"Blue Collar" Workers

Making the Most of People's Hard Work and Skills

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Managing people is difficult – especially when the roles of those people are fundamentally different from yours. This is typically the case for managers of blue-collar workers.

While most Western economies are now highly knowledge-based, and the manufacturing base is much smaller than it once was, hard-working manual workers are still fundamentally important.

The term "blue collar" is old-fashioned. It comes from the days when managers wore only white shirts with their suits, while workers on factory floors tended to wear more casual clothing, that perhaps didn't show the dust and dirt that comes with physical labor.

Now, of course, distinctions based on clothing color are ridiculous. But the term is still with us – which is why we use it here to identify people who perform manual labor and usually earn an hourly wage. Their work is hands-on, and often physically tiring, and it's either skilled or unskilled. It's in fields like manufacturing, construction, and maintenance – and it ranges from assembly line work and logistics, to the mechanics who get your car running again at the roadside. It requires dexterity and agility, and it generally attracts people who have skills and interests that are different from those who work in offices or call centers.

Managers in the office and service sectors have often earned their positions by working directly in the areas that they manage. Thus, they usually have a strong understanding of the challenges and perceptions of people within their teams. However, in manual labor operations, managers have often never done the actual work that their staff performs – for example, a construction project manager wouldn't be expected to do a good job of building a wall.

This distinction between management and manual work often creates a barrier of understanding. So, how can you get past this barrier to successfully manage people in the blue collar sector? And how can you improve understanding between yourself and the blue collar workers you manage? Here are some ideas that you can use.

Management Philosophy and Practice

Use some of these guidelines to better manage blue-collar workers:

  • Get to know your people – As a manager of people who don't work by your side, it's important to close those differences with lots of participation and understanding. You need to get out from behind your desk, away from numbers and systems, and get to know your people. The "us versus them" mentality can quickly appear, and can take a long time to fade away.
  • Use Management By Wandering Around (MBWA) – Make this part of your regular routine. This allows you to get to know your people better, and it helps you understand exactly what they do and experience on a daily basis. Working in your office is far different from working on a noisy factory floor, outside in the rain, or in small spaces. If you're willing to get cold, wet and dirty occasionally, that can improve trust and respect significantly.
  • Use participative management – Another way to create trust is to use a participative style of managing. Blue-collar workers often have more specialized knowledge about their work than you do, but they may not be proactive about proposing changes. Ask their opinions. Seek their suggestions. Allow them to develop solutions to problems. When you're willing to let go of top-down implementation, you're likely to get greater buy-in and a more receptive and productive team.
  • Gather feedback – Regular surveys and a suggestion box can work well, but recognize that writing ideas on pieces of paper may not be your team's preferred communication style, so have face-to-face meetings too. Make sure meetings don't affect productivity that, in turn, reduces bonus or piece-work payments – but also don't expect people to stay after work without extra pay to discuss ideas. One way to structure the process of gathering suggestions is the Kaizen, or continuous improvement, approach.

    This is true of Western cultures, but it may not apply worldwide. In some countries, workers might find this kind of approach confusing. They may think, "She's the manager. She's paid to know the answers to questions like this. Why ask me? If I knew, I'd be the manager!"

  • Leave your ego behind – There are common stereotypes that can make communication difficult between blue-collar workers and their white-collar bosses. Even if you earn more than your blue-collar team, everybody contributes to the productivity of the organization. Remember to thank your team on a regular basis, and celebrate the fact that the diversity of skill sets and interests among workers helps your company to succeed.

Building Relationships and Understanding Across Teams

It's important to help people within your team understand how their work fits into the larger picture. Too often, blue-collar work is specialized and compartmentalized. People have very specific functions – maintenance people fix things, carpenters build things, welders weld things – and it seems like these separate functions never meet!

Because the nature of the work is often narrow, the manager should improve unity and collaboration where possible. Help your team understand the dynamics of the entire department, and how their work contributes to it. And include other departments in your discussion. Identify the various internal customers, and talk about their needs and expectations, and what each person can do to provide better customer service. Encourage the manual laborers on your team to think about other parts of the team as a whole. This will help them make better decisions and, hopefully, improve their overall performance.

Communication

The physical distance between managers and workers makes it essential to keep workers up-to-date where appropriate. Office workers might overhear or learn things through conversations and activities taking place around them, but blue-collar workers often don't have that same access. When what goes on "upstairs" isn't talked about often enough, workers tend to fill in the missing pieces with guesses and assumptions. For example, they may hear about a series of closed-door meetings, which may start rumors that the whole workforce is being laid off.

