Employee experience can be defined as the journey an employee takes with your organization over the course of their employment. Everything from the way they experience recruitment, interviewing, onboarding, training, career development, performance management, recognition, rewards, and even the way they exit the organization makes up their overall experience.
Employee experience is in the spotlight because of the importance of retention and engagement issues in today’s marketplace. Organizations are competing for the best and brightest workers who won’t jump ship for the next shiny new offer that comes their way. To keep their top talent, organizations are taking a close look at how their employee experience can set them apart from the crowd.
We recently completed research on this topic and gathered input from over 700 leadership, learning, and talent development professionals. We asked them to share their key strategies for improving their employee experience and the feedback showed a clear frontrunner:
Building trust between managers and direct reports
Why did this strategy rank ahead of other important initiatives like addressing workloads to prevent burnout, connecting work to purpose, setting clear performance expectations, and promoting teamwork and collaboration? It’s because trust is the foundation of the employee/employer relationship, and a person’s direct manager is the organization’s representative.
Research supports the criticality of trust between employees and their managers as the basis for being highly engaged at work. ADP Research conducted a global study on engagement that involved over 19,000 people across 19 countries and 13 industries. The study included full-time employees, part-time employees, gig workers, those with multiple jobs, and people with full-time jobs plus gig jobs on the side.
ADP found that two primary factors that characterized highly engaged employees stood out above all others: being on a team and trust in the team leader. In fact, a worker is 12x more likely to be fully engaged if they trust their team leader.
Our own research on the roles of cognitive trust (what I like to call “trust from the head”) and affective trust (“trust from the heart”) show a direct correlation between high levels of employee trust in their leaders and those employees having positive intentions to be highly engaged at work. Our study showed that leader trustworthiness is highly correlated to the five key intentions that drive employee work passion: discretionary effort, intent to perform, intent to endorse, intent to remain, and organizational citizenship.
So, trust is the foundation for a great employee experience. How do you build it?
Many leaders think trust “just happens,” like some sort of relationship osmosis. These people often understand trust is important, but they don’t know what it takes to have their people perceive them as being trustworthy. There are four elements of trust in a relationship that we’ve captured in the Building Trust model. If leaders use behaviors aligned with the four elements of trust, they will build trust with their people. If they don’t use those behaviors, or do the opposite, they will erode trust. It’s commonsense but not always common practice.
Your organization’s employee experience is critical to its health and success. But to bring it closer to home, it’s critical to your success as a leader, and the foundation of that experience begins with the trust your people have in you. Remember, every interaction you have with them is an opportunity to build trust or erode it. Will you focus on building trust with your people in 2023?
The Leadership Development Carnival, sponsored by Weaving Influence and the Lead Change Group, is a monthly publication of thought leadership from some of the brightest minds in the field of leadership. Grab a cup of your favorite beverage, sit back, and enjoy reading this month’s edition which features the “best of 2022” from this renowned group of experts.
Want a good training model? Look no further than Top Gun, the real thing, not the movies. Check out Top Gun Rules and follow Wally Bock of Three Star Leadership.
In Establishing an Environment for Growth, Priscilla Archangel shares: It’s easy to identify a team that is in a good environment for growth. The level of energy, exchange of ideas, supportive behaviors, and group celebrations of success are visible to others. Think about the results you want from your team in the present moment; and what will enable them to flourish in the future. What steps are you taking to make that a reality?
David Grossman shares Change Management Communication: 5-Step Plan + Template. David says change management communication is an essential component of building awareness and support for organizational change. Whether you are changing technology, business practices, leadership or a combination of things, change management communication is essential to helping people move from where they are today to the desired “future state.” Use this guide (and free templates) to help you develop your change management communication plan and make your change initiative a success.
Diversity, Language & Miscommunication. Diversity is a wonderful thing, says Diana Peterson-More. Data abounds supporting the bottom-line and societal benefits of diverse groups whether as boards of directors, mock juries or product developers. Yet, along with the richness of diversity comes the challenges of communication in the workplace ranging from selecting the language that will be spoken, to interpreting different cultural norms and how word usage is perceived.
We all know we need to take time away from work but we often resist. Learn how time away can actually lead to more productivity and creative thinking through the power of writing. Enjoy Retreat In Order to Advance by Eileen McDargh.
In Through the Storms, Brenda Yoho shares that courage will help you push through the storms you face each day. Schedule time to focus on the ways to strengthen your courage.
Bill Treasurer says that being a leader means paying attention, seeking learning experiences and beating out your own best days instead of being in competition with others. You’re a leader. And you’re just getting started. Enjoy The Extraordinary Ordinary Leader.
The Confidence to Perform Comes from Within. Henry Mukuti says the amount of confidence you have will surely determine how far you will go with a task, and this will also have an effect on how far you are willing to go in your life. Follow Henry on Twitter.
Art Petty shares 3 Big Moments That Can Define Your Leadership Career. Art says we work for decades, yet for most of us, there are a handful of moments in time that define the course of our leadership career. Unfortunately, these moments—opportunities or crises—don’t come with a caption suggesting, “Hey, pay attention and embrace this mess because it’s going to turn out to be important to you.” For individuals who choose to lead, here are three significant moments that merit your complete engagement.
In the Surprising Secret to Success, Jennifer Nash advocates that we lean into our fear of change to transform our career and life. We are all scared of change and stepping into unknown territory, but if we tap into our fears and embrace change, we have the power to create success in all aspects of our lives.
When leaders with opposite perspectives learn how to manage challenges and crises together, they will benefit from the strengths each brings to the situation. Learn more in Opposite Is More Than Just Opposition by Ken Byler.
Jon Verbeck says that for many companies, overhead equals death. We have all seen businesses that grow the company’s headcount and overhead costs based on planned revenue. They add a marketing department instead of outsourcing specific expertise or making sure they have strong operational processes in place. They add staff based on expected volume without thinking about outcomes. This is a big mistake. Learn about scaling your efforts in, Grow or Die? No, Scale or Die.
How to Talk About [bleep] at Work? Do you avoid sensitive [bleep] topics at work? Too bad! If you address them (including #DEI and #ESG issues) you build the organization’s culture and come up with actionable ideas together. Let’s talk about any [bleep] that matters. Dialogue is relevant for work. Let’s become courageous, positive influencers, says Marcella Bremer.
In order to be fully engaged and stay with an organization, employees need to know that their leaders are for them and care about them as individuals. In Why We Long for Leaders Who Actually Care, Michael Lee Stallard and Katharine P. Stallard explain why and share three actions leaders can take to demonstrate support.
As the job market gets tighter for employers in the ongoing wake of The Great Resignation, the watch word to mitigate staff turnover is employee engagement. Employee engagement has been a hot topic in Human Resource (HR) circles for the last decade as research continually shows strong correlations between engaged employees and business results. Dana Theus offers her insights on this topic in The Dirty Little Secret About Employee Engagement.
Successful organizational change can be a challenge for leaders. Even when leaders see the need and benefits of changing a process or a platform, the entire team must ultimately buy-in and make a commitment to adapt if the changes are to have a lasting and positive impact on productivity and results. Sean Glazer shares helpful guidance in Seven Critical Needs for Sustained and Successful Organizational Change.
