I was reflecting this morning about the countless conversations I have had with leaders in my network over the last few months and the consistent themes that have been present in most of them. Many leaders are feeling challenged to varying degrees with open positions on their teams, retaining their people, supply chain issues, the pressure of navigating Covid-related workplace requirements and the ever-present stress of just doing their jobs and hitting the numbers. It can be easy and even understandable for leaders in such stressful times to just dig in and hold on…hoping to weather the storm.
I often share advice in my blog posts on practicing self-care and I firmly believe all of us should be doing the best we can to take care of ourselves and placing the oxygen masks on our own faces before we help others. But, for those of us who are privileged to lead others, our teams and work colleagues need us to step up and do more. They need our help. The “Great Resignation” has multiple root causes and among the various reasons people leave their jobs we find Covid burnout, dysfunctional or toxic organizations, lack of attention to the emotional and mental well-being of team members, lack of workplace flexibility and poor management.
There is no easy answer to solve these challenges, but I have been recommending to leaders for years (even pre-Covid) a simple three-step approach to engaging with their teams that is especially powerful and helpful in these difficult times: Ask, Listen and Invest
Ask the team. When you speak with your team members each week, consider sincerely asking these kinds of important questions (and welcome all responses):
- What are we doing right now that is working well?
- What do we need to do differently?
- What do I need to start, stop or continue doing as your manager as we look at the year ahead of us?
- This is a stressful time for all of us, me included. How are you and your loved ones holding up?
- How can I better support and help you?
- What do you need most from me right now?
- What do you want out of your career and how can I best help you grow and develop?
Make sure to schedule frequent 1:1 conversations with team members and blend personal and business topics in the discussion. Consider being vulnerable with your team members about your own challenges which will most likely encourage them to be vulnerable with you in response to your questions. This cannot be a “check the box” exercise! Taking their emotional temperature, showing vulnerability and empathy must live alongside the routine business dialogue.
NOTE: Leaders have a responsibility to make sure the team feels “psychologically safe” to speak their minds. People need to be honest now (and always) without fear of negative repercussions, especially if they have the courage to offer a potentially great idea, point out a problem or share their personal struggles. Also, give your team members sincere permission to be candid with you.
Listen to the team. OK, so you are asking the questions, but are you really listening? Good listening skills are a foundational strength of effective and successful leaders. Listen to difficult conversations and conflicting opinions with calmness, no judgment and an open mind. We should consider responding with thoughtful follow up questions to demonstrate we are really listening before offering our own opinions in return. If we are truly listening with a desire to learn and help, we must avoid defensiveness at all costs and even be willing to change our opinion if warranted. Also, it is absolutely OK to let team members vent and place their perception of the real issues on the table.
As you engage and listen to work colleagues during a challenge or crisis (or anytime for that matter), they need to first feel that they have a voice and are valued…and that as their leader you genuinely care about them and want to sincerely know what they think. The worst time to avoid engaging with team members is in the midst of difficult personal or professional periods in their lives. Nothing builds trust and deepens relationships more than allowing another person to feel listened to and valued.
Invest in the team. You have asked the right questions and actively listened. What’s next? Consider how you will invest in the team this year and beyond. If you asked the right questions and listened well, you likely heard a number of ideas for helping team members feel more engaged, cared for and appreciated. You heard what they need and want from you to help them grow their careers. All of us must be willing to make the necessary and reasonable tweaks within our power to give our teams what they need. How do we begin? Where do we start? There is much we can do right now to invest in our teams and here are three examples:
- Embrace flexibility with work arrangements. Obviously, acceptance of virtual or hybrid approaches where possible is needed right now. After almost two years of the pandemic, we know we can still largely be effective without being in a corporate office behind a desk. With forced homeschooling, rising Covid cases and a host of other issues flexibility should be a given.
- Empower the team to get creative about boosting morale and overall engagement. What are their great ideas? You don’t have to think of everything yourself in a vacuum. Encourage them to help take ownership in this area and be willing to delegate this to your team. From experiences I have heard from my clients, this effort has typically been a success.
- Invest in the team’s growth and development. How can you be a catalyst for elevating their skills, enhancing their work experiences and encouraging overall career growth? Consider the weekly or bi-monthly Lunch-n-Learn model where you share a helpful leadership article with the team to discuss as a group or invite in a guest speaker on interesting topics. Some teams embrace the Book Club concept and read and discuss helpful books together. Ask them what they wish to learn and get their help in designing a simple program. Investing in your team’s development is a phenomenal retention tool!
We are in stressful times and leaders are being sorely tested. We all hope the business and cultural swirl around us will slow down and something resembling normal will re-emerge. But, here at the beginning of 2022, we who have the humbling privilege of being called leaders have an opportunity and responsibility to actively engage with our teams in the most helpful way possible. None of what I have shared is rocket science, but the key question is are we actually doing it?
One more thing…remember the old saying, “People leave managers, not companies.”? It is hopefully a sobering thought that leaders and recruiters in other companies are calling your best people right now and asking the right questions, listening attentively and promising to invest in them. The siren song of greener pastures is often difficult to ignore.
How will you be intentional this week and beyond about asking, listening and investing with your team?