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Open communication is the foundation for trust. And your job is to build that trust and ensure that your team has timely access to accurate information. Some things you can do include the following:

  • Create open and direct lines of communication – Develop a communication system that provides blue-collar workers with direct access to the people who make decisions. You shouldn't be the only manager who interacts with them.
  • Don't rely on supervisors to communicate – Take time yourself to meet with your people regularly. Keeping management in a separate "ivory tower" is counterproductive.
  • Invite guests to talk – Bring in guest managers from other departments to discuss the projects and issues they're working on. This creates an environment of collaboration and team spirit that goes beyond the people they physically work with.

Motivation

Here are some key things to remember about motivating blue-collar workers:

  • Different people have very different motivations – Some people choose manual work because they like its physical nature. Others prefer it because it's easy to leave work behind at the end of the day. Some like it because they can learn on the job, which appeals to them much more than a formal college environment. And certain manual jobs pay quite well because they're physically tough.

    But, of course, many people don't actively choose blue-collar work. They do it because they didn't have or couldn't afford the educational qualifications that would allow them to do otherwise.

    This is why knowing people's individual motivations is so important.

  • Not everyone wants more responsibility – Many white-collar assumptions about what workers want don't necessarily hold true for blue-collar people.

    For example, we tend to think that people always want to take on more responsibility. This may or may not be true for each individual. Some people might prefer to perform straightforward work that they understand well. They may like to leave at the end of each day with the satisfaction of a job well done and no worries, so that they can concentrate on their families or other non work activities.

    It's your job as manager to check your assumptions and provide individual motivators that work for each person.

  • Not everyone wants career advancement – Another huge assumption by white-collar managers is that people are always looking for ways to advance their careers. This is why we set up elaborate goal plans for people to move into supervisory positions when, in fact, many blue-collar workers choose these roles because they like the hands-on work.

    Successive promotions typically take people further and further away from physical labor and into more administrative work. They also add more stress related to people management, and the demands of more responsibility may end up demotivating people rather than motivating them.

Again, you must investigate all of these individual motivations with each worker. While added responsibility might be stressful for one person, being unable to work independently might be a stressor for someone else. The point is, your blue-collar people may be very similar to you and others you work with – or they may be very different. Get rid of your preconceived ideas, and get busy understanding the members of your team as individuals.

For more on motivating team members, see our articles on Herzberg's Motivators and Hygiene Factors and Expectancy Theory.

Key Points

Blue-collar workers bring a unique set of characteristics to the workplace. The nature of their work is often fundamentally different from that of their managers, and, quite often, their managers don't have the specialized skills needed to perform blue-collar jobs. These differences create barriers that must be overcome.

Once you make a real effort to understand the challenges and issues facing your blue-collar people, you'll actually find more similarities than differences. We all want respect and trust, and we all have individual motivations. Success starts with a willingness to get to know the individuals on your team, and it ends with a team that feels understood, informed, and connected – and one that will work hard to achieve the objectives you set.

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Comments (4)
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    Hi bmashoko,
    I really like your point about 'banking positive relationships'. I think this is a good idea for everyone for every situation. Whether it is a manager and an employee, between friends or within your family relationships ... making positive deposits to the relationship 'bank' will reap very positive rewards. This can be simply having some interaction with the other person or praise yet the more positives you can put into the bank, the easier it will be do weather any tough times!

    What do others think about the idea of banking positives in relationships?
    Midgie
  • Over a month ago Dianna wrote
    Great point bmashoko,
    There is a balance between walking around to build rapport and get a better idea of what is happening 'on the floor' versus it appearing you are spying or trying to catch people doing something wrong. You definitely want to develop a culture where managers on the floor is seen as a good thing and that may take some doing at first. I like your idea to keep things light and positive to start. As the culture becomes accepting of MBWA then you can have a variety of interactions with workers and not feel you are intimidating them. I think it's very worthwhile but agree it might be something to introduce slowly and in measured

    Any other tips and observations you have, we'd love to hear!

    Dianna
  • Over a month ago bmashoko wrote
    It is quite illuminating that when we consider people's individuality across the spectrum of job types, we are likely to be more successful in improving motivation in the workplace. Regarding 'managing by wandering around' to get to know teams and individuals better, I suppose the manager must get the balance right and avoid possible undermining of the position of the shop-floor managers. That would mean visiting the floor mostly in good times to 'bank' positive relationships that can be drawn upon when there is a need to find solutions to emerging problems.
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