In 3 Ways to Meet Survival Needs in the Workplace, Mary Ila Ward warns that not meeting survival needs reduces cognitive functioning. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the ERG Theory, we know survival needs as “existence needs”. We can’t talk about helping people thrive until we create workplace conditions that are conducive to people existing or surviving.
As leaders we tend to be very goal-oriented—we want to get our project to the finish line. But, like running a marathon, if we want to finish the race, the place to focus our leadership efforts is not the end, but on the 18th mile—that’s where the real struggle happens. Ken Downer shares seven ways to prepare for that critical moment in, The 18th Mile: It’s Not the Finish Line Leaders Should Focus On.
Choice is an incredibly powerful psychological need. In the world of motivation theory, it’s commonly accepted that humans have three core psychological needs: autonomy, relatedness, and competence. We express our desire for autonomy through choice—the ability to exert control over our environment. Research also indicates control is a biological necessity.[i] Evidence from animal research, clinical studies, and brain neuroimaging suggests the desire for control is a biological imperative.
I believe the more leaders afford team members the opportunity to exert control by making their own choices, the more success they will have in building trust, managing change efforts, and empowering others.
Principles of Choice
Here are six leadership principles to consider as you look to leverage the power of choice:
1. Choice increases a person’s sense of control. As I mentioned previously, one of our core psychological needs is autonomy. In her book, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does, my friend and colleague, Susan Fowler, says “Autonomy is our human need to perceive we have choices. It is our need to feel that what we are doing is of our own volition. It is our perception that we are the source of our actions.”
The more autonomy a person has to freely choose their course of action, the more motivated and committed they will be to that decision. That’s why we included simple truth #22 in our book: “People who plan the battle rarely battle the plan.” If you want people to be accountable, to get on board with new strategies and changes, then find ways to give them choices to help shape the plan.
2. Choice produces higher personal satisfaction…even if there is no difference in outcome or reward. This is a fascinating psychological phenomenon. It has been demonstrated, both in animal and human research, that there is a preference for choice over non-choice[ii]. When presented with two options, animals and humans prefer the option that leads to a second choice over one that does not, even though the expected value of both options is the same and making a second choice requires greater expenditure of energy.
Any parent who has tried to get a stubborn toddler to eat its dinner or wear a certain outfit understands the power of this principle.
My son Matthew was incredibly headstrong as a toddler, and he’d fight with me tooth and nail when I tried to force decisions upon him. My parental decisions collided directly with his need for choice. When I finally wised up to this principle, I started to let him choose between a few different options of what to eat or wear. Problem solved! He got to express his need for choice, and I met my goal of making sure he was well fed and clothed.
Adults in the workplace are more sophisticated than stubborn toddlers, but the principle works the same. Even if you face constraints that don’t allow for much difference in outcomes, just giving people the ability to choose a course of action results in higher satisfaction than no choice at all.
3. Choice is a reward in and of itself. This principle builds on the previous one. In addition to choice producing higher personal satisfaction, the act of choosing is a reward in and of itself.[iii] Neuroimaging studies show that the rewards and motivation processing regions of our brain (the pre-frontal cortex and striatum) “light up” to a greater extent when we receive rewards based on choice versus rewards being passively received.
So, how can leaders leverage this principle? An obvious area is how rewards and recognition programs are managed. Instead of designating specific gifts, rewards, or prizes for a particular achievement (service anniversaries, meeting sales quotas, etc.), offer people choices in what they can select. That gives individuals twice the pleasure in not only gaining a reward but also being able to choose the specific
4. Lack of choice increases stress. If choice is a reward and produces personal satisfaction, then it’s not much of stretch to realize that no choice produces stress. Scientific studies show that removal of choice increases the release of cortisol (the stress hormone), suppresses the immune system, and results in the development of what researchers call “maladaptive” (aka, bad!) behaviors.[iv]
In the workplace, lack of choice results in people having a greater sense of fear, increased negativity about their environment, developing learned helplessness, and placing more focus on how to regain control, all of which leads to more “maladaptive” behaviors. Yikes!
5. Too much choice increases stress. Didn’t I just say that lack of choice increases stress? Yes, I did. So, doesn’t that mean more choice should reduce stress? Yes, but only to a point. Research points out there is a difference in the desire to want choice versus the desire to make a choice.[v]
Have you ever wanted to paint a room in your house and been overwhelmed with deciding among the 87 different shades of your chosen color that are available at the home improvement store? Or, what about trying to decide which streaming service(s) you should use if you cut the cord on cable TV? Good luck with that!
Although a greater number of choices seem preferable, too many choices quickly lead to cognitive overload. That causes us to sticking with the status quo—not deciding—as a way to cope with the stress. People would rather make no choice than make the wrong one. How ironic! Leverage the power of this principle by giving your people choice, but within reasonable boundaries.
6. Complexity of choices increases the need for trust. When faced with complex situations, incomplete information, or a lack of resources, we turn to trusted advisors to either assist us in the decision-making process or actually making the decision on our behalf. It could be a family member, physician, attorney, boss, or any other person we feel is more capable of making the “best” decision.
This is where leaders earn their pay. If leaders have done a good job building high-trust relationships with their people, they will willingly come to you for help with these sorts of dilemmas. If you don’t have that level of trust, your people will try to address the situation on their own even though they feel ill-equipped to do so. They are also more likely to give you the monkey and let you own the problem, or perhaps worst of all, they will do nothing and let the situation fester.
The Choice is Yours
Trust between you and your team is the key to succeeding in our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world. You must trust the competence and commitment of your team members to exert control and make wise choices. And your team members must trust you to set them up for success and be there to support them when they need it.
Let me close by returning to where I started. The simple truth, “People don’t resist change; they resist being controlled,” speaks to our fundamental human need for control, which is expressed through our desire for choice. The greater degree that leaders can offer their people choice, and thereby increase their sense of control, the greater the likelihood people will be engaged in their work, empowered by their freedom to choose, and achieve goals that are important to the organization.
It seems like a slam dunk to me, but only you can decide if this fits into your approach to leadership. The choice is yours.
Quiet Quitting—for a phenomenon that is titled as something that doesn’t make much noise, it sure has caused a commotion lately, hasn’t it?
In case you’ve been cloistered in a monastery and cut off from all outside contact and don’t know about all this quiet quitting hubbub, let me quickly bring you up to speed.
In April 2021, a Tik-Tok post from a worker in China started going viral. The author was poking holes in the notion that work is the end-all, be-all in life; pretty radical stuff in a culture known for its strict work ethic. Instead of selling his soul to work, the author talked about “tang ping,” which literally translates into “lie flat.” In English we’d commonly say, “lay low.” You know, just lay low, chill, and relax. Not go overboard at work, but just do what’s needed to meet expectations and leave it at that.
As viral social media posts do, the news spread around the world, and workers from all cultures started talking more openly about having a new perspective on work-life balance. Quiet Quitting is all over the news as people reevaluate the role of work in this post-pandemic world, and employers come to grips with the implications of workers who are no longer willing to go above and beyond in their duties.
So, now you’re caught up. But, despite all the press it has been getting lately, Quiet Quitting is not a new problem. It’s actually a new name for an old problem: disengagement.
