What do lowest-paid employees have to offer, and why should we ask them to help make strategic decisions? This episode starts with an eye-opening (and humbling) discovery. You’ll find out who Foundational are, the #1 question to ask them, why a Fight-Flight-Freeze response is not effective… and which response can add tremendous value to your organization.
WWB 011: Why Foundational Staff Have Strategic Value [Podcast]
06/25/2020 – 15 minutes 31 seconds
Unless strategic planning teams really believe that Foundational Staff have a lot of value to contribute, it will be difficult for the organization to see healthy growth and achieve its ultimate objectives.
Highlights and Take-Aways
A few years ago, I gave a presentation to high-level decision-makers about management principles. Several attendees gave positive feedback; but one person had a response that stopped me in my tracks. They said “Someone in my housekeeping staff could have taught this better than her.” Initially, I felt concerned; I wasn’t sure if the client who had hired me would be upset (they were not) or if my message had been hurtful (it didn’t seem to be).
So I took some time to really examine my own motivations. Why was I qualified to speak about strategic decision-making? Yes, I have done it for many years; I have training and education in how to do it; and I’ve completed many projects in strategic planning and risk management. But is that the best source of information for a top leader who wants to make a difference in their organization?
The more I thought about this, the more I realized that the feedback was accurate: A housekeeper has more to say about strategic planning than someone in high-level leadership—because they have a perspective on what’s going on in the organization that nobody else can give.
In this episode, I’ll share some key thing that can help you to rethink low-level employees in your organization, and why their perspective can offer value in strategic decision-making.
What are Foundational Staff?
First, let’s talk about definitions. We each have a unique way of understanding things from our frame of reference, and how we define words can be vastly different.
To me, Foundational Staff are employees in four roles, without whom systems wouldn’t run effectively: Housekeeping, Direct Customer Care, Food Service, and Maintenance.
These employees are essential to every organization, but they are often the least appreciated and the lowest paid.
Housekeeping and Sanitation
Someone who cleans, disinfects, and organizes. Without these staff members for even a single day, conditions will deteriorate quickly. Especially in response to viruses and bacteria, we need to focus resources and time on sanitizing and cleaning in order to make other systems run smoothly.
Direct Customer/Patient Care
Someone who builds relationships with your customers and serves their needs. In the healthcare industry especially, this role ensures that patients feel cared for and comfortable. It’s similar in other industries; if a customer doesn’t have a good experience, they may choose to find services or products elsewhere. This role makes sure your customer receives the outcome they expected.
Food Service (or Dietary)
Even if you don’t serve food, your organization needs to nourish your staff and customers or patients. This role prepares and serves—which could include training, materials, or resources with a regular exchange of information.
Maintenance (or Physical Plant)
Every organization needs staff who make sure conditions are safe and who can fix things that break. These could include building maintenance, machinery repair, and other tasks that can help the company to be more efficient or to avoid injury and loss.
Skills and Expertise
These are the four types of foundational staff. If you think back to one of your first few jobs, you probably did one of these roles. I have been in all 4: I worked in housekeeping and did a lot of cleaning as a coffee barista; I served patients and worked in customer service, I served food in restaurants, and I worked on repair projects.
These types of jobs require a lot of information. You can’t step into a foundational role without some type of training. One book that explains this concept really well is Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, written by Barbara Ehrenreich.
In it, she wrote:
No job, no matter how lowly, is truly “unskilled.”
― Barbara Ehrenreich
I like the way Barbara describes her experience of working in several low-paid occupations, and how quickly she learned that every job—no matter how simple it looked or how unappreciated it is—actually involves a lot of skills to do well. It requires a lot of expertise, and every employee has the capability to understand how their role fits into the goals of their employer.
Fear Response: Losing Control
In my own experience of moving up the corporate ladder (and developing Frankenstein Management Syndrome), I found that the higher up I went, the less connected I was with employees at the bottom of the organization. My blind spots made me totally unaware of how we were vulnerable: what might be causing harm, and which opportunities we were not seeing in management roles. I think this is a really common problem. Many leaders don’t know how to balance a desire increase efficiency, make higher profits, and serve customers better… yet also retain a sense of control.
