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Business Leaders: Improve Employee Connections With These 3 Steps


By Wayne Rivers, Family Business Institute

Someone recently sent me a very insightful TED Talk by Dr. Todd Dewett. He talked about the value of connections with employees – and why so many leaders struggle with making them. If your team perceives that, somehow, you're in the cozy executive suite while they're out doing the hard work of the organization, that represents a disconnect and a cost. On the other hand, if they perceive you’re all in it together, that leads to better chemistry throughout. Dr. Dewett had a great, illustrative example of how leaders fail to make connections.

There was a boss who was really happy with his team’s performance; he was tremendously excited and wanted to thank them in a grand way, so he invited everyone to an after-work happy hour. He rented a big hotel ballroom and stocked up on food and adult beverages. But he became very puzzled… Only about half of the employees showed up. He asked one very brave manager, “What’s going on here? Why did only half the team come out?" The employee said, “Well, only half came out, and only because they thought there might be some sort of punishment or loss if they didn't!”

To his credit, the boss thought, “I really missed the mark on that one,” but he was still excited and wanted to recognize everyone’s efforts. He went to his team and said, “Okay, we're going to do something really special this time! We're going to go canoeing as a group!” Even fewer people showed up for the canoe-fest. Once again, the boss asked that brave employee what happened. “Why did such a small group come out?”

The employee replied, “Not only did most not want to go canoeing, but for the ones who actually participated you screwed up their Saturday!" The boss was correct in his enthusiasm to do something nice for his team. But he projected himself onto them. He liked happy hours, and he liked canoeing, so if he loved those things, then his employees would too! The mistake he made was that he simply didn't ASK them what a special celebration would look like. 

Still wanting to do something to recognize the team, the boss went back to his brave manager and asked him to find out what would be the best way to celebrate. The response?

The employees wanted to see professional wrestling. So the boss bought tickets for wrestling, and this time, miraculously, almost 100% of the employees participated. They said it was the most fun they ever had as a group and, for the first time, his employees patted him on the back and called him by his first name.

In hindsight, how simple is that? The boss asked them what they wanted!

It's hard for us as leaders to admit how flawed we are. We don't remember what it was like to be young and unsure of ourselves. We don't remember that we had a hugely steep learning curve at one time. We forget that we made plenty of mistakes along the way, and we especially hate to admit that we still screw things up! We think leadership must look like the strong, silent, Gary Cooper-type, and we think we can't appear vulnerable. 

But we're wrong. That’s ego talking. If you want you and your teams to be more connected, just remember this: People like and relate to real. Dr. Dewett says there are three ways that you can be real with your people:

  1. Ask your people questions. “Are you happy doing what you're doing? How can we make things better for you?” Keep your ego in check and stop telling. Ask questions instead.

  2. Be vulnerable and ask stupid questions. For example, when our IT people use acronyms (they always do), I must ask every time. Once they talked about POC (proof of concept). I didn't know what that meant, so I asked a stupid question because I'd rather appear stupid temporarily than stay stupid. 

  3. Let the people in your company share their amazing knowledge. They have different experiences and perspectives when looking at challenges, problems, and the world at large. Let them share their ideas with you and the rest of the team, and you'll get more creative and diverse thought.

Connecting with people isn’t so hard if you're willing to put your ego aside, ask questions, and, occasionally, let your vulnerability show through.