Great Leaders Do This One Thing

Saturday, January 6, 2018
Gerald Ainomugisha

With over 70% of US employees disengaged at work according to Gallup, costing businesses up to $550 billion in lost productivity annually, more employers all over the globe are increasingly investing in boosting their employee engagement levels. Gallup reports that companies with high engagement scores have been found to perform better than their counterparts in indicators such as productivity, absenteeism, turnover, safety and quality incidents, shrinkage, customer metrics, and profitability.

However, many business leaders world over are still struggling to figure out how to boost employee engagement without losing authority over their teams. You see, perception is a very major concern for every leader, business or otherwise - it can make or break them, being the difference between a real string puller whose every instruction falls on eager ears and a titular figurehead who can’t even summon any of their subordinates. Leaders must therefore carefully figure out how they want their followers to view them and then consistently act correspondingly in order to build and solidify their desired image.

Enter the mean boss

Usually, business leaders choose to display an attitude somewhere between impassive, closed-off and brash. Some even prefer to have their employees consider them outright assholes, you know – the stereotypically mean boss that screams your ear off for making the slightest mistake in your report and makes you wish you could shrink into your desk every time you see them approaching your cubicle.

This is typically a strategic decision designed to keep things strictly formal, establish and maintain respect, and avoid inappropriate situations at all costs. However we have to ask ourselves: what is the real cost of being a mean boss? If you’re completely avoiding any comfortable personal interaction with your employees then how can you even begin to influence the level of their engagement at work?

Love your neighbor as yourself?

Even paying allegiance to the Golden Rule and treating your employees as you would like to be treated is a wrong approach because you are still not paying attention to what they in particular want for their own selves. You are simply choosing to set yourself as a standard of how all the people around you should be treated and feeling good about yourself and your Christ-like benevolence. This one-size-fits-all approach won’t work because every employee is a unique individual with their own likes and dislikes, hopes and fears. There is no way your personal idea of being treated well can work for everyone.

So if being mean doesn’t work and being Jesus-like is not enough either, then how exactly are you supposed to go about raising engagement? The trick is to make your employees know and thoroughly understand that you don’t just see them as worker bees buzzing away in a hive. The truth of the matter is that no one cares about what you have to say until they first know how much you care about them.

If you don’t care they won’t care

Yes, as the boss you are in charge. You have the mandate to lead. That’s not up for debate. You have figured out the vision: you have targets and goals for your team. However, your employees won't care about any of that no matter how articulately you communicate: they will just smile and nod through all your (very likely boring) meetings and go right back to doing their jobs the way they always do.

Employees don't really care about what you want them to do, let alone why and how you want them to do it, until they know how much you care about them. When an employee knows that you really do value and care about them, then they will in turn care about you and actually listen to what you say.

Before your employees will believe in, or care about, the long-term vision of the company, its culture, or its track record, they need to feel that you see each of them as a person, whole human being with both flaws and perfections - not just another bio-robot you have hired for your production line to tick things off your to-do list day in, day out. Employees need to feel that their leader - and the company as whole - is consistently invested in their wellbeing as well as long-term growth and success as a person. Once they genuinely feel that way, they will go above and beyond to accomplish to achieve your vision.

Consistency is a major key

The key word is here is “consistently”. Great leaders make sure that their employee engagement strategy is a regular, year-round priority, never limiting their efforts to a particular day or season. Engagement can’t be achieved overnight; great leaders genuinely care about their employees every day.

You see, the extent to which you genuinely care for the wellbeing your employees is the same extent to which they will genuinely care for the wellbeing of your customers, one another and your company as a whole. Personalized recognition is one the best ways to show you genuinely care: great leaders demonstrate their care in ways that are meaningful to each specific individual, not by falling back on what has worked in the past, what the leader themselves prefers, or a one-size-fits-all approach.

Care at an individual level

The first step to personalized recognition is knowing each and every one of your employees on a personal level. Leaders who get to know their employees are better able to tailor the ways in which they express their appreciation and recognition to their employees. For example, when you figure out which of your employees are extroverts and which are introverts, you can provide recognition appropriate for their personality types, given that extroverts often like to be rewarded publicly (say at the Christmas party) and introverts likely prefer to be recognized in a small group or privately (say at a nice dinner).

Employees who feel personally and consistently cared for are more likely to pay individual attention to not only their customers and colleagues but also the work these people do. Employees who feel valued and appreciated by their leaders are infinitely more likely to go above and beyond for the company and hold themselves accountable for their part of a project. Most importantly, they will be happier in their roles and hence more likely to dedicate their futures to them. Therefore leaders who disregard the importance of connecting with employees stand to lose the benefit of a dedicated, long-term team.

How can you care without getting too soft?

This principle of taking care of your people at an individual level is at the heart of creating a great place to work, where people are appreciated, engaged, productive and thriving. By supporting their people across all aspects of life to help them be their best selves. Once employees feel great and have the support they need, they're better able to engage, be more productive, and thrive – on and off the job.

