Leadership How To Lead

Getting Personal with Employees

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Make it Personal

This is going to be a column that many will not agree with. So be it.

I have become convinced that to build a strong culture, leaders have to get personally close to their team. There I said it. I know, I know; this flies in the face of so much advice we hear from attorneys and human resource professionals. They warn us to keep a safe distance from our team members and not to ask too many questions. We are told, for instance, that if we ask about an employee’s health and then have to fire them for some other valid reason shortly after, they might bring a labor lawsuit against us claiming it was because they divulged some health concern. OK, fair enough. That is a valid, albeit worst-case, scenario.

But think about it another way. What are the costs of not getting close to your team? What are the costs of them feeling like no one really cares about them as a person? What are the risks of treating our team members like numbers? I would argue that those costs are actually much higher. There’s an old saying that people don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses. If you don’t care for them, perhaps someone else is just waiting for the opportunity.

Santiago Jaramillo and Todd Richardson in their book Agile Engagement contend that, “Long-term management success depends on caring for the whole employee, including his or her personal life. You only unlock your full leadership potential, thoroughly engage employees, and achieve maximum business success if you get personal with your employees and care about both their professional and personal interests.”

Recently I have been on the other side of this and benefited greatly from the gift of new team members because certain shops in my area were not taking care of their people. And in all fairness, other shops have benefitted when I have not cared for my team members as I should have, I’m sure.

Now it may be because of how I’m wired. Some may even consider this a flaw or bad strategy. But I have decided to care for my team as people and get as personal as they will allow.

For those of you who are willing to take that risk, read on. I want to try to answer this question: How do we care for our team both personally and professionally such that they will be happy and productive at work?

There are two major ways to make your culture more personal and more personally meaningful.

The first is an old management technique that has been time tested for decades. It’s called management by walking around. I often take a lap around my shops and try to talk one on one to as many team members as possible. Typically, this is about 80 percent personal and only 20 percent business. I like to ask them about their family and their hobbies mostly. Those two topics alone generate plenty of fodder for these brief, but hopefully meaningful, encounters.

Secondly, another key way to care for your team is by creating meaningful and memorable moments. Authors Chip and Dan Heath in their new book, The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact contend that our minds do not remember all moments equally but instead retain certain experiences that stand out above the others. How do we create those moments? They found through their research that there are four key elements that create defining, memorable moments.  

  • Elevation. “Defining moments rise above the everyday,” the authors write. Defining moments are filled with a sense of surprise and they lead to joy.
  • Insight. Defining moments consist of an “a-ha” where we experience a new insight or  understand something old in a new way.
  • Pride. According to Heath, defining moments, “capture us at our best—moments of achievement, moments of courage.”
  • Connection. Defining moments are often social and relational. Defining moments are meaningful for having been shared with others.

One way our team nurtures defining and memorable moments is at our shop meetings with “atta boys” and “atta girls” accolades. We take time at many of our meetings to “catch people doing something right” and praise them for it publically. And this does not just come from the managers to the employees. Instead it’s an open forum where anyone can say something positive about anyone else. I’m sure you can see how this simple practice connects to all four of the key elements above.

Yes, there are risks to getting too personal with your team. But there are great rewards, as well. If you are willing to take the risk and put in the work I’m confident you will reap the many rewards of a more engaged team.

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