In his seminal 1989 study, The Iceberg of Ignorance, consultant Sidney Yoshida found that top management and middle management are aware of less than one-tenth of front-line problems, whereas supervisors are aware of three-quarters of them, and front-line employees know about all of them.

This is probably not shocking to you. In many organizations, the lowest-paid employees are the receptionists, customer service staff, and front-line people—the very people who interact first, and most often, with the customer.

They are, in short, the most important people in the organization. They are the most knowledgeable about the efficiency of systems and processes at ground level. Yet they occupy the bottom rung of the company org chart.

Failed Engagement Strategies
In the years since Yoshida yielded quality circles, there have been many teamwork posters and other failed efforts at improving communication and deepening engagement. A study by ThinkWay Strategy in 2015 found the knowledge gap persists. In their survey, nearly two-thirds of management staff agreed that their organization had “efficient, effective processes with minimal waste and bureaucracy,” but only a quarter of other employees concurred.

There have been efforts to flatten or even invert the organizational chart so that front-line workers occupy the top and senior leadership the bottom. As a visual representation of respect for all employees, this may be a nice gesture even if it’s not credible as long as the average Fortune 500 CEO earns seventy times as much in salary alone as his average employee.

Hierarchy is Useful
As a practical matter, hierarchy works. Indeed, it is the most enduring form of human leadership. Most people don’t want, and are not equipped, to shoulder the emotional burden of making big decisions that affect the lives and fortunes of others. Instead, we prefer to offload these decisions to others who we trust and respect.

That’s where the disconnect often occurs. In organizations where decisions are handed down from up high without significant input from employees in the trenches, that trust and respect is eroded. When the employees most intimately connected to the customer experience feel that they are expected to work as automatons—carrying out uninformed policies mindlessly—then that minimal effort is all they offer. Employees denied the opportunity to offer feedback or the authority to make decisions to improve service become disengaged, and merely go through the motions.

Senior leadership of those organizations recognize the importance of great customer service delivered by employees invested in the business. Yet they allow a culture to fester that forecloses on that kind of employee engagement.

Keep the Hierarchy; Stop Acting Hierarchically
The problem there isn’t hierarchy. It isn’t the organizational chart. It is the lack of recognition of the immense value of front-line staff and the knowledge they can impart on senior and middle management.

High performing organizations build cultures that maintain open feedback loops and encourage all employees to share their intelligence, not in spite of their position at the bottom of the organizational chart, but because of it.

Action steps:

  • Survey your front-line staff to determine if there are issues that aren’t bubbling up to management
  • Consider the intelligence gathered from the front lines as especially valuable because they involve the customer directly.
  • Build a culture that values all employees and recognizes the special importance of front-line staff.

Use my company assessment tool to determine whether you are nurturing a high-performance culture in your workplace.