Leadership Power Tool: Respond to Individuals

The role of the leader is not only to lead the enterprise and the team.  It is to lead individuals as well.  Often, individuals on the team are struggling to cope and therefore to perform fully in the team.  Many struggle in silence and alone, unable benefit from the help they need and often unable to recover.

How can leadership identify and help those who struggle?

A vital role of the leader is to “step out onto the balcony” (Peter Senge), to utilize the unique perspective of the leader to observe the team.  Not simply to observe how the team is doing, but how individuals are coping, faring, and performing.  The “balcony perspective” must be narrowed down to the individual level.  This is best done through person-to-person interaction.

There are many leaders who will that there is no time to be spent in such contacts, for the team is too large and the burden of such individual action for an entire team is too great.  Yet leaders do not lead processes or activities; these cannot be led.  Leaders can only lead people and lead best by personal influence and interaction.

How do we take the supposed burden of personal interaction and care and realize the opportunity and potential that lies within it?  Here are three key skill areas.

1.  Seize the initiative and seek out people.  Not everyone needs a special appointment with “the boss.”  One of the benefits of managing by walking around (MBWA) is that the leader encounters individuals everywhere.  It allows the leader to demonstrate genuineness by simply showing up and reaching out.  It also allows the leader to follow-up with a few pre-planned and sensitive questions that help uncover how people are doing. 

2.  Listen actively as well as attentively. Give each person enough time to respond to appropriate inquiry and be genuinely interested in the other’s story. Make appropriate eye contact, letting them speak without interruption.  Keep the eye contact and positioning comfortable.  Make it about them and not about you or your experiences.

3.  Be empathetic by listening to the emotions of the person, not simply listening to respond.  When you catch the emotion, acknowledge it and reflect it back to the other.  “Wow, that must have been really difficult.”  I can’t imagine how frightening that must be for you.”  You must have been fearful when that happened.”  Empathy is not present until you reflect the emotion back to the other accurately and appropriately.

With some staff this can be done by personal note or email, but a great many will respond better to a personal conversation.  Some may not want to have these interactions by email.  The most effective way to reach out with genuineness is in person.  A quick, genuine, and private conversation in the break room, the work floor, or other space where it is at least semi-private will be a huge opportunity.  If this is a new practice, give it some time to be accepted. Over time, most people will begin to trust the leader and respond.

Image via author, Upper Ball Lake, Selkirk Mountains, Idaho

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