As my colleague, Kathy Cuff, recently wrote about this topic, a recent Gallup survey estimated that 50% of American workers are disengaged. Since the year 2000, employee engagement has hovered around 30%. The percentage of actively disengaged employees has taken a jump the last few years, primarily due to the impacts of the Covid pandemic. Workers are fundamentally reassessing the role work plays in their lives and that’s showing up in this wave of Quiet Quitting.
Rather than viewing Quiet Quitting as a challenge that must be managed, I encourage leaders to look at it as an opportunity to be seized.
People are quietly quitting because they perceive the ROI of work isn’t worth it. People are more than willing to give their full effort at work if they perceive they are getting value in return. And that value is not just related to money. Surveys consistently show that people rank things like career growth, autonomy, appreciation, and recognition, higher than compensation in what they value most about work.
This is a prime opportunity for leaders to engage team members in heartfelt, open dialogue about their growth and development goals and how the leader can partner with them in pursuit of those goals.
If you’re not sure how to engage your folks in these kinds of conversations, here are four steps to take:
Connect with care—If you have a team member who appears to have quietly quit, address the issue with care and empathy. Openly acknowledge the reality without placing blame or judgment on the person. In fact, there’s nothing to blame. Is it wrong for a person to fulfill the duties of their job description without going above and beyond? I’d argue that no, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, it’s important to uncover the motivation behind that thinking. Is it because the employee feels like they’ve been taken advantage of? Do they have life circumstances going on that is causing them to pull back from work? Everyone’s situation is different, so take the time to explore, listen, support, empathize, and truly understand the needs of your team member.
Express appreciation—One of the leadership nuggets Ken Blanchard and I share in our recent book, Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust, is Simple Truth #35: People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. A lack of value and appreciation is at the root of why many people have quietly quit. They just don’t feel or believe the organization appreciates them. As a leader, you have a tremendous opportunity (and responsibility) to reverse this belief. Show how their work connects to the greater purpose of the organization. To the best of your ability, make sure they are appropriately recognized and rewarded for their contributions. When people feel valued and connected to something greater than themselves, they naturally go above and beyond the call of duty.
Explore options—Lack of growth, development, and opportunity is another key driver of quiet quitting. Helping team members see a career path in the organization can be challenging for many leaders, especially in today’s flat organizations where there is less upward positional growth than in decades past. Career growth is no longer about gaining the next title or promotion, and in fact, many Millennials and Gen Z folks are looking for skill and experience development instead. This career discovery process starts with conversations between you and your people. Two good resources are an article I wrote about 10 questions great bosses regularly ask their people and Promotions are SO Yesterday, the newest book from my friend Julie Winkle-Giulioni. These resources can help you explore career development opportunities beyond the traditional route of promotions.
Pledge commitment—People are longing for leaders to be their advocates, and at times, their defenders. They want leaders who will go to bat for them, lobby for the resources they need to do their jobs effectively and strive to give them the reward and recognition they desire. Those are the kind of leaders to whom people give their hearts and minds. People will bend over backwards to follow a leader they believe in, because they know the leader believes in them. Let your people know that you’re on their That doesn’t mean you’re not on the side of the organization, because you are, and your people know that. But your people will respect and value your authenticity in doing what you can to be their champion and you’ll see that evidenced in their level of engagement.
Quiet quitting is a golden opportunity for leaders to connect with their people in a genuine, authentic, heartfelt way, and those opportunities don’t come along often. Don’t freak out if you think someone has turned into a Quiet Quitter. Instead, muster up the courage to talk to them about it. Approach the conversation with care, let them know how much they’re appreciated, explore options to meet their growth desires at work, and commit to walking alongside them in the days ahead. Your team members will appreciate it and you’ll feel good about it, too. That’s a win-win.
This post originally appeared on The Ken Blanchard Companies' LeaderChat blog and I thought the Leading with Trust audience would enjoy it as well.
Talking with team members about their performance challenges typically falls in the category of “least favorite” managerial tasks, along with things such as budgeting, attending all-day meetings, and completing performance reviews. It’s usually not something most leaders enjoy, but it’s a necessary and critical part of helping your team perform its best.
Why do most leaders shy away from confronting poor performance head-on? My experience has shown that it’s usually because they don’t know where to start. Because the process feels uncomfortable and managers don’t have a plan to follow, they either do a poor job at addressing underperformance or they just don’t do it all.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Managers can confidently and successfully deal with underperforming employees by following an eight-step plan. The first three steps involve what I call “looking in the mirror,” which is examining the leader’s role in the employee’s performance issue. The next five steps are “looking out the window,” which is exploring the employee’s role in the situation.
Looking in the mirror
Before having a conversation with the employee, the leader needs to look in the mirror and examine if they’ve done their part to help the employee succeed.
Step 1: Did I set clear goals? All good performance starts with clear goals.
That’s one of the key leadership principles Ken Blanchard and I discuss in our recent book, Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust. Although most managers agree with the importance of setting goals, many do not take the time to clearly develop goals with their team members and write them down. How do leaders expect people to achieve their goals if they aren’t clear on what a good job looks like? And how can leaders accurately address poor performance if there isn’t a clear benchmark against which to measure?
Step 2: Did I accurately diagnose the employee’s development level?
People go through predictable stages of development when starting a new goal or task. Their development level on a task is a combination of competence (knowledge and skills) and commitment (confidence and motivation).
Most people start a new goal or task as an Enthusiastic Beginner because they have high commitment but low competence on doing the task. As they gain a bit of competence, they typically experience a dip in commitment because they realize the task is harder than they thought. We call people at that stage of development a Disillusioned Learner. As they build competence and commitment on the task, they move into the stage of being a Capable, but Cautious Performer. They know most of what to do regarding the task, but they still have some self-doubt that causes them to question themselves or seek the help of more experienced colleagues. Finally, when a person is fully competent and committed on a task, they have become a Self-Reliant Achiever.
Step 3: Did I use a leadership style that matched the employee’s development level?
In The Ken Blanchard Companies’ SLII® leadership development model, managers are taught to use different leadership styles that match the development level of their employees. Leaders flex their style by employing a combination of directive and supportive behaviors. For example, when an employee is an Enthusiastic Beginner, a leader needs to use a Directive style that is high on direction and low on support to teach the employee the basics of doing the task. Disillusioned Learner’s need a Coaching style that is high in both direction support to help them develop both their competence and commitment. Leaders use a Supporting style, high on support but low on direction, to draw out the Capable but Cautious Performer and help them step into their own power and knowledge. And of course, Self-Reliant Achievers can be given a Delegating style of leadership because they know what to do with minimal involvement from the leader.
Looking out the window
Leaders “look in the mirror” by examining themselves to make sure they’ve worked with the employee to set clear goals, accurately diagnosed the development level of the employee on each of those goals, and then used a matching leadership style to help the employee develop to peak performance. If leaders can answer in the affirmative to steps 1 to 3, then they can begin “looking out the window.”
Step 4: Is the employee unclear on goals and expectations?
It’s not uncommon for there to be confusion between leaders and employees on goals. Here’s an interesting way to test for goal alignment between a leader and team member. Both the leader and team member write down what they each believe to be the team member’s top 3-5 goals and then they compare notes. It’s amazing how often there is a notable discrepancy between the two lists.
If there isn’t alignment on the specific goal, the leader needs to reset or renegotiate goals with the employee, or the leader needs to give feedback on what and how the employee needs to perform differently.
