Be neither seen nor heard

Compared to my work experience when I finished high school, companies today encourage staff to share ideas and concerns about the workplace – and with good reason.

Be neither seen nor heard by Nancy Knowlton

I was fortunate coming out of high school to get a summer job working for a well-known company in a factory. On my first day I was taken under the wing of an experienced woman, and she told me that she and her friends would teach my friend (another student) and me the ropes. This was a welcome offer as everything was so new, and I had no idea how anything worked. The advice and input was diverse, and I felt like I was learning a lot and able to contribute because of her help.

Making eye contact

Sometime during my first week of work she told me, in all seriousness, to make no eye contact with the bosses from the front office. Not understanding why I wouldn’t, I asked. She said very clearly, “If they see you, they can fire you.” That sparked a lively discussion with some of the other women working nearby, and while I didn’t completely understand, it was clearly something that I should not do.

I worked for five summers for the company, three years in the factory and two years in the office, all the while pursuing an undergraduate degree in business. I felt fortunate for my work experience because it gave me some practical insight that helped me relate to the theory that I was studying. It was, however, really only years later when I truly understood the impact of the advice that I had been given about eye contact and the office bosses.

Free to speak up

A company where people don’t feel free to speak up, let alone make eye contact with the bosses, is not engaging and getting the best out of its people. Being afraid of being fired for something as trivial as being seen has to be an awful existence for those who believe that could happen. People cannot truly throw themselves into their work and fully commit when they worry about keeping their jobs.

Imagine the loss of ideas about process improvements or cost reductions that never bubbled up from the people actually doing the jobs. Think of the lack of ownership around processes. Doesn’t it stand to reason that assembly workers might have the best insight into improving processes?

Perhaps this experience was in line with the times, though – not that it was right or best. Thinking about staff engagement has come a long way, where now corporations and other entities are obsessed about increasing it and keeping it at a high level. They know that it impacts staff turnover, customer retention and profitability.

Be neither seen nor heard – not in today’s world.


There is a lot to contemplate and discuss in this area, and I will do so in some articles on the subject of leadership and management. And it may not be what you think…

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.