Engaging People

Saturday, May 1, 2010 - 08:57

Genuine one-to-one communication is needed, today more than ever, to help staff learn, develop and contribute. By Karalyn Brown

For almost as long as we've researched human psychology in the workplace, the impact of a manager on the engagement, productivity and loyalty of their team has been clear.

Back in 2004, for example, in a global study of 50,000 employees, the Corporate Leadership Council found the employees who are most committed performed 20 per cent better and were 87 per cent less likely to leave an organisation. They found that the most critical enabler of an employee's commitment to their jobs, their organisations and their teams, was their manager.

If leadership is so critical, what skills do you really need to engage a team? Genuine communication works for a start. Hazel Wemper, AIM Training Consultant and Shannon Horan, Head of Consulting from talent management company DDI, say there are key principles to apply for effective communication and leadership.

Maintaining and enhancing self-esteem

An employee's self-esteem is critical to their development, job satisfaction, motivation and whether they challenge themselves at work. So if someone makes a mistake, or delivers a poor presentation for example, reinforcing their strengths and encouraging them to have another go, may mean the difference between that person seeing the mistake as a one-off, or as a skill they are never going to master. "This creates a safe environment in which to make mistakes," says Horan. "If you want to create a learning or an innovating culture, you won't create that if people are terrified of making a mistake."

Enhancing self-esteem is remembering to acknowledge when someone has done well. This can boost their confidence to the next level so they aim for a target to stretch themselves, says Horan.

Listening and responding with empathy

DDI research shows that employees who perceive colleagues and managers as empathetic see them as more willing to help others, as enabling others to maintain a sense of competence and self-worth, and as avoiding behaviours that betray trust.

Employees who see their managers as empathetic consider them supportive, as highly effective at coaching, and as able to remove obstacles and problems. They also see their work environment as more democratic and engaging.

In short, empathy is powerful and builds trust. But it can be difficult for some leaders to master, says Horan. Managers who are busy can be task oriented in the stress of getting things done, or simply miss cues such as an employee saying, "I'm having difficulty coping", "I'm disappointed" or "I'm feeling frustrated".

Wemper says effective people leaders are highly skilled at reading micro expressions or body language that reveal how someone is feeling. This then allows them to respond appropriately. "Research done with high school teachers that showed the biggest predictor of their success as teachers, was not their qualifications or intelligence, but their ability to scan and pick up signals from the classroom," says Wemper.

Missing or dismissing an employee's need for empathy is dangerous. Trust takes time to build and is easily lost. Wemper cites research that means it may take a manager five positive impressions before an employee trusts them or before an employee dismisses a negative impression as being out of character.

Trust is hard enough for anyone to give. An employer dismissing an emotion even one time may mean that person never opens up again, suggests Horan.

Wemper is emphatic that leaders must be genuine. Employees have a reliable radar that tells them pretty quickly if their manager doesn't respect them.

However, being empathetic and building someone's self-esteem loses its impact if overdone, believes Horan. Responding with empathy isn't simply about agreeing with the individual that the sky is falling in, it's about working through the feeling, then working through whether the facts support the emotion.

Asking for help and encouraging involvement

DDI research shows the more involved employees are in coming up with solutions, the more likely they are to "buy in" to the solution, and the more self-confident and skilled employees will become. Asking for help does take courage. "A leader does not need to think they have the answer to everything," says Horan.

If you're a leader wondering how to encourage the best answers from your team, Horan suggests following "interaction guidelines". These are: opening the discussion by stating its purpose and importance; clarifying any issues and concerns; developing the discussion by asking for ideas and exploring the resources you may need; agreeing on actions; and closing by highlighting the importance of the plan and confirming your commitment to the plan.

Share thoughts, feelings and rationale

Sharing thoughts, feelings and rationale helps people buy into a plan. Offering the 'why' behind a decision helps people understand it. Disclosing true feelings builds trust.

"If nothing is shared, it's all about the task. Without a 'let's all muck in' pep talk, people are less inclined to get involved," suggests Horan.

"If there is a heavy workload, it is OK for a leader to say we are overwhelmed; it builds trust and the team can work towards a solution."

In sharing thoughts, feelings and rationale, it's important to do so appropriately, says Horan. In some situations, for example a restructure, it might not be appropriate to share all of the details with the team, especially where people's roles are affected.

Providing support without removing responsibility

This can be challenging for new leaders, particularly those promoted on the basis of their technical skills.

You may be tempted to take over as it seems easier and quicker to complete a task yourself. Resist, says DDI. To take over means that you do not develop the skills of your team. Your team may not feel you trust them or they may not take responsibility for their own development.

Questions to empower others to think and do include: "How can I remove that obstacle for you?" or "How can I connect you with other people that can help?" says Horan.

Proving Feedback

All leaders need to provide feedback to improve the performance of their teams or to recognise and encourage positive performance.

Effective feedback needs to be timely, so the person receiving the feedback remembers the incident. It needs to be balanced, accurately reflecting the positive and negative aspects of someone's performance, and it needs to be specific about the behaviour.

To deliver feedback DDI suggests two formats, STAR, and STAR-AR:

ST - outline the situation or task the person faced
A - outline the action they took
R - talk through the result of the actions.

Feedback for development includes:
A - a suggested alternative action
R - the enhanced result the alternative action might produce.