Step 5: Have things changed to impact goal achievement?
Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight boxing champion, famously said “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Conditions in the employee’s environment may have changed since the goal was first established, and as a result, their performance is being negatively impacted.
If this is the case, the leader may need to work with the employee to renegotiate the goal. Additionally, the leader may need to work with the employee on a strategy to mitigate the environmental risks. The leader should also partner with the team member to facilitate problem solving. Sometimes obstacles cause employees to stall out in progressing on their goal and they just need their leader to provide good coaching that helps them solve their own problems.
Step 6: Is it a problem of competence/skill?
If leaders answer yes to this question, it means the employee is either an Enthusiastic Beginner or Disillusioned Learner on the goal/task. In that case, the leader should provide a more directive style of leadership that involves showing the employee how to do the task and setting up a step-by-step plan for learning that will help the employee become a Self-Reliant Achiever (fully competent and committed).
Step 7: Is it a lack of confidence?
If the employee has the competence to do the task but lacks confidence, that signifies they are a Capable, but Cautious Performer. The leader’s job at this point is to build the employee’s confidence. How is that done? The leader uses high supportive behavior like encouraging and reassuring the employee. The leader can also build the employee’s confidence by helping them reflect on past successes and highlight the progress the employee has already made on the goal/task.
Step 8: Is it a lack of motivation?
There are times when all of us experience the motivational doldrums. Whether it’s personal or work-related, our motivational outlooks can impact our work performance. Identifying and connecting the employee’s contributions to the bigger-picture outcomes of the organization can help improve their motivation.
Most People Want to Succeed
Most of the time, following the previously outlined steps will help an employee improve their performance. However, there will be occasions when leaders work through these eight steps and performance doesn’t improve. What to do then?
Leaders should challenge ‘won’t do” behavior and clearly outline the consequences of continued non-performance. But before resorting to that, consider that most people want to do a good job. Very few people wake up in the morning and say to themselves, “I can’t wait to be a total failure today!” Before “looking out the window” to address poor performance with an employee, leaders need to “look in the mirror” to see if they’ve done their part to set the employee up for success. After all, leadership is a partnership. It’s something you do with people, not to them.
When you go on holiday this summer, will you be preoccupied with how things are going at work? Do you have low trust in your team’s ability to manage without you? Or perhaps your team doesn’t trust you, and they can’t wait for you to go on vacation, so they don’t have to look over their shoulder every minute of the day. Regardless of your situation, there’s never a right time to take a vacation from building trust.
The most important part of leadership is what happens when you’re not there.
High-control leaders are afraid to take time off of work and delegate to their team members. They’re concerned that when they’re not around, people will get off-course and do something stupid that will reflect badly on the leader. Trusted servant leaders, on the other hand, develop and empower their people so that they will perform just as well, if not better, on their own as they do when the leader is present.
This is especially critical in today’s remote and hybrid work culture. When you as the leader are physically located alongside your people, it’s easy to observe their working behaviors. But that’s an impossibility in today’s environment. The real proof that you are a trusted servant leader is how your people perform on their own. They know you trust them and they want to live up to the standards you have demonstrated.
That’s why I’d like to invite you to join me for the 8-week Summer of Trust leadership reflection series. Every Monday, from July 11 through August 29, you’ll receive a weekly email containing…
An inspirational and thought-provoking message on how to become a trusted servant leader
Practical actions steps for that week’s focus area that will help you implement the mindsets and skillsets of trusted servant leaders
A downloadable tool or resource to help you in your leadership journey of building trust
People want an empathetic leader. Many managers strive to be one. But ask someone to define the term, and you’re likely to be met with silence.
Let’s start with the definition. According to Merriam-Webster, empathy means “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”
The logical question is: why is being empathetic an important quality of a leader? It seems to have nothing in common with achieving tasks or succeeding in the workplace.
The importance of being an empathetic leader starts with the simple truth that leadership is about people. If you’re going to lead effectively, you must be attuned to your people’s thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. This translates into creating real partnerships rather than exerting power. It means walking alongside your team members and guiding them in the direction you need them to go.
Why Empathetic Leaders Are Needed Now
The topic of empathetic leadership has been getting a lot of press lately, mostly due to the adverse effects of the pandemic. COVID has bruised people in many ways: losing a loved one, losing a job, pay cuts, health problems, and on and on.
People are reevaluating their relationship with work in the wake of the pandemic. Some are deciding life’s too short to leave their spirit at the door and endure long workdays just to bring home a paycheck. They want an environment that nourishes them in a profound way.
The Empathy Deficit
Forbessays empathy is the most important leadership skill, but only 40% of people rate their leaders as being empathetic. It’s tricky to single out one skill as being the most important—anyone can argue that other skills deserve top billing. That qualifier aside, this statistic reveals a huge disconnect between what people want and what their leaders are providing.
But leading with empathy isn’t easy. If empathetic leadership were part of a college curriculum, it would be a 200-level class. It presumes that people have all the basics down—and many leaders don’t.
Leaders are often promoted to their roles based on their success as an individual contributor. But being a first-time manager requires a whole new set of skills—for example, emotional intelligence—that are more important than technical expertise. Many managers either haven’t had the opportunity to develop these skills, are resistant to doing so, or don’t have an interest in them.
When you add up all these reasons, it’s easy to see why we have an empathy deficit among leaders and their people.
Here are five ways to increase your ability to lead with empathy.
1. Know Thyself
Becoming an empathetic leader starts with having excellent self-awareness. This requires doing inner work on understanding your motivators, your temperament, and your personality style. It also includes knowing your communication style, your reaction to feedback, and how your values shape your behavior.
The first step in your journey is investing in your own development. Once you are more self-aware, you can begin to adjust your leadership style to the needs of your people.
Senior executives play a pivotal role in this. They must put organizational resources behind self-awareness initiatives to show they are serious about developing empathetic leaders. Investing in training is an example. Just as important, they need to model the behaviors they want the organization’s leaders to demonstrate. They also should have caring conversations with managers who don’t appear to be growing into empathetic leaders.
2. Understand Others
The second part of empathetic leadership is striving for a good understanding of your team members. This includes improving your communication skills, such as being curious in conversations instead of being defensive or aggressive. It also includes learning how to eliminate fear in your interactions with your people—trust cannot survive if there is fear in a relationship.
Building trust with your people is essential if you’re to be an empathetic leader. They must know you are on their side and you mean them no harm. You must show them your role as a leader is to help them succeed. The better you understand your people, the better you’ll be able to serve them in a meaningful way.
3. Be Helpful
Finding practical ways to serve others is a concrete example of empathetic leadership. Our Self Leadership course teaches five points of power you can use to help your people succeed:
Position Power: Having the title or authority to make certain decisions
Task Power: Having control over a task or particular job
Personal Power: Having interpersonal and leadership skills, passion, inspiration, or a personal vision of the future
Relationship Power: Being connected or friendly with other people who have power
Knowledge Power: Having relevant experience, expertise, or credentials
Empathetic leaders use these points of power to build up their people, help them feel safe and secure, and increase their confidence. When leaders do this, their people know they care about them. This opens many doors of possibility.
4. Be Compassionate
Empathetic leaders are compassionate and extend grace to others. They know how to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. But remember: organizations have goals that must be accomplished. Leaders must balance compassion with clear expectations that are understood by every team member.
