Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Simple Ways to Show You Care

In my last post, I noted that the most important quality of a great boss is genuine concern for those who work for you. If you really care, employees will generally be forgiving of other shortcomings. Unfortunately, this trait is not as common as we'd like. What is often diagnosed as a lack of people skills may more accurately be called a lack of people concern.

Then there are those of us who do care, but don't show it often enough. For us, we need constant reminders to set aside time in our hectic schedules to invest in others. Build relationships. That's the bedrock of becoming a great boss. Here are a few simple but profound things bosses can do to show you care:

Write personal thank-you notes. In talking to hundreds of employees about workplace issues over the years, I can confirm what you already know: Expressions of praise and appreciation are in short supply. By all means, tell your employees how much you appreciate their contributions as often as possible. But there's something about written thank-you notes that means even more.

Celebrate employee birthdays. It's not the birthday per se that really matters. It's simply a convenient date to in effect say, "You're special to us." Take the employee out to lunch and use that time to say thanks again, and to ask how things are going and what you can do to be more helpful. You might also want to have some kind of group celebration involving the office or department.

Involve staff in key decisions. One of the more uncaring things firm management can do is to make a significant policy or procedural change without consulting staff in advance. If you want the change to yield positive results, you'll fare much better when you proactively engage the people who ultimately have to make it work. Furthermore, involving employees in such decisions communicates that you value their input and care about how they might be affected.

Create time to talk about nonbusiness matters. Relationships built exclusively on business-related interactions are limited, even in a business setting. With pressing deadlines and pressure to meet utilization goals, you can inadvertently squelch the informal, personal conversations that help build stronger working relationships. Plus research has found that friendship at work is a highly valued workplace asset. Intentionally set time aside for personal interaction (which leads to my next point...).

Host periodic potluck lunches. Perhaps this is a Southern thing, but I associate potlucks with being great times for fellowship. Buying pizza or sandwiches for the group may seem to create the same kind of setting, but I've found there's something about potlucks that introduces a more personal, homey atmosphere that most employees appreciate. Doing this occasionally is a welcome break to the more common "business lunch" derivatives.

Help them achive work/life balance. I commonly hear complaints from my fellow baby boomers that today's younger workers aren't as devoted to the job as we are. Perhaps they noticed that the web of work-induced stress, broken homes, and neglected priorities was a steep price to pay for making a living. Interestingly, studies are finding that adding work/life balance enhances productivity and profitability. Even us older workers are seeking more balance in increasing numbers. Bottom line for bosses: Show that you care about your employees' private lives, and help them (rather than discourage them) in the pursuit of that elusive balance.

Be sensitive to employees' personal issues. The fact is that problems at home typically create struggles at work. Few people can effectively compartmentalize matters of the heart. This isn't to suggest that you need to try as boss to solve your employees' personal problems. But you should be understanding and compassionate. Sometimes that's as simple as just taking some time to listen. Keep in mind that if an employee approaches you to talk about a personal matter, you have gained his or her trust and respect. Don't forfeit it by being too busy or distracted to show you care.

Conduct periodic "stay interviews." Why is it that in many firms the only time employees are really asked what they think about their employer is when they're heading out the door? Don't wait until the exit interview to uncover problems. A great boss will regularly ask employees how things are going and are on the alert for those unspoken signals of disengagement. But it might be wise to have a third party check in occasionally, in case there are problems with the boss that the employee doesn't want to talk to the boss about.

In these trying economic times, we need to step up the caring quotient. I've heard of companies that are driving their employees hard to meet their targeted metrics, as if all that's lacking is a little more effort. That's a bit like starving your horse and then beating it because it doesn't run faster. Great bosses realize that storing up goodwill with their employees is one of the best ways to weather a recession. That's not to say that cuts might not be necessary. But tough choices don't necessarily negate the priority of showing you care.

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