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Know Your People

Wednesday, August 15, 2018
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We have heard that good leaders stress the importance of knowing their people. We have heard testimonials from employees who work for engaging and compassionate managers. And we have heard the prophecy, “They need to know that you care before they care about what you know.”

Oftentimes, it is assumed everyone has a general understanding of what “knowing your people” looks and feels like. However, as leaders and followers, we know this is not the case. Here are seven ways for leaders to establish good work relationships.

1. Self-Assess

Successful relationships have a lot to do with emotional intelligence. What is your ability to be self-aware, to self-manage, to read your audience, and to manage the room? A more accurate self-assessment happens through 360-degree informal or formal evaluations. Have a mentor, accountability partner, and mentee in your life that will hold up metaphorical mirrors so you can see into yourself.

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Also, start with the end in mind. What do you want to be known for as a supervisor when it comes to relationships with your employees? What three words would you want employees to use to describe you at your retirement reception? Spending the time now to assess what you want from relationships will help you communicate more confidently.

2. Conduct Office Drive-Bys

Establish a trigger that gets you away from your desk and walking around your employees’ workspaces with the sole purpose of learning about them. Intentionally spend more time around those you know the least. Prepare questions ahead of time, if necessary. Consider your employees' needs and the timing of your visit. Be aware, though, that some employees may dread your visits because the conversation often moves to accountability or tasking. If that’s the case, this strategy can cause more disconnect and create more hindrances to communication.

3. Don’t Win the War, Win Small Battles

If you have a relationship that needs major improvement, look for small victories rather than immediate transformation. Give employees time to see they can trust you and that you genuinely care. You cannot force likability, and new initiatives take time to take effect. Publicly commit to a realistic timeline so everyone can be on the same page, and you can desist without appearing indecisive and incompetent. For example, every Friday for the next two months, start a 10-minute morning huddle by allowing each employee to describe how they find meaning in their job. This will highlight the different motivations of everyone on the team. If this strategy is going well, extend the timeline. If it is not going well, adjust where necessary.

4. Lead by Example

If you expect people to open up about themselves, go first. If you want to go deeper, dive in. A great exercise for getting people to know each other is to have everyone grab one meaningful thing from their office to present to the group. They don’t need much time to select an item. Although you may be tempted to share how your stapler is beneficial to your work proficiency, I suggest digging deeper. Use this activity as an opportunity to show vulnerability and reveal more of yourself to your team.

5. Don’t Assume

It is a wonderful thing for communication to be implicit, but to get there, you must start explicitly. Instead of misunderstanding an email, ask someone face-to-face what they meant. Instead of assigning new projects, allow your employees read into the situation first. Your decision may not change, or you may move forward because the changes will lead to greater career advancement for them. Either way, you will have a better understanding of them and they will appreciate being heard and taken seriously. Finally, don’t assume employees are receiving the social support they need from you to thrive. Ask them if they have what they need to succeed.

6. Embrace Transparency

Be transparent about where you think the relationship is and where you would like it to go. Frequently, an employee thinks you lack the emotional intelligence to receive their words and translate them accurately and with good intentions, or they lack emotional intelligence themselves. Your ability to take steps toward improvement will ultimately open up communication channels. Be transparent about how you’ve interpreted their communications and allow them the opportunity to respond. Lastly, be transparent about any changes you make in the department. Implementing changes without stating your intent or purpose may be perceived as forced or disingenuous.

7. Ask Questions

Ask a lot of follow-up questions with the purpose of understanding the employee’s intent, motivations, and strengths. Some good questions are:

  • What led you to choose…?
  • What will happen as a result of these different courses of action?
  • Why do you prefer this versus that?

Good relationships are built on genuine curiosity, and it shows that you care when you request feedback on your leadership. View each conversation as an opportunity to learn from and about your employee. You can foster a feedback culture by asking for their opinions. Use questions like:

  • What is one thing I can do to help you on this next project?
  • What is one thing that would make work more enjoyable for you?
  • What is one area I can improve on in our communication?

Bottom line: A leader needs to be curious and have a learner mindset. If you don't naturally ask questions or seek out information, set aside time for exploring the personalities, motivations, and strengths of your employees. Curiosity at work is a mindset in which you are not content with what you know, but you are satisfied by the journey of growing, navigating, and learning from the complexity of human relationships.

About the Author

Drexel King is the manager of learning and Development at Baylor University. Years of service as a Naval Academy graduate and infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps provide him with more than 10 years of experience in leadership and performance management. He was a platoon commander in Afghanistan, a leadership consultant for 150 officer candidates, and the training officer for 1,200 incoming freshmen at the U.S. Naval Academy. He has earned several distinct honors and awards for his military service. As a transitioned veteran, Drexel continues to be a student of leadership development with a strong desire to impact lives, learn from others, and make connections.

1 Comment
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Thank you Drexel for a real life view of what it takes to be a leader. My organization is beginning a cultural transformation and we have spent a significant amount of thought around what needs to change in our leaders to make that happen. This article reinforces the mindset we are trying to create and I have shared it with our leadership core with great reactions.
Doug,
Thanks for the kind words. I am glad this was helpful and your feedback is encouraging. I am excited about the opportunities your organization is engaging regarding cultural transformation. My best regards to you and your team.
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