As leaders, we have to pay attention to each of our team members and learn to hear what they’re saying – even (or perhaps especially) when they are not saying much. If we’re doing a good job of supporting and engaging on an ongoing basis, we’ll get to know our team members’ communication styles and hear about what’s going on for them – at work, at home, in their lives – and can incorporate this into our work with them. When someone who is usually enthusiastic starts to be listless or quiet, we are responsible for exploring that with them.
Perhaps something is going on outside of work that is taking their attention or energy. Maybe they’ve been disappointed or frustrated with something in the office or on a project. Or perhaps we’ve done something that has confused or upset them. We can’t fix a problem we don’t know about, and we definitely can’t fix a problem if we ignore it.
I’ve written and taught and coached about this, and recently, I shared a post on LinkedIn about leaders caring for high performing employees:
As I’m learning through the Love + Work book and series, when we’re leaders we must consider the whole person we’re working with. Just as we want people to bring their whole selves into their work – their curiosity, skills, strengths, generosity, compassion, knowledge, experience, their heart and soul, their blood, sweat, and tears – we have a responsibility to care for and about all of those things. People are entrusting us with their passion, and we have a duty to care for and nurture that. And to do that, we have to get to know people, and pay attention always – both when things are working and when they are not.
In my most recent leadership role, my attention to and concern for the people was my job #1. Like each of them, I had projects and tasks and deadlines – the usual work stuff – but I put a lot of my effort in to making and spending time with people. I had scheduled one-on-ones with my eight direct reports and with four or five others, as well as with my own manager and with other key leaders within and outside the department. With other regular small and large group meetings, nearly 50% of my workday was scheduled meetings with teams or team members
These sessions were about the person and our relationship. Agendas were different for different people, but by meeting regularly and being open during those meetings, we could cover specific work items, professional and personal development, performance, conflicts, and just plain old getting to know and respect each other.
My role in these meetings is primarily listening, to both the words and the messages (which are not always the same). While sometimes, I’m the main speaker in the discussion - if I need to convey a project history or organizational policy - but more often I’m taking a coaching approach – asking questions and probing for more information with the goal of leading us to a common understanding and a solution or path forward.
I’m also listening to what’s going on for the person – are they engaged, frustrated, distracted, excited, restless - and what can I do to explore that further or help them to increase engagement, reduce frustration, and move forward productively and positively. Mostly, I want them to know and feel that they’ve been seen, heard, and understood - that they are respected and valued. Meetings almost always begin and end with a truly curious “how are you?”, and when appropriate involve a few minutes of non-work discussion about family, vacations, school, or other passions of theirs that I know about. While some people want to maintain a clear separation between work and the rest of their lives, most want to be seen and treated as whole people, with many (often conflicting) priorities and an ongoing search for balance, and to be respected for all their beautiful complexity and lovely quirks.
I made it a priority to keep and attend those individual and team meetings as much as possible. I also tried to keep my door open and my space welcoming (snacks, chairs, and a layout that had me turn away from my computer and towards the person), encouraging drive-bys and drop-ins from anyone and everyone in the department (there was a standing joke on my busier/more in-demand days that I should install one of those take-a-number machines by my door). I was delighted by the variety and frequency with which team members and others across the department and organization took up this opportunity, as these interactions allowed me to get to know more and more people and what was happening and what people were feeling and thinking across many areas and levels, which ultimately enabled me to do my job better.
By prioritizing this access and these times, my goal was to ensure that people knew they could access me when needed and that I could work with them reliably and consistently on whatever needed doing. It also helped me manage things when a deadline or crisis emerged – when I needed to close my door or cancel meetings, people knew that it was important because a) I didn’t do it that often and b) they got to know me and my work during our meetings, and so they were respectful and supportive of me during those times. (A belated and heartfelt Thank You to all of you!).
In addition to the ongoing relationship and support, this access also helped to ensure that information or a decision from me did not become a bottleneck or barrier for them to get their own work done. I believe strongly in empowering and enabling people to make their own decisions and take actions; a principle of mine is that, as long as they could explain to me why they took an action or an approach (and that that made sense with the circumstances and information that they had), regardless of the outcome I would back them up. But sometimes they needed something from me to get their work moving or back on track. Things like discussing the background of a project or team, providing a contact or documentation, planning an alternative course of action, or just sending a prompting email to someone else who was being a bottleneck – any or all of these could be dealt with in our weekly or ad hoc meetings.
The feedback from my team members and many others about this approach was very positive over the past several years, especially during the most recent period where I was in a director-level role and during the COVID pandemic period. Prior to that, I was in mid-level and senior roles, and certainly in those earlier days I was still finding my way as a leader. I know I didn’t always get it right (and still don’t), but I think I did most of the time and I’d like to think that I learned from the situations that didn’t go well. I always tried to own my role in those circumstances and expected (or at least hoped) that everyone else would, too.
A few days after my post above on LinkedIn, I received a reply from a colleague and former coworker. The person sent me a private message, so I won’t share it exactly as written, but here’s a version with revisions to maintain their privacy:
Robyn, you posted about passionate employees, but you have to self-reflect. When we worked together, you did not support change. I came to you with ideas because you said I could, but you did not support me - when I needed you to be a leader, you were not. I believe what you have posted on LinkedIn as your belief, but do you know how to implement it? You can be angry with me, but I do not believe you practice what you preach. I appreciate our work together, but you did not make me better.
Well, that stung a bit. And the sting lingered. And so, I have self-reflected, and thought about the specific circumstance referred to by the person. Of course, I remember the situation, as it was a time when I knew that I hadn't succeeded with leading as well as I could or should. And while I don’t think it is my role as a leader to make someone better, it is my job to make it possible for everyone to be better and be able to bring their best and most real selves to their work. I know and remember that, and know that I could have done things differently (candidly, so should everyone in that specific situation). I cannot change the situation, the outcome, or the way I performed, but I did learn from it, and I do actively work to not repeat that performance.
The person's reply reminded me of perhaps the most important part of that lesson:
I know I have made mistakes, and made some people feel bad – unappreciated, unseen, unheard, hurt by my words or my abrasive tone, dismissed or excluded from the table. To each one of you who has been on the receiving end of any of that (or even a witness to it): I’m sorry. I wish I could do it over again and do a better job. That's not the leader, manager, colleague, or friend I want to be. If nothing else, I hope you took away from those experiences the lesson of how not to lead.
I know I’m not a perfect leader. I’m a flawed human being and like all of us, I have bad days, too, days when I do things I wish I hadn’t and that I could take back. Like most people, I'm a work in progress.
I do think that I’m a good leader, one who knows my own strengths and least strengths, my vulnerabilities and imperfections, who accepts (even welcomes) feedback and criticism and learns from those, and who maintains the people as the priority. And I will keep learning and growing and sharing my lessons, because:
Lastly, to the person who sent me that message, thank you for letting me know how you felt, and that it still matters to you. Please know that it also still matters to me, and that I have indeed reflected and learned from that. I’m sorry for how I made you feel. I should have been a better leader then. I am a better leader now.
What do you think? Does your leader listen to you, get to know you, honour and respect your passions and goals? If you’re a leader, what approaches do you take to listen up, to get to know your team members and what’s on their mind? Please comment below or email me at email@example.com with your questions and feedback.
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Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.