Leaders who are empathetic place great importance on creating psychological safety—an environment where a person feels free to speak their mind, take risks, and admit mistakes without fear of being punished or reprimanded.
Simple Truth #1 in our book is “Servant leadership is the best way to achieve both great results and great relationships.” Many people have an either/or mindset when it comes to leadership—they focus on either achieving results or developing relationships. You can get both if you set a clear vision and direction for your people, then work side by side serving them in ways that help them accomplish their goals.
5. Set Boundaries
Empathetic leaders know how to set clear boundaries that benefit everyone, such as letting people know how many hours a day they’re supposed to work or that sending late-night emails is inappropriate.
When everyone has clarity on work boundaries—including rules and expectations—there is tremendous safety and freedom. Boundaries create a guardrail so people don’t unduly sacrifice themselves to accomplish something. Boundaries also promote autonomy. They let people know what they can and can’t do.
An Empathetic Leader in Action
Seeing an empathetic leader in action turns philosophy into concrete reality. Try to imagine yourself as an empathetic leader who practices the following behaviors on a daily basis.
An empathetic leader:
Asks rather than tells
Listens rather than speaks
Serves rather than commands
Cares about people’s concerns
Is receptive to feedback
Doesn’t overact to people’s questions or concerns
Doesn’t interpret concerns as resistance
When you demonstrate these behaviors, your people will be loyal to you. They’ll be engaged. They’ll give their best effort. They’ll be more innovative. And they’ll speak highly about your organization to their friends and colleagues.
Call to Action
At its core, empathetic leadership is about being an others-focused leader. It’s about leaders being in tune with the needs of their people and responding in tangible ways that demonstrate their care and concern. And how do people respond when their leaders act this way? They pledge their loyalty, trust, and commitment to that leader, which results in greater productivity, innovation, and creativity. Who wouldn’t want that?
I originally published this post on LeaderChat.org and thought the Leading with Trust audience would enjoy it as well.
In my line of work, I get the opportunity to interact with leaders from a wide variety of organizations from a diverse range industries, including government and non-profits. A common factor that most are dealing with right now is adjusting to the new world of hybrid work.
Hybrid work means team members work from both the office and remotely. Some organizations employ a formal schedule that requires employees to be in the office certain days of the week, while others leave it to the discretion of the team member to be in the office as needed, usually for key meetings or events. Many organizations are trying to find the model that works best for their specific needs and goals.
The Great Trust Experiment
Although working virtually has been “a thing” for many years, the pandemic forced it upon organizations at a scale that couldn’t have been imagined just a few years ago. Literally overnight, organizations were forced to adopt a new model of working if they wanted to survive. Employers had to extend massive amount of trust to their employees in what I have called “The Great Trust Experiment.” By most accounts, the shift has been a success, with organizations experiencing increased growth and productivity, and employees reporting higher levels of well-being and satisfaction.
But old habits die hard. Many organizations are either calling their employees back to the office full-time or requiring them to be in the office certain days of the week.
Why? Well, most companies are saying that employees’ physical presence in the office is required to foster a healthy organizational culture, or that in-person interaction is required for innovative and creative work to take place.
Are those important factors? Absolutely. Is being in the office a prerequisite for those things to flourish? No.
So, I’m calling B.S.
The Opposite of Trust is not Distrust—it’s Control
I think the root factor driving most of these decisions is control.
We are in the early days of a transformation of how work is being defined in the 21st century. No longer is work a place you go to, but rather something you do. Since the very nature of work is being redefined, it’s also redefining the nature of leadership.
Since the industrial revolution, leadership has been governed by a command-and-control approach, where leaders were designated to make decisions (issue commands) and dictate (control) how the work is done. Employees have long been “human resources” that are merely a means to an end.
The digital age has rendered command-and-control leadership obsolete. For many occupations, work can be accomplished from literally anywhere, yet our mindset and approach to leadership is struggling to adapt to this new reality.
No Going Back to The “Old Days”
The genie is out of the bottle regarding remote work and there’s no putting it back in. The pandemic has caused people to re-evaluate their relationship with work and they’ve learned there’s a better way. And unlike any time in the past, employees have the lion’s share of power to make decisions about where and how they want to work.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating against the value and necessity of in-person work. Nothing yet invented can replace human-to-human interaction, and I doubt it ever will (although, I wouldn’t be surprised to see future technological innovation that closely mimics in-person interaction). I think in-person gatherings are critically important for team formation, bonding, and cultural development.
But I think it’s lazy leadership to blanketly mandate employees be in the office because “that’s what the office is for,” or “that’s how we did it before the pandemic.” I just had a conversation with a client this week who expressed her organization’s employees are struggling with being required to be in the office yet spend the entire day alone participating in virtual meetings.
A New Model of Leadership is Needed
We need more honest and introspective discussion about how organizations must shift in the years ahead if they want to attract and retain the best talent. We must adopt new mindsets about what leadership looks like and how our organizations operate in the future, rather than being stuck in our current mindsets of believing innovation/culture/teamwork/etc., can only happen when we’re together in person.
I think the future of work will look differently for each organization and employee. I think it will be a mosaic of options that take into account the unique needs of all the parties involved, but in order for that to happen, there has to be trust. Organizations need to let go of control and adopt a service-minded approach to leading.
Trusted servant leaders look to bring out the best in their team members. They put the needs of their followers ahead of their own. When team members believe their leader (and by extension, their organization) has their best interests at heart and is there to support them in achieving their goals, trust grows by leaps and bounds.
There are many questions we need to answer as we seek to define what work looks like in the hybrid world. I don’t have all the answers, and in fact, probably only have one: trusted servant leaders will be key to unleashing the potential and power of people and organizations in the years ahead.
There are a few four-letter words that leaders would like to use more at work. You can probably guess the words I’m thinking of because you’ve almost certainly wanted to use them yourself! (Or perhaps you have…or do!)
Although there is some research that advocates the benefits of cursing at work, I’m still old-school in my approach. My mother would frequently remind me that the language we use reflects our level of intelligence and maturity, so instead of using curse words, we should find better ways to express ourselves. I still roll that way.
So, you won’t be surprised that I’m not advocating leaders more frequently use the four-letter words that begin with F, S, and D. No, I’m suggesting leaders use the four-letter word that begins with L.
Most people have probably heard the “love passage” from the Bible read at a wedding or other special occasions. According to 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
I don’t know a better representation of the qualities of a trusted servant leader than the virtues listed in this passage. But if you ask someone who works for a self-serving leader to describe their boss, you’ll hear the opposite of these characteristics. Self-serving leaders are seldom perceived as patient or kind. They tend to envy others with more influence, brag about their accomplishments, and so on.
I believe servant leadership is love in action. And if love is the answer, perhaps the question is, “What do servant leaders lead with?
Do you want to know if your people see you as a servant leader? Well, if you’re up for the challenge, consider doing this:
List the personal traits from this passage and rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 5 (least to most) as to how much they describe you as a leader.
If you’re courageous, ask your team members to do the same. Make it anonymous.
Once you get the feedback, set up a meeting with your team, share what you’ve learned, and ask them how you could improve on the traits where you scored low.
Then—this is key—make changes in your leadership style to show them you are serious about improving.
