The investments we make in people are often the most lucrative investments
People frequently ask me how to address challenges with employees and what they can do to boost retention rates. I have heard hundreds of stories about the “unbelievable” behaviors and actions that supervisors witness and are forced to put up with on a day-to-day basis. When in groups, we try to one-up each other: “you wouldn’t believe what he did today” and “you think that’s bad? Yesterday somebody…!” I will not pretend that I do not contribute to this dynamic from time to time. I’m only human and I have some really good stories. However, when I am approached, I always ask three questions to frame the conversation:
Often, we dwell in the negative and have a tough time seeing beyond people’s mistakes or faults. As a manager or supervisor, this may be okay since management often focuses on counting and quantifying value and results. Leadership, in contrast, focuses on creating value, which obliges us to meet people where they are, recognize their assets and gifts, and consistently strive to bring out the best they have to offer even when they are less than perfect. This requires us to avoid negative narratives about our people and to regularly find time to honor and celebrate what people do well. I tell people that if you cannot find three positive things to say about a person, it’s time to move on or to consider how their own internal monologue may be influencing how they are seeing that person or situation. I have worked with many people who are not good fits for a role or who are genuinely incompetent, but I have never met anyone (ever) with no redeemable, likeable, or positive qualities. Leaders take the time to seek out and see the good, to treat even the worst performing staff or team members as human beings with gifts to offer. This is important for four reasons. First, it gives opportunities to reconsider people’s roles and to provide a foundation for coaching and improvement. Second, people work and perform better when they aren’t working in a black hole of doom, criticism, and negativity. Third, people notice how you respond to mistakes or challenges, and if we approach negative experiences with compassion and a desire to improve rather than to demean or criticize, people feel safer and are more willing to take the risks that foster creativity and innovation. And fourth, how we act and respond in both good and hard moments, provides a model for how others might act in similar circumstances. If people see us treating others with compassion, they are more likely to mirror that behavior. If our teams see that we value all members of the team, they are more likely to see the value of their teammates and of themselves.
Leaders understand that when they invest time, resources, money, love, and commitment into the success of their people, capacity grows not only as individuals but also as teams, organizations, and communities. In one of my first leadership roles, I had a volunteer who was angry about having to come in on a weekend because he needed to do schoolwork. He begrudgingly came in but removed himself from the group while the rest of us were working with students, getting to know each other, and trying to finish a project. When I approached him during a break, he essentially growled at me and said something about how I should just be grateful he showed up at all. I left him alone, recognizing my own frustration bubbling up, and the fact that a conversation in that moment could be more destructive than constructive. At lunch time, I very calmly approached him and said, “I’m very happy that you came today, and I know the kids love having you around. I’d like to go for a ten-minute walk before we start up again. Will you let me know when you’re ready?” It was important for me to validate his presence, honor his time by only requesting ten minutes, and give him the space to decide when he wanted to talk. I also chose to request a walk because I knew that he was an athlete who thought better and more clearly when moving around. After a few minutes he approached me and without any commotion, we left the room and went for a walk. The first two or three minutes were completely silent, and then I surprised him, “It seems like you’re having a tough time today and I wonder how I can help.” He was taken off-guard and muttered something about how stressed he was with school and how he didn’t have time to do everything he needed to do. I surprised him again, “Wow. I didn’t realize how much you had going on and I’m just so grateful that you are here to help these students despite your very full load.” He responded by saying that he honors the commitments he makes, and he cares about the kids and wants them to look up to him. Today just wasn’t a good day. “I understand,” I said, “Thank you for not bailing at the last minute and for everything you do for these kids. They really respect you and I can tell they look up to you. How do you think it looks and feels to them that you’re sitting to the side?” His entire mood shifted but he didn’t respond. I continued, “I just want today to be successful for you, the program, and the students. What can I do to help alleviate your stress and allow you to join the group this afternoon?” Together, we determined that I would find him a quiet space away from the group to study during the mid-afternoon break and that he could leave a few minutes early to beat traffic and maximize his evening homework time. I also assured him that in the future, he could talk to me about how his commitments with us were interfering with his other responsibilities. In the year that followed, he never missed a single event, openly communicated his challenges with me and the team, and became one of my strongest advocates and followers.
This situation, for me, demonstrates how I choose to lead and why I think investing in our people is one of the most important things we can do to achieve success. In those ten minutes, I modeled a positive and constructive way of handling my own negative feelings, affirmed the strengths and gifts of a valuable team member, made the person in front of me feel cared about, helped him understand the impact of his actions, and came to a mutually-agreeable solution without ever having to reprimand or discipline. Furthermore, I was able to build the commitment and engagement of a person who at the beginning of the day may have been at risk of quitting or leaving the program. In this situation, investment looked like taking time and not getting to finish my lunch. It was worth it.
Finally, investing in people requires leaders to take the time to reflect on how their own actions, tendencies, and behaviors may play a role in a person’s disconnectedness or seeming ineffectiveness. We frequently assume that the faults and ineffectiveness of others have nothing to do with us. This is a trap. Almost always, we play a part in either contributing to, escalating, or exacerbating disengagement or low performance. We must therefore work to ensure that we are investing more than we are divesting. The following provides some examples of how we might begin to shift our thinking as leaders to focus more on investing in our people.
Is this person meeting my or the company’s needs?
Are the needs of this person being met?
Is this person doing enough to help us meet our goals?
Does this person receive praise or recognition for strong work?
Does this person have ambition? Does s/he want to succeed or grow?
Does this person have opportunities to build his/her skills and competencies?
Does this person add value?
Does this person feel valued?
What is wrong with this person? Why can’t they do anything right?
What can I do to help this person improve or grow?
What does this person know about this business or work?
What do I know about this person?
What would it look like to build up this program/idea?
What would it look like to build up this person to take on this program/idea?
How can this person help me?
How can I help this person?
Can I trust this person?
Can this person trust me?
This is your fault
This is our fault
I can’t believe they did that
Why might they have done that? How did it happen? What else is going on?
Has this person done everything I asked for? Has this person done everything they needed to do?
Have I done everything I promised? Does this person have the resources to do everything they need to do?