed, and detached there are also passionate and driven people who work incredibly hard to make things better for those who work under them. There are even people who came from the ground up and have a very clear understanding of where the problems and sticking points are. If you’re lucky these are the people at the top of your current food chain.
So what do you do if you aren’t part of that lucky lot? Complain, groan, and slog on through a miserable work life existence? Sure. Or you could do something about it.
Sometimes when you are feeling powerless it’s easy to also let go of hope and determination but this is the time when you need those things the most.
I am fortunate to have spent two years serving in Americorps National Service in my early twenties and saw firsthand that one person truly can make a positive impact so I refuse to give up when things look bleak and I trust that if you roll up your sleeves and get to work eventually you’ll make some headway.
You might be thinking, “well that’s cute, but how is an optimistic attitude going to change anything?”
Optimism helps maintain motivation; pessimism gives you a reason to quit.
I have a general rule that I try to live by: I won’t complain without offering a solution.
Don’t just stare at the problem and complain while pointing it out to others, come up with a way to solve it.
This is especially important if you work in a very large organization where the people at the top are so far removed that they would have to get on a plane in order to even be in the same state, or country as you.
First, take a good hard look at yourself. Are you the problem? (Self-Awareness is always the best first step!)
Once you’ve ruled yourself out, next look at the issue and come up with two potential fixes. But don’t stop there, get into the weeds and find all the potential hang-ups, the benefits, the estimated timeline it would take (if any), and any associated cost to fixing the problem. Once you have all of that figured out request some time with those folks at the tippy top. Inform them of the problem(s) at hand and offer up your solutions.
What could be better than having someone come to you with well thought out solutions? It makes it so much easier for someone to get on board with a concept when the work has already been done for them I mean, who’s saying no to that?
So, if you’re at the tippy top and happen to be reading this please don’t forget about your best-untapped resource, the perspective of your ground level people. You may hold the power but they hold the knowledge, imagine what you could accomplish if you worked together?
Being proactive rather than reactionary is always a good practice. Set aside part of your annual budget (depending on the size of your organization) to have on the ready so that when a problem arises along with the solution, you’ve got money to fix it. While you’re busy being proactive why not incorporate a program that allows employees to submit their problem/fixes to the tippy top? If the workplace environment is strained offer an anonymous channel for submission so that employees feel protected from adverse action.
For you folks at the ground level, if you see a problem that needs fixing start working on the solution, don’t wait around for someone else to come and solve it because you’ll probably be waiting for quite a while. Take ownership and take action. What’s the worse that could happen, things stay exactly the same?