One of the great things about love is that you don’t always have to say the word to let people know how you feel. You can demonstrate it through your everyday actions and interactions with your people. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with saying the word, too.
Love. It’s the four-letter word leaders need to use more often at work.
The slap heard around the world, otherwise known as Will Smith smacking Chris Rock in the face at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony after Rock made a joke at the expense of Smith’s wife, has been the buzz of social media and pop culture.
Less than an hour after the embarrassing debacle, Smith won the Oscar for Best Actor (awkward!), and gave a quasi-apology/acknowledgment of his juvenile actions mixed with an excuse for his bad behavior. After having some time to think about it, and probably at the behest of his handlers in an attempt to minimize the negative backlash, Smith issued an apology on Instagram.
Let’s take a look at his apology and assign it a letter grade to gauge its effectiveness. Take a seat. Class is in session.
Here’s the full text of Smith’s apology:
The first step in an effective apology is to acknowledge what you did and admit your wrongdoing. Smith addresses the issue head on by stating the violent way he acted is poisonous and destructive and his behavior was unacceptable and inexcusable. Strong start to the apology. Letter Grade = A, Excellent.
Great apologies refrain from using conditional language and making excuses. Using words like if and but weaken the apology, shift blame away from your behavior, and sound like you’re justifying your actions. Unfortunately, after a strong start, Smith fell prey to this common trap. After stating there was no excuse for his behavior, what did he do? He made an excuse by saying, “but a joke about Jada’s medical condition was too much for me to bear and I reacted emotionally.” He would have been better served to simply say, “Jokes at my expense are a part of the job and I was out of line to react emotionally.” Short, sweet, to the point, and no excuses. Letter Grade = C, Average.
Another element of an effective apology is to express remorse for your actions and the harm it caused the other party. Smith’s expression of remorse includes him saying he was embarrassed about his actions, there’s no place for violence in this world, and stating regret over his behavior staining the awards ceremony. A notable omission is any sort of acknowledgment about the harm he inflicted on Chris Rock. Although Smith says, “I would like to publicly apologize to you, Chris,” he doesn’t say a word about the extreme embarrassment and humiliation it must have caused Rock to be assaulted on live television in front of millions of viewers.
Notably, Smith used the word apologize versus sorry. The two words are often used interchangeably in regards to giving an apology, but there are important differences in their meanings. Apologize is a verb. It’s the act of acknowledging and taking ownership for a mistake. Sorry is an adjective. It’s the feeling of remorse, regret, or sorrow over one’s action. Apologize is something you do. Sorry is how you feel. Letter Grade = C, Average.
Finally, a good apology includes a commitment to not repeating the behavior in the future. It’s the bookend to acknowledging and admitting what you did wrong, and shows that you understand you need to learn, grow, and take steps to not engage in that behavior in the future. Smith attempts to communicate that he understands there is room for growth by saying he’s a work in progress, but he could have been more explicit about his plan of action. Simply saying, “I’m going to learn and grow from this experience so that I react in more peaceful ways in the future” would have sufficed. At best, Smith’s apology falls short in this regard. At worse, his “work in progress” comment sounds like another excuse. Letter Grade = C, Average.
Overall Grade = C, Average.
You might say I’m a tough grader, and you’d be right. I have a high standard for what trustworthy behavior looks like and what constitutes a good apology when one falls short of that mark. Assigning a grade of C is actually a pretty decent score in today’s world. Most public figures do a poor job of apologizing, so it doesn’t take much to stand apart from the crowd.
How would you grade Will Smith’s apology? Feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts.
The following article is a guest post from my friend and colleague, Brock Brown. Brock is a Channel Partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies, an executive leadership coach, servant leader, and a man of integrity. I’m sure you’ll enjoy his wisdom about the intersection of character, trust, and ethics.
“HIRE FOR CHARACTER, TRAIN FOR COMPETENCE,” I have said it a thousand times. However, I have come to realize that people think very differently about a person’s good character, from how they define good character to how they determine a person is not of good character.
As I write this, the Canadian government is invoking the Emergencies Act to deal with people protesting Covid vaccine mandates. Last month the USA recognized one year since the January 6th, 2021, insurrection over the election. Many people of good character sit on both sides of these issues. If their choices are wrong, are they doomed to be never trusted again? To never achieve the label of “person of good character?” I hope not. Below are a series of commonly asked questions I receive when teaching our Values-Based Decision Making course where I discuss good character. Please join me as I walk through these thought provoking questions:
What is character and how do we define it?
If you have good character, how long does it take to lose it and how do you keep from losing it?
If you lose it, will people ever trust you again? Can you get it back?
If you don’t have good character, how long does it take to gain it?
How do we test for good character in an interview in such a way that the answer can’t be faked?
Is it possible to help our people develop good character or do we simply accept that if they don’t have good character by adulthood, they never will?
I have been in the full-time work force for over 45 years and have come to realize that we are “human beings, not perfect beings.” We are all prone to make mistakes or bad decisions, especially when we are under pressure. We are prone to make bad, and sometimes unethical judgements when there is greater pressure to “get’er done,” versus to get things done ethically, safely, or legally. I have seen the status of being “a person of good character” wiped away in a split second with a bad decision, resulting in years of penance before the good-character status is achieved again and sometimes it never is.
In 25 years of consulting, I have asked over fifteen thousand people the following question: In the workplace, do you receive more pressure to get things done no matter what it takes, or to get things done correctly (ethically, safely, legally)? In other words, do your supervisors demonstrate that they care more about your results, or about your results delivered through good character-based decisions? Overwhelmingly, people identified that they received more pressure to focus on results versus on results achieved using good character-based decisions. It is why so many employees describe their company’s values on the wall as “pious words of intent.” I come from an industry that espouses the importance of safety, but also has a commonly used saying: “get’er done.” That saying has led to more employee deaths and injury than I care to imagine. I know this because I led the investigation on some of them.
So, let’s take a crack at answering the above questions and see if we can draw some conclusions about good character.
1. What is good character and how do we define it?
The great basketball coach John Wooden once said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” With all respect to coach Wooden, the trouble with this standard is: if no one is looking, how do we know? I tend to follow the character standard of the great ethicist Michael Josephson who said, “The real test of character is if you are willing to do the right thing even though it may cost you more than you want to pay.” Doing the right thing can be seen as too broad. However, the decisions we make as leaders, executives and people in general, are often complex and don’t fit in a right-versus-wrong box. It’s what makes being human so challenging sometimes. Doing the right thing often involves executing on such core values as integrity, loyalty, honesty, courage and fortitude. Some people would call these virtues and they are. However, I refer to them as moral values. As the great ethicist Dr. Larry Axline said, “Moral values in action is ethics.” I have discovered throughout my career that one’s character is rarely tested by making the right choice but more by what you do when someone points out that you’ve made the wrong choice and everyone is watching. Arguably, I correlate being trustworthy to good character. I believe people pin the label of “good character” on a person they trust and the label of “questionable character” on someone they do not trust or who they no longer trust.