When we’re in a situation that feels threatening, our natural fear response is fight, flight, or freeze. We either:
- Fight (become more aggressive)
- Flight (escape the problem)
- Freeze (stay in the situation without a solution)
The “Freeze” response is the most dangerous, because it allows the threat to continue to hurt us, yet we don’t try to stop it or leave.
The most useful fear response is to Face the problem: engage and find a solution while using available resources to defend against further harm.
This can be a bit confusing, but it so applicable to decision-making. And it is especially useful when listening to Foundational Staff.
A lot of leaders are afraid they will lose control of their business if they give in to employees’ demands. It is possible to be in control while responding to legitimate problems… all while making sure employees feel heard. You can read more about this in Honeybee, Scorpion, and Nuclear Employees (episode 7).
Essential Question to Ask
When it comes to responding to fear as a business leader, the most important question to ask is:
Do I respect the opinions of staff at the bottom of my organization?
Do I care what they say?
Do I want to hear their feedback, perspective, stories, and their experience of what is going wrong?
If you don’t want to hear this, it could cause more harm to welcome open conversations—because you could be fighting against your staff’s input (a Fight response). Or you could deny that these problems exist (a Flight response), which will lead to even more harm. Or you might be ambivalent; you don’t try to bring about change, but you also don’t address the issues or defend those who are vulnerable (a Freeze response).
Leaders who are not willing to hear what their Foundational Employees have to say, and who don’t honestly respect them, show that they may have significant bias: a distorted perception that leads to inaccurate conclusions. But leaders who humbly recognize that their Foundational Employees have a lot of value, then we can leverage those assets and build strategic intelligence.
The insights your Foundational Staff have to offer are beyond anything you would get from a risk management evaluation alone.
Your staff are fully aware of what is going wrong, and they have a unique perspective on how to fix it. Yes—internal leaders may be able to evaluate problems from a high level, and an outside consultant may be able to offer an objective perspective that top leaders can’t see. But unless you engage with Foundational Staff, it is impossible to get a full scope of what is going wrong and how to get better results.
I encourage you to have these discussions with your employees. Ask them questions. And examine your perspective on whether you respect what they contribute, and how much they could be the key to solving problems in your company.
This doesn’t mean you have to invite them to be the CEO, CFO, or COO. Your staff may not have the skills, qualifications, or interest in these roles. But in their role, your staff have a great point of view on what is going wrong. If you asked them, “What would you do differently to achieve our company’s goals?” you might be surprised at the response. I’ve seen people moved to tears by simply being asked this question. When you really want to hear feedback from someone who is under-appreciated and overlooked, and they aren’t acknowledged for the value they bring, the fact that a leader wants to hear what they would change can lead to extremely valuable insights that you may have never heard before.
Stepping Into Foundational Roles
A step beyond the “what changes would you make?” technique is to begin an Employee For a Day program. This is a structured method in which top leaders enter the world of their staff by “sitting in their seat” and doing their daily tasks. You will get a very clear idea of why your company is losing money, why you’re not attracting or keeping clients, or other problems that you’d like to solve from the boardroom level.
You can read more about it here:
It is easy to blame problems on Foundational Staff; but in my experience, they have the most valuable source of strategic intelligence. Unless your leadership team truly believe that your Foundational Staff have value, and that they should be invited to contribute on strategic discussions, it will be much more difficult for your company to see healthy growth and achieve your ultimate objectives.
I hope this has been a helpful episode! If you have a question you’d like answered on an upcoming show, record your message at https://anchor.fm/laconteconsulting/message
Interested in hearing how you can reverse staff turnover and increase your profit margins? Find out more here.
Grace LaConte is a business strategist, writer, and workplace equity advocate whose risk management graphics are used around the globe. She specializes in finding hidden threats and opportunities in organizations that employ working parents. Grace is the host of the What’s Wrong with Your Business? Podcast, which provides tools to adapt in a rapidly changing market.