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ATD Blog

Leaders Need to Prove They Care About People

Wednesday, April 6, 2022
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Do the people around you know that you are for them? Do they know that you care about them, advocate for them, and want them to do their best? Having this assurance promotes a feeling of connection, which helps establish trust and an environment of psychological safety. But if they don’t know with certainty that you are on their side, they may think you are indifferent or even against them (both of which are disconnecting). Now is an important time for leaders to ensure that their care for their people is clear.

Why Does It Matter?

The disconnection people are experiencing today is broader than loneliness, a point Noreena Hertz makes in her book, The Lonely Century: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That’s Pulling Apart. Here’s what she says (emphasis ours):

Reshaped by globalization, urbanization, growing inequality, and power asymmetries, by demographic change, increased mobility, technological disruption, austerity, and now by [the COVID-19 pandemic] too, I believe the contemporary manifestation of loneliness goes beyond our yearning for connection by those physically around us, our craving for love and being loved, and the sadness we feel from being bereft of friends. It also incorporates how disconnected we feel from politicians and politics, how cut off we feel from our work and our workplace, how excluded many of us feel from society’s gains, and how powerless, invisible, and voiceless so many of us believe ourselves to be. It’s a loneliness that includes but is also greater than our desire to feel close to others because it is also a manifestation of our need to feel heard, to be seen, to be cared for, to have agency, to be treated fairly, kindly, and with respect.

Your colleagues may bring this loneliness with them when they come to work, and it’s multiplied on the job if they don’t feel seen, heard, and valued. This disconnection negatively affects their engagement and productivity. Not only do people need to know where they stand with you and their other colleagues, but also the conditions have to be right for connection to be maintained. This is where culture comes in.

Unhealthy work cultures are a primary cause of the Great Resignation. While media coverage suggests employees are leaving to pursue better-paying jobs, monetary compensation is only part of the story. Having experienced disruption and change during the pandemic, people are re-evaluating what is important and giving more weight to what we refer to as emotional compensation.

New research published in MIT Sloan Management Review supports the view that toxic work cultures are driving the Great Resignation. Presenting empirical evidence, the authors identify the top predictors of attrition. Their conclusion? “A toxic corporate culture is by far the strongest predictor of industry-adjusted attrition and is 10 times more important than compensation in predicting turnover. Our analysis found that the leading elements contributing to toxic cultures include failure to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion; workers feeling disrespected; and unethical behavior … Not surprisingly, companies with a reputation for a healthy culture … experienced lower-than-average turnover during the first six months of the Great Resignation.”

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In short, because the relational aspects of culture have a direct impact on an employee’s decision to stay or quit, it is critical for leaders to proactively build those relationships and demonstrate that they care.

How Do They Know You Care?

Have you ever told the individuals around you that you are for them, especially those you lead? More importantly, do your actions convey it? As demonstrated in Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work, this makes a difference, especially if you are a supervisor providing constructive criticism or you are working through a setback or a challenging season as a team.

Toward the end of a recent leadership workshop, a well-respected senior leader quietly slipped to the back of the room to observe. As the workshop drew to a conclusion, he came forward to say a few words to the group. He thanked employees for taking part, acknowledging the busyness of their schedules and the stress they were under. He shared his deep-seated conviction that leadership matters and that great leadership makes a difference to an organization. He said he realized the organization hadn’t invested enough in training to support them in their leadership roles, that connection culture was something he really believed in, and the workshop and coaching component to follow was an effort to remedy the lack of investment in them in the past. Then he opened it up for discussion and feedback.

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This leader’s message resonated and had an impact on those in the room. These were not empty words. The employees knew he cared about them. His transparency about experiencing burnout earlier in his career made his concern for his colleagues’ well-being genuine and unmistakable, and his acknowledgment of the organization’s past shortcomings and actions to address them gave weight to his words. He provided them emotional compensation.

For emotional compensation to thrive at work, seven universal human needs must be met: respect, recognition, belonging, autonomy, personal growth, meaning, and progress. The resulting sense of connection from having these needs met engenders positive emotions and makes employees feel connected to their work and colleagues.

Through communicating an inspiring vision, valuing people (not thinking of or treating them as means to an end), and giving them a voice that meets the seven needs, leaders who cultivate a culture of connection unite employees and foster a relational environment that helps people do their best work.

Here are three actions to consider:

  • Take time to walk the halls (physically or virtually) and personally check in on the people you are responsible for leading to see how they’re doing. Stress, loneliness, anxiety, and exhaustion are high today. People are busy; the to-do list is long. Intentionally devoting time to regularly chat with people—asking how they are and actively listening—is a practice that shows respect and fosters a sense of belonging. It also underscores the importance that you place on having a culture that values connection.
  • Invest in training your leaders to cultivate a healthy work culture. Not only does this show you care about them and want to do more than just talk about having a good workplace culture, it shows that you support them in their roles as leaders by equipping them with the mindsets and skill sets to cultivate a healthy culture. To attract, engage, and retain the people your organization needs, leaders at all levels need to give attention to culture.
  • Establish a mentoring program so that everyone learns and grows. This addresses the need for personal growth, plus it provides another opportunity to develop connections within the organization as mentors and mentees spend time together. Train people on how to mentor in a way that is encouraging and connecting.

By taking time to demonstrate that you care about your people as individuals and want them to be engaged and fully-contributing teammates, you connect them to you and to your organization. Make the smart investment to retain employees at a time when many are looking for greener pastures.

Sign up to attend Michael Stallard’s ATD22 session, Improve Positive Emotions and Performance in Your Team’s Work Culture, Tuesday, May 17 at 1 p.m. ET.

About the Author

Michael Lee Stallard (www.MichaelLeeStallard.com) is a thought leader, author, speaker, and expert on how human connection in culture affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. He is the president and co-founder of E Pluribus Partners and the Connection Culture Group. Michael is the primary author of Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity, and Productivity and Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding (ATD Press).

Michael has appeared in media outlets worldwide, including Entrepreneur, Financial Times, Fast Company, Forbes, Fox Business, Inc., [email protected], Leader to Leader, New York Times and Wall Street Journal. His clients have included Costco, Lockheed Martin, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, NASA, Scotiabank, U.S. Department of Treasury, and Qualcomm. Texas Christian University founded the TCU Center for Connection Culture to advance Michael and his colleagues' ideas at TCU and in higher education.

About the Author

Katharine P. Stallard is a partner at Connection Culture Group. In addition to being a contributor to Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work, she has co-authored articles that have appeared in Leader to Leader and HR Magazine.

1 Comment
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This article really resonates with me as I think about the conversations I've had with coworkers recently. Thanks for sharing.
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