The very first time I was given responsibility for a team, I was 21. Though small, the team was a bunch of ragtag call centre operators who would rather have been anywhere else than in the job they were in. They were all older than me, and all had complicated lives; one was a single mother with a complex relationship with her child’s father, another had substance abuse issues, and the third had poorly managed narcolepsy and a rotation of short but passionate relationships that left him broken-hearted on a monthly basis. It was rare they’d all tuned up on any given day, and I was too young to have had any good leadership role models.
I responded by treating them alternatively like children or my best friend. They ran rings around me. Every day I felt like a failure. Every day I felt out of control and chaotic. Every day I worried about their respective lives because I liked them as people. Every day I felt like an imposter.
By some kind of fluke, I managed to move on to a much bigger team in a new organisation and vowed to learn from my mistakes. It was incredibly liberating to leave behind the dysfunctional patterns of that first manager role and start fresh. I began by setting my expectations. I held people to them. That team where I learned how incredibly satisfying leadership could be and the power of building and maintaining trust.
And yet again every day I agonised about the difficult conversations I was going to have to have. I worried about how I could ensure my team felt supported in the face of dumb political decisions. I worried about forgetting to make good on promises I’d made. I thought about how we could accommodate Nick’s personal needs, who was divorcing his wife and seeking custody of his child while still meeting our targets. I thought about Sandra, who was whip-smart and bolshy and needed more complex work than we could find to keep her engaged. I was frustrated daily by John who was lovely but super slow in answering calls (this = “bad” in call centre land) and bringing the team’s results down much to others’ irritation – but who was nearly at retirement age. I worked with a staff member who had been ostracised by the team - who used to hide in the fire exit during her shift and smelled like wee - to turn her professional life around and become one of the team’s highest performers. I worked every day to make our little ecosystem coherent and kind and high performing. It worked; we went from the poorest to the highest performing team in the centre in 12 months.
It was so far from what I was expecting leadership to be. My 21yo self expected leadership to be striding through the cubicles bestowing my wisdom upon willing ears and having 'my people’ get things done. It never once occurred to me that it would be so personal for everyone involved or emotionally labour-intensive – whether poorly done or done well. And that was before I even got to worry about my own work.
I’d like to say that my command-and-control fantasies were just youthful naivete; however, this notion of leadership persists across all generations in my coaching. It’s often masked by ideas people have picked up from training or reading; people know “the right things to say”. But when you dig down ultimately their frustrations and their blocks to achieving the outcomes they want from their teams stem from a frustration that “they won’t do as I say”.
In her excellent book “Radical Candour” Kim Scott (formerly of Google and once upon a time management trainer at Apple) defines what it is to communicate effectively with teams. She describes it as “Challenge Directly and Care Personally”. We’ll explore some of the themes from her book in later posts, but for now, I want to focus on Care Personally.
This is just not a thing we are socialised to do in our workplaces. We are taught to set hard personal boundaries, to maximise often non-human metrics. Staff and especially leaders are expected to leave their personal lives at the door. And while the narrative on this is changing to one that recognises employees’ and leaders’ individual complexity and lives outside of work, there are still few role models for this kind of leadership. In actuality leading from a position of caring personally is not technically complicated. It involves “seeing” people and meeting them where they’re at. But what does that mean in a leadership context?
“Seeing people” simply means thinking about them from a genuinely human perspective. It means caring about the fact that if you have to provide them with feedback because their performance isn’t up to scratch, that will feel pretty crappy. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it (that’s the “Challenge Directly” part of the equation), but it does mean that you provide that feedback with respect for their humanity and care about the impact it will have in the short term. It means when you praise their work, you are specific and contextual, that they know that you have seen their personal and unique contribution.
Meeting people where they’re at means understanding that they come with a whole range of life experience and responsibilities that expand beyond and inform their performance at work—and realising this for yourself too. There is no suit of armour that transforms us into work cyborgs when we log on to our laptops. Once again that doesn’t mean because someone has had a hard time we should accept long term poor performance, but it does mean when we let them know (as an example) we have seen their standards slide (challenge directly), or that they are having a bad day that we also see their humanity and want to know how to support them (caring personally).
You can’t just care personally, the challenging directly part is vital, and I know we haven’t explored that in this article – though you can find other posts on that here and here. Challenging matters because it’s the container within which our care sets its boundaries. But when you do care personally, you build teams that will go above and beyond.
Mike Robbins, HBR writer and consultant to Fortune 500 clients cites an unlikely source on the universal desire to be seen and to be met where they’re at – Oprah:
"“I have to say that the single most important lesson I learned in 25 years talking every single day to people was that there’s a common denominator in our human experience….The common denominator that I found in every single interview is we want to be validated. We want to be understood. I’ve done over 35,000 interviews in my career. And as soon as that camera shuts off, everyone always turns to me and inevitably, in their own way, asks this question: “Was that OK?” I heard it from President Bush. I heard it from President Obama. I’ve heard it from heroes and from housewives. I’ve heard it from victims and perpetrators of crimes. I even heard it from Beyoncé in all of her Beyoncé-ness….[We] all want to know one thing: “Was that OK?” “Did you hear me?” “Do you see me?” “Did what I say mean anything to you?”"
Caring enough about people to see them, to validate their experience, to hear them and respect their point of view is a much more powerful employee engagement tool than any other. And it is one culture change initiative that doesn’t have to be led by anyone else but you; whether you’re a team leader in your first people management role or you own the business the people who report into you will flourish when they are seen and know you care.