2. If you have good character, how long does it take to lose it and how do you keep from losing it?
If you have good character, people will give you what I call character-based trust. They will trust your word. If you say you will do something, they don’t have a second thought about you doing it because they know and accept it will be done. That trust can be lost slowly over time or in a split second. I have witnessed, time and time again, people demonstrating what I call “stepping to the left” by using a myriad of rationalizations such as “no one will ever know” or “just this once” or “it’s only a little white lie.” I have seen this cause people to slowly lose the trust of others to the point where no one trusts the individual at all. I have seen leaders slowly erode their team’s trust by regularly showing up to their own meetings late with lame excuses. It’s as if you start a relationship with a pocket full of trust credits given by people who trust you (see my cynicism comments in section #4 below for those who don’t) and every time you rationalize a bad decision you lose a trust credit with others, until you reach the point where all the credits are gone.
However, I have also seen someone lose all their trust credits at once. Something done or said due to substance abuse, succumbing to a bribe or fraud when finances are tight, or erupting under pressure and tearing down another human being can all lead to a complete loss of trust credits.
As human beings, not perfect beings, I think we are all bound to lose some, or all, of the trust credits given to us by others at some point in our relationships. But there are things you can do to hold yourself in check, such as:
Set Your Compass: Define and publish your personal core values for all to see, then commit to letting them guide your behavior and decisions, no matter what.
Set Your Boundaries: Ask someone (or a group) to be your truthteller and always hold you accountable to your values and point out when they believe you have contravened one or more of your values. This usually takes a special person who sees you regularly in your element and has the courage to call you out. Of note, my oldest daughter, from a very young age, had no trouble pointing out when I strayed from my values.
Engage Your Leadership: When held to account by your truthteller on your values, you need to be willing to thank them for their courage, explain your reasoning or admit any mistakes, apologize to those affected and, if wrong, change or correct your decision.
I still find it amazing how many senior leaders consider themselves perfect beings and are unwilling to admit they are wrong, for fear that others will lose confidence in them. The fact is, the opposite is true. When leaders admit mistakes (I mean, everyone knows you’ve made a mistake already), they garner greater trust from others. Mind you, it the leader is constantly making mistakes, one may also need to consider leader competence, but I will save that discussion for another article. I have found that people don’t expect leaders to be perfect. They are expected to be honest, willing to admit when they are wrong and correct the issue.
It may be important to stop and discuss two other types of trust not covered in this paper. Competency-based trust is when others trust that you have the skill to do the work. Often companies have hired based on competence alone only to discover the individual’s character is wanting. Without some sort of development intervention, this can be a bad hire. Vulnerability-based trust, a term coined by Patrick Lencioni, is based upon the humble vulnerability one demonstrates with others on a team when one leaves everything on the table, warts and all. When achieved, it is often what catapults teams from merely competent to high performing teams and advanced organizational culture.
3. If you lose it, will people ever trust you again? Can you get it back?
When others pin the “lacks good character” button on you and have lost trust in you, they can be fickle in giving trust back and allowing you to regain your good-character status. I watched a colleague make a bad choice which was influenced by alcohol abuse. He ended up being demoted and losing the trust of his entire team and his boss, the CEO. I watched him go on the wagon, get sober, and pay his penance. It took five years for his boss and colleagues to truly demonstrate their trust in him. In my opinion, this trust could have been established more quickly. People can trust you again; however, it takes a high degree of humility and transparency. You need to discover, by asking them, what they need from you to regain their trust and then you need to execute on their answer. You need to give them time.
I use a Marshal Goldsmith Stakeholder Coaching process that asks for feedback and feed forward on behaviour(s) monthly. Performance change and trust can be measured using a quick mini survey. If a leader I am coaching had lost the trust of their team, we would ask the team what it would take to earn their trust again, set an aligned behaviour goal to achieve that, then ask affected stakeholders to provide feedback on the behaviour monthly by identifying what worked, what did not, and what the leader needs to do in the next 30 days. This process would occur in 30-day intervals over a 9-12 month period with interim mini-surveys focused on the behaviour and completed by the stakeholders. The survey measures improvement. My colleague referenced above didn’t ask others what was needed and didn’t ask for regular feedback. He put his own plan in place. I’m assuming that is why it took so long.
I was asked to do a presentation to an executive leadership team on values-based leadership. This was a team that had published values (the posters were everywhere) and professed to be a “values-based company.” Early in the presentation, I asked the executives if I could test how values-based they were. I had taken the liberty of taking down the values poster in the room before my presentation. I asked each executive to pull out a piece of paper and write down their company’s core values in order without reference to any other document, poster, etc. Out of seven people, the only person who wrote anything down was the CEO. He got the first value correct and then nothing after that. My comment to them was, “If you profess to be values-led, that means you know what the values are and use them in your dialogue daily. If you are the leader who had the values poster put up and you don’t know the values, I will guarantee that your teams think your values are pious words of intent and think you are untrustworthy.”
My message was not well received. One VP told me I was full of s@#t. My response was “maybe” and I challenged him to go find the answer. That same VP phoned me three days later and told me he tested my theory. He went to his three-person team, two of whom had worked for him for 12+ years and followed him to this company. He told me he asked them in their Monday team meeting if they trusted him. He said he got two no’s and one weak yes. He then asked them why they didn’t trust him. They said, “We like you, you are a nice guy, but you are always shooting off in different directions, not keeping us informed or telling us what you are doing and why”.” They said, “It’s like you totally disregard our core value of people.” I told the executive about the Marshal Goldsmith coaching method, asked him what trusted behavior would look like and suggested he ask his team and set a goal. Nine months later, he phoned me and said he now has three strong yeses to the question “Do you trust me?”
When you’ve lost trust and people believe your character is left wanting, they can trust you again: it just takes humility and involving them as stakeholders in the process of regaining their trust. It takes time.
4. If you don’t have good character, how long does it take to gain it?
There are two parts to this answer. One part reflects your behavior, and the other reflects the level of cynicism of the person who is issuing you trust credits. Cynics tend to doubt that people do anything from a position of character, but rather that people are motivated solely by self-interest. Their cynicism is often a reflection of their experience. A cynic, for example may not believe that a leader cares about the success of their team members, but only feigns caring so the leader themselves can succeed. We need to be careful not to judge a cynic too harshly. A participant in our Values-Based Decision-Making course completed a Cynicism Quotient Assessment which revealed he had a high level of cynicism. He informed his team that, in his previous employment, he was a midlevel manager for Enron and lost his pension due to their fraudulent misdeeds. Telling him he shouldn’t be so cynical would do no good. We had to prove ourselves trustworthy to permit him to let go of his cynicism in a timely manner.
To be a person of good character requires acting consistently with integrity, being truthful, loyal, honest, fair and forthright, having courage and being kind. People look for these traits to identify good character. People of good character admit mistakes, correct them, and move on. When people witness this, they tend to think of you as trustworthy and a person of good character. However, everyone comes with their own baggage. I always tell the leaders I am coaching that they must demonstrate trustworthiness consistently before people will trust them. Some people will take longer than others to deem them trustworthy and of good character and issue them the full load of trust credits. Some associates have been abused by previous leaders and will take time to trust again. This is true for many of our relationships, not just the working ones. Just because you are acting trustworthy with good character, doesn’t mean you will be trusted and deemed of good character by others right away. Be patient. There are those who may never issue trust credits and will carry their cynicism to the grave. I coach leaders to allow such cynicism to be an accountability yard stick for a period. However, if it stays too long without reason based on your relationship with them, it becomes a poison that must be removed from the relationship and/or organization.
