ATD Blog

3 Ways High-Impact Leaders Unleash the Potential of Blue Collar Teams

Friday, September 1, 2017

"We have been paying people for their hands for years when they would have given us their heads and hearts for free...if we had just known how to ask!" ~ Bob Chapman, CEO, Barry-Wehmiller

People are typically hired because of what they know (competency), but they are frequently fired because of who they are (character).

Organizational talent is primarily recruited, interviewed, and hired with a focus on competencies, technical skills, résumé experience, and the capability to execute around the job description. Far too often, talented employees who fit these qualifications are terminated because of issues with their character. Poor work ethic, chronic tardiness, harassment of co-workers, or dishonesty are just a few reasons associates are let go. Even worse is when these employees aren’t terminated, developed, or disciplined. Instead, they’re allowed to stick around—fostering bad morale and contaminating the team and culture.

Here’s why this is so important: People problems at the bottom of the organizational chart indicate leadership problems at the top.

The majority of leaders, especially those in blue collar industries, fail to realize that character development (personal growth) of people at all levels of the organization will create a high performance culture where associates are more productive (increased performance), more satisfied (less turnover), and more engaged (more creativity, improved teamwork, and better customer service). When the character ethics of all associates at all levels is intentionally developed, the organization as a whole improves.

High-impact leaders recognize the importance of developing their most important organizational asset: people. They realize there is a vast amount of untapped potential on the front lines of the blue collar workforce. They know people won’t buy-in to the vision and execute the mission until they have bought into their leaders. Highly effective blue collar leaders intentionally build strong, authentic relationships with their team members. They go far beyond what is required and develop meaningful relationships by encouraging, engaging, and empowering all of their team members.

Meanwhile, low-impact leaders don’t make the extra effort. They do only what’s required. What’s more, low-impact leaders in blue collar industries only focus on ensuring that people know how to do their jobs (competency).

High-impact leaders in blue collar industries focus on teaching people how to do their jobs too, but they also move beyond managing and supervising by focusing on leadership development (character). High-impact leaders are rare, maintaining a constant focus not only on the growth and development of themselves, but also on the growth and development of their team members.

Leadership ability is the difference between a high-impact leader who unleashes the potential within the organization and a low-impact leader who struggles to maintain the status quo. Here are three ways high-impact leaders unleash their blue collar team’s potential:


#1: Encouragement

Truett Cathy, Founder of Chick-fil-A, remarked, “How do you know if someone needs encouragement? If they’re breathing they need encouragement.” The best way to encourage a blue collar team is to make them feel like they matter. Motivate and inspire them. If they feel like they don’t matter, most often, it’s because of how their leader makes them feel that way.

What the leader says has little to do with how the people feel. What the leader does has a lot to do with how the people feel. The best way to encourage people is to invest in their growth and development. When it comes to character development, no one in the organization is exempt. Everyone has room for improvement. Nothing encourages a team as much as seeing and feeling their leaders learning and growing alongside them in the area of character development.

#2: Engagement

Liz Ryan shared a bit of leadership truth when she said, “An Employee Engagement Survey cannot help your company if your company can’t figure out how its employees are doing without taking a survey!” When an employee engagement survey is needed, it means the leaders are not engaged. After logging more than 11,000 hours helping blue collar leaders and their teams through process improvement, organizational change, and cultural transformation, I absolutely believe the call for a survey indicates a leadership problem at the top, not an employee problem at the bottom.

Leaders must be developed. If they can’t be developed, they should be replaced. Otherwise, the employees will never become engaged. Skip the survey, save the time, and redirect those funds toward developing the leaders. A study by Harris Interactive revealed 79 percent of respondents estimated they would be, on average, 40 percent more productive if working for a better leader.

The root cause of disengaged employees is their disengaged leaders. When there is a lack of engagement, low-impact leaders look out the window at others, cast the blame, and say, “They need to improve.” However, high-impact leaders look in the mirror at themselves, accept responsibility, and say, “I need to improve.”


#3: Empowerment

Dr. Stephen R. Covey believed, “You must create the conditions of both personal and organizational trust before you’ll get any true empowerment or release of human potential.” There’s a big difference between empowering and disengaging. When we empower, we sincerely transfer responsibility to others and travel alongside them to help them accomplish the mission. High-impact leaders build trust and truly empower others. On the other hand, disengagement is what many low-impact leaders do in the name of empowerment. Disengagement is actually the counterfeit of empowerment and creates distrust. The leader says they are transferring responsibility. However, they actually hover, smother, and “snoopervise.”

Indeed, when a low-impact leader feels a course correction is needed, they intervene immediately and make the necessary adjustment. They actually never transfer responsibility. Their mouth says they did, but their actions communicate they didn’t. To truly empower others, you must learn to facilitate decision-making by asking questions and listening to the answers instead of making the decisions and giving directions.

Put It All Together

Encouraging others builds strong, solid, and meaningful relationships. Engaging others at all levels leverages their thoughts, ideas, and knowledge while truly revealing that none of us is as smart as all of us, none of us is as creative as all of us, and none of us is as strong as all of us. Empowering others demonstrates respect, builds trust, and gives others the freedom to choose to embrace and accept responsibility.

When you invest in the intentional growth and character development of blue collar leaders and those they lead, they will all be better equipped, more motivated, and inspired to help you improve the bottom line. Make the right choice and give your blue collar workforce a voice.

Want to learn more? Join us October 30, 2017, for the ATD webcast Blue Collar Leadership: Training and Developing Blue Collar Workforce and Those Who Lead Them

About the Author

Mack and Ria have an amazing story of professional growth, personal growth, and transformation. Mack began his career working on the front lines of a machine shop while Ria started hers in healthcare administration, after overcoming years of difficult childhood. Working in completely different industries, they both began to apply leadership principles to their respective careers with incredible results personally and professionally and developed a passion for leadership.  They founded Top Story Leadership, and offer motivational speaking, leadership development training, coaching, and consulting. Their clients include Chick-fil-A, Auburn University, Koch Industries, and Kimberly-Clark. Together Mack and Ria are now creating and living the life they want, rather than the life they were given. 

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