21st century leadership requires leaders to build emotional connection with their followers. Yet, we still promote and reward leaders based on their confidence, assertiveness, or boldness and not based on their competence or ability to connect with their people. This causes aspiring leaders to role-model the behaviours of incompetent leaders rather than effective ones. So, we need to share, promote and encourage the right leadership behaviours even more today. But which behavioural traits are most helpful for leaders in today’s organisations?
My experience as a business leader, coach, trainer, and advisor to other leaders over the last 15 years taught me that there is one behavioural trait that leaders need most today: Caring.
Caring involves several behaviours that are critical in today’s business world: noticing and acknowledging others, listening, willingness to help others, empathy, genuine interest in others, and compassion. These behaviours have been linked to many positive outcomes, not only for individuals but also for organisations.
I have observed the profound impact of caring leadership in at least three different organisations so far. In the first case, my client was promoted to a senior role in a global technology organisation. They quickly realised that leading others was the biggest part of their new role and they weren’t fully ready for it. At the end of their first year in the new role, they had a meeting with the HR Director where they both reviewed the engagement results from their team. My client was devastated to see that their business was the one with the lowest engagement rates in the organisation. After some time of reflection and soul-searching, they decided to create some actions, focusing mainly on their team. For example, they committed to acknowledging their people’s contributions and noticing things that mattered to them regularly. They had some time booked in their calendar every day to think about team members and thank at least one of them for something they did in the last day or week. After months of practicing these new behaviours, they started to see significant shifts in the team’s motivation. Not surprisingly, one day, the HR Director appeared again, this time to ask them how they achieved such high engagement scores in the employee survey.
My second example is from a team I joined some years ago in a global consulting company. A new leader had joined one of the business units and after collaborating with them on a project, I was thrilled to join their leadership team. The new leader of the team was a truly caring person, who listened to everyone’s thoughts, asked questions to better understand people’s ideas, beliefs, and feelings, and tried to help everyone to make the organisation a better place. I learned a lot from them, simply by observing. They had a powerful and yet calming presence in our meetings, often asking for everyone’s ideas and taking notes. They would listen so carefully that sometimes they would have follow-up questions about even the trivial things that I shared with them several days before. Their incredible ability to listen, ask questions, and connect with people regularly made everyone feel included and cared about. Not surprisingly, people started to be more engaged and motivated to do their best, and the results followed quickly: revenue doubled within less than 2 years and employee engagement went up significantly.
After my role in their team and enjoying the experience of being part of a truly caring team, when I moved to my current role at LHH about 2.5 years ago, I was determined to focus on embedding “care” in my team environment. In the first 6 months, I took down notes after each conversation I had with my team members so that I could remember what they value, what they are good at, how they feel, etc. And I asked them follow-up questions, too, including some personal ones (e.g. “How did your daughter’s exam go?”). My team and the organisation overall had gone through several leadership changes around the same time and the new leadership had a renewed focus on practicing what we preach as a leadership development company. As a result of all these efforts, within the first year, my team’s score for the question “My manager cares about me as a person” increased by 7% in the employee engagement survey and our top-line and bottom-line both had double-digit growth, the first time in many years.
As caring behaviours are not often the ones that get rewarded in organisations, future leaders may not have enough practice to build their caring muscles these days. Below are a few strategies that can help you to build your “caring” muscle.
Listen actively. Listening can make you a better leader and show your employees that you care about them; however, only when you are actively listening. Trying to understand what the other person is saying with and without the words, paraphrasing what you hear, leaving space for silence, and resisting the urge to provide solutions are all key aspects of active listening. One method that might help you in developing active listening skills is to take notes after each conversation you have with your employees. In your notes, first write down the topics you talked about. Then, identify the emotions that your employee was going through during the conversation and why you think they were feeling so. And finally, take a note of what that person needed from you in that conversation and try to remember it next time you speak to the same person.
Ask simple questions. Leaders who ask before they share their own perspectives often build a stronger followership. Questions about one’s preferences, thoughts, or personal life and family are powerful at increasing how supported employees feel by their supervisors. Asking personal questions to your employees at work might not be considered professional in certain cultures; however, even in those cultures, there are many questions that can be acceptable to ask your employees. Employees often perceive such questions positively as long as your questions don’t seem to have an ulterior motive or seem like an interrogation.
Remember what matters to your people. Caring leaders know what matters to their employees, and they can imagine the consequences of their actions from those employees’ perspectives, too. For example, if recognition or approval from their managers is an important matter for a given employee, making comments that undermine that employee’s contributions can be really devastating for the employee. Similarly, acknowledging that person, sharing gratitude and publicly recognising their contributions can make their day. In your interactions with your employees, try to remember what matters to them most and decide your action accordingly. If family is what your employee values most, make sure to ask them about how their family is doing. If teamwork is what they value most, make sure to talk to them about their feelings regarding their team’s collaboration. Taking the time to find out what they value and then remembering what they hold dear through your communication will show your employees that they matter to you.
When we recognise care as a key ingredient for effective leadership, we will start developing the types of leaders that people would like to follow. By following the strategies above, even the leaders who aren’t perceived as caring ones, can create significant shifts in their relationship with their followers.