By taking care of their people, companies create a workforce with the physical energy, mental focus, and emotional drive necessary to power their businesses and impact those critical metrics. However, some find it difficult to personally connect with employees while still maintaining a position of authority. Below are ten ways leaders can effectively demonstrate their care and appreciation for employees:

1. Make sure you make time for them

How can you expect your employees to feel valued when their leader is too busy for a simple chat? Don’t allow yourself to get caught up in day-to-day projects and appear too busy for the people around you. Make it a point to have regular casual conversations with your employees, your team will feel appreciated and respected – nothing boosts morale like being consistently acknowledged by a superior.

You don’t even have to talk that much to your employees. A simple greeting and quick enquiry on how their day is going can go a long way in making them love their job more. People just want to feel like you actually see them as actual people, not just walking past them like they are another office printer.

2. Listen to them intentionally

Intentional listening is a critical communication tool and a sign of engagement. When employees know their leader is really listening to them, they feel a great sense of value and worth, which in turn makes them feel genuinely cared for. They are also more likely to be honest in their feedback and this can be the key to unlocking unique solutions to problems that the company is facing.

Ask your employees questions (beyond just the customary employee survey), actively listen to their answers, and make sure to follow up on what they share with you. Make eye contact when they are speaking. Don’t just grunt your way through conversations or treat them like police interrogations.

3. Keep it real with them

Be honest when an employee asks you for feedback - don’t coddle them in the name of trying not to hurt their feelings. However, that doesn’t mean you should be rude either, but the gist of the matter is that shielding employees from the truth will do nothing but hurt them and your company too. Also keep in mind that once they figure out that you are treating them like children, they are very likely to lose interest in the job altogether and just play along for your satisfaction with no dedication whatsoever.

Honesty often comes along with a few uncomfortable conversations, but those conversations only prove that you care enough about the other person enough to give them the hard truth rather take the easy way out with a lie, and this will mean a lot to your employees. The best friendships are often sealed in uncomfortable honesty so it can also go a long way in unlocking employee engagement at work.

4. Don’t act like you’re above them

As a leader, employees will sometimes place you on a pedestal, subconsciously even, but making the effort to put yourself on their level by showing your own vulnerability and imperfections can go a long way in helping them overcome their challenges. When you sense an employee is having a problem, think about your own journey in the job and share with them how you did or didn’t overcome the huddle.

Also endeavor to create a workplace culture where everyone shares more things: parking spaces, cafeteria and the like. Your employees know and understand that you are their boss, there is no need to constantly throw it in their faces. People love leaders who go out of their way to practice humility.

5. Show you care about their personal life

Yes, it’s not professional to be gossiping about your employee’s new boyfriend/girlfriend at the water cooler or meeting up for an all-night drinking binge after a long day at work, but it’s still completely possible to show you care about your employee’s personal life without being creepy. Occasionally ask your employees about loved ones they have mentioned before to show them how well you really listen to them and also to remind them that you see them as complete human beings with life outside work.

People work much better and easier when they have the love and support they need at home, so make sure your employee’s partner understands that you appreciate them as well. Invite significant others to work events like Christmas parties and send them birthday/anniversary gifts such that they feel a bond with the company, to foster a sense of community between your employees’ personal and work lives.

6. Make their day as hassle-free as possible

Find out what annoys your employees or makes their jobs more difficult and do away with it. Although it seems like a small effort, resolving even minor annoyances can have a major impact on your employees’ morale. Sometimes it can be something as simple as making the air conditioning in the office a little less cold so that people can dress more comfortably to work that goes the longest way in boosting employee engagement in your company. It could even be a new coffee machine. Or perhaps a faster printer.

When you make their jobs easier, your people feel cared for and listened to, which goes a long way toward creating a culture of commitment rather than one of compliance. People often stomach large issues such as low salary and ticked off to resign their jobs by small annoyances like a bathroom so it is wise of a leader to make sure their employees are as comfortable as possible in their daily tasks.

7. Back them up against annoying clients

Let’s face it: some clients are straight up annoying and disrespectful. If an employee complains about a client treating them poorly, you should look into the situation and get rid of the client if it is called for. It doesn’t matter how much revenue that client is bringing in if you have talented employees who know you have their back, they will more than make up for the loss of such a client.

That customer is always right mantra will only make you end up losing your best talent over bad clients. Yes, the customer is king… but the employee is the kingmaker. Once your employees understand that you value their feelings and peace of mind over any amount of money a customer has to offer, they will be more driven to go the extra mile in their job.

8. Go out of your way to help them in person

It isn’t enough to simply assist your employees with work issues — a great leader should keep his eyes open for ways to help out with personal issues as well. And it’s not always enough to just throw money at the problem, sometimes you need to go out and do the thing yourself.

When your employees know that their leader would do anything in their power to support their personal lives, this creates a loyalty that’s hard to break and invaluable in a business relationship. There are many things an employee could need help with such as finding a new place to rent, helping an employee, finding a babysitter for their toddlers or even being personally visiting when hospitalized.

9. Encourage them to care about each other

This is critical because peer-to-peer care is the purest and most genuine form of care; there is no company agenda. Employees who show their genuine care to one another create a strong sense of community and enhance the emotional connection between themselves and the organization.

Send a quick email to your employees after a win or a note of encouragement during a big project reminding them of how much they are valued and how great they are as a team. It doesn’t have to be the most inspirational speech ever written in history — just a few genuine sentences. Remember: if you can’t think of anything you value about each employee, that right there is a red flag flapping in the wind.