5. How do we test for good character in an interview in such a way that the answer can’t be faked?
Is there a high enough percentage of “people of good character” in the population that it is even worthwhile testing for in an interview? I have read that putting your grocery cart back in the corral is a test of character. My experience would say that eliminates about 35% of the population. I have heard that sticking to your commitments is a sign of good character. Statistically, that eliminates about 52% of people in first-time domestic partnerships. However, this doesn’t mean we should only look for employees who are single and don’t go shopping.
When interviewing new employees for a software company I cofounded, we would ask the candidates to bring their personal core values to the second interview. If they did not have defined personal core values, we had them go to the free website http://www.EthicsTool.com and use the core values tool to aid them in creating, defining, and prioritizing their core values. We would then ask a series of behaviour-based questions around the candidate’s core values: asking them to illustrate how the values impacted various decisions they had made or how the values would help them solve a case study we presented them with. We also asked them to tell us how our published corporate values aligned (or not) with their personal values. We asked them to describe what it would look like when their personal core values came alive in our organization. With these “values deep-dives,” we always caught those who were just giving us good-character lip service.
6. Is it possible to help our people develop good character or do we simply accept that if they don’t have good character by adulthood, they never will?
Early in my career, I was fortunate enough to meet a man who modelled good character on a regular basis. It was then I realized that good character was a trait I generally lacked but wanted to pursue. It has been a life journey ever since.
I think we need to give ourselves and our colleagues a break. I think the status of good character is a journey we undertake and then oscillate between achieving and not achieving. Please don’t get me wrong, however; when we demonstrate something less than good character, there need to be consequences. Sometimes those consequences will be fair and uncomfortable, and sometimes they will be fair and catastrophic. When consulting to executive teams on team chartering, I coach them to consider the termination of a team member who violates team confidentiality. If the team member stays, the organization may not be able to afford the consequences of that person not having team trust while they are trying to recover it. Lack of trust amongst the executive team has a compounding negative ripple effect on the organization.
Over the years, I have come to accept that when accountability is doled out, there will be times the relationship severs. However, there are also times when we need to allow a person to reclaim good-character status with their actions and earn our trust credits back, rather than block them from ever achieving our trust again. Time and time again I have seen professional organizations place unbearable pressure on individuals to achieve financial/performance results while giving lip service to values and ethics, then display shock when the individual cuts corners to achieve the results. It is why we need to consider one’s intentions when we consider accountability. I tell my customers that malicious intent needs to be dealt with harshly; however, sometimes people have good intent (i.e., to help the organization succeed), but execute by doing the wrong thing. This type of misstep needs to be handled with compassion.
I have been running a survey for the past four months with two questions on it:
1. Have you ever witnessed someone make an ethically questionable decision?
a. Yes – 88%
b. No – 12%
2. Have you ever made an ethically questionable decision?
a. Yes – 87%
b. No – 13%
If these statistics represent the general population and if the standard of “once they’ve lost my trust, they will never regain it” is the benchmark or if regaining trust takes five years, then the likelihood of ever achieving high-trust teams, relationships or organizational culture is sadly out of reach.
I think we make too many assumptions about what people know and don’t know about good character: about acting with integrity, being truthful, loyal, honest, fair, and forthright, having courage and being kind. Sometimes people have not been taught this or had a chance to see this modeled in others. Sometimes the opposite modeling has been their experience. We need to help people explore their character and determine who they want to be through defining their personal values, and set up personal systems of accountability and trust. For some, any adjustments might be minimal; for others, they will be life changing.
Early in my career, I took such training from that very person who modelled good character for me and eventually became a mentor. For me it was life changing. So much so that I developed and offer a course called Values-Based Decision Making (VBDM). The course walks leaders through a deep dive into not only their personal character but also, if applicable, the character of their organizational culture and allows them to measure the discrepancy between desired versus actual character.
Taking such training was life changing for me and the thousands of others around the world who have taken Values-Based Decision Making training. I have a drawer full of emails that attest to this. People of literally every gender, race, and heritage can, with this training, envision the person they want to be versus the person they have become. We have witnessed individual and organizational character grow and flourish, leading to amazing relationships and success. Relationships based upon being human beings, not perfect beings. In other words, people of good character are still going to screw up at times in their lives. They will lose and gain trust credits. They simply need to keep a clear vision on their values compass and surround themselves with people who will hold them accountable. Our Values-Based Decision Making course helps individuals and organizations do just that.
I want to hire and be surrounded by people of good character, as I’m sure many of you do as well. It is possible but needs to be viewed through an understanding that good character, and the trust that goes with it, is more a journey than a destination.
Brock Brown is an Executive/Leadership Coach who has worked with leaders throughout North America, Latin America, Australia, Africa, Asia the UK and EU., to create best practice, successful, ethical cultures focused on leading through values and organizational clarity.
Brock can be reached at: email@example.com, or 1-403-350-5648
Life has been turned inside out and upside down the last few years, hasn’t it?
Political and social unrest, a global pandemic, a massive shift to remote work, record levels of low trust in institutions, supply chain bottlenecks, the Great Resignation, rising inflation, and now war in Ukraine, are just a few of the challenges affecting us in one way or another. We live in a topsy turvy world.
You may not want to hear this, but your leadership needs to be turned inside out and upside down, too.
What do I mean by that? I mean you can’t approach today’s leadership challenges with yesterday’s solutions. The tired and worn command and control style of leadership doesn’t work in today’s fast paced workplace. Leaders must be nimble, move quickly, and develop empowered teams who take ownership of their own work. Nor do today’s employees want to be told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. They want leaders who partner with them in a side-by-side fashion, they want autonomy without abandonment, and they want to work with people and organizations who serve a greater purpose than the almighty dollar.
The most persistent barrier to being a servant leader is a heart motivated by self-interest that views the world with an attitude of “give a little, take a lot.” Self-serving leaders put their own agenda, safety, status, and gratification ahead of others who are impacted by the leaders’ thoughts and actions. If leaders don’t get their heart right, they will never become servant leaders.
Upside Down Leadership
Simple Truth #3 from our book captures what it means to turn your leadership upside down:
Servant leaders turn the traditional pyramid upside down.
Command and control leadership loves the traditional hierarchical pyramid because it seems to make everything clean, simple, and easy. The leader is at the top and gets to issue commands to everyone further down the pyramid. What’s wrong with that? The minute you think you work for the person above you, you assume that person—your boss—is responsible and your job is to be responsive to your boss’s whims or wishes.
“Boss watching” can become a popular sport where people get promoted based on their upward-influencing skills. As a result, all the energy of the organization moves up the hierarchy, away from customers and the frontline folks who are closest to the action.
Servant leaders know how to correct this situation by philosophically turning the pyramid upside down. Customer contact people and the customers are at the top of the organization, and everyone in the leadership hierarchy works for them. This one change makes a major difference in who is responsible and who is responsive.
I believe that trusted servant leaders are the answer to today’s challenges. People are looking for deeper purpose and meaning as a way to meet the rapid changes happening in their lives. They are also looking for leaders they can trust and believe in—leaders whose focus is on serving the greater good.
You can be that leader! But, first you need to turn your leadership inside out—get your heart right and the actions will follow. Then, turn your leadership upside down—flip the organizational pyramid and start serving your people instead of them serving you.