[Excerpt from The Culture Question]
An organization’s CEO may be brilliant, its employees may be great to work with, and the work it does may have a valuable purpose, but if its leaders aren’t easy to work for, there’s a good chance it won’t be a healthy place to work. When we write “easy to work for,” we’re referring to leaders who are respectful, caring, attentive, and effective as communicators. These are leaders who demonstrate that they care about employees for who they are as people, not just for the work they do. When leaders lack these traits, it is very difficult for employees to be happy at work.
The saying, “People don’t quit organizations, they quit their bosses,” is well known because it’s true. While some employees do not literally quit, they are sure to be less motivated and engaged when their direct supervisors are not easy to respect or like.
Great workplaces have great leaders who focus on people, not merely profit or productivity. This theme has re-emerged many times throughout our own personal experiences, in conversations with our employees and those in other organizations, and in the responses to our survey.
One of the easiest things we can do as leaders to increase the morale and effectiveness of employees is to demonstrate that we care about them. As several of our survey participants noted, this can sometimes be as simple as showing interest in what is going on in their lives. One participant wrote, “My supervisor is compassionate and genuinely interested in how I’m doing.” Another wrote, “I am cared for as a person, not just as an employee.” When we show genuine interest, we demonstrate that we value employees as people, not simply for the products they produce.
One person we interviewed shared her story of working within an unhealthy organizational culture. Her experience was typical of other stories we’ve heard over the years. In her organization, employees experienced fear on multiple levels. There was a high level of toxic conflict, and leadership was either indifferent or complicit in these negative behaviors. Not surprisingly, productivity was dismal and employee turnover was high.
The part of her story that really jumped out to us was that she had worked with that organization for close to a year, but her direct supervisor still didn’t know she had children. To be clear, it is not always appropriate to ask people about the details of their personal lives. However, when we show even moderate interest in people, information about their personal lives inevitably comes up.
On a practical level, knowing whether an employee has children will not automatically increase their performance or the organization’s success. But we have learned that when leaders demonstrate interest in employees’ lives – when they ask questions about their families, vacations, hobbies, and passions – employees feel more valued, respected, and cared for. In one long-term study, professors of management Sigal G. Barsade and Olivia A. O’Neill found that employees who worked in a loving, caring culture were less likely to burn out, missed fewer days of work, worked more effectively with teams, and had higher levels of job satisfaction. As this research shows, caring about employees is an effective way of creating a healthier and more productive workplace.
‘BUT I’M NOT YOUR THERAPIST!’
Leaders who are trying to be supportive sometimes ask us, “How can I be a caring leader without becoming my employees’ go-to support person when they are going through crises?” In our experience, it’s important to remember that there are usually other people and resources in employees’ lives that are better positioned to provide support.
From a practical perspective, leaders must balance caring for employees with their other leadership tasks. We have found that what employees usually need most is an acknowledgment of the things going on in their lives.
If employees are seeking too much of your time for personal matters, be honest and frank about your limitations while still remaining sensitive to their problems. Offer feedback along these lines:
“I’m glad you feel you can come to me with this issue. I see this issue is causing you significant stress. I want to support you through this, but I do have limits on how much time I have available to meet with you about this. I encourage you to seek the support of your friends and family. I will, however, touch base with you from time to time to see how things are going.”
You may also be supportive of people’s needs by directing them to professionals or other resources within the organization. For example, many organizations offer counseling services through their insurance providers or have designated people to respond to concerns about employee well-being. In addition, there may be community resources to which you can refer employees or other people within your organization who are better positioned to provide support.
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