You spend a small fortune on recruiters finding and hiring the best people, they take some time to find their feet but then, after the investment of time and money, they start to deliver results! They drive your business forward and all seems fine. Too often though, their performance starts to wane. They disengage, become bored and eventually they leave. You are left to start the search again, suffering recruitment costs and loss in productivity that is potentially fatal for your business.
Engaging and retaining your best people might be the most important role of the modern leader, and it seems to be harder than ever. There is so much advice and so many books, but ultimately retaining your top talent requires one capability above all others: Empathy.
I could tell you there is a magic sauce for your people, but there isn’t. The trick is, all your people want the same thing as you, to be treated like a person, an individual, beautiful, complex human. Your ability to build a deep, authentic and genuine understanding of people is the most critical skill for employee engagement. It is also the most important skill for you to develop your team. The only thing worse than losing your best people is keeping your worst! So understanding the motives, the rational and emotional drivers of behaviour, is critical for all people leaders.
Here are three simple strategies to build empathy, increase your engagement and give yourself a chance at retaining the most valuable resources in your business.
Move from policies to principles
The first strategy in improving your employee engagement with empathy is to move away from policies. It is important to realise that modern workplaces need to be flexible and “flexible working policies” is an oxymoron! By definition, policies are not flexible. I constantly encounter ineffective Managers who follow the policies but hurt their people. If you want to build trust, understanding and engagement, you need to scrap the rule books and find something new.
This is where principles become far more effective. Principles set the tone but allow judgement. They provide high level guidelines and allow leaders to make decisions fit for the situation. If you want to create an environment that is flexible, but fair and adaptive to change; forget the rigidity of policies to govern. Instead, create a set of work principles that you will all work by. It won’t be perfect immediately, there will be issues. Over time though, your team will shape the environment organically.
Manage the emotional peaks
In a world of economic models, lean processes, six-sigma and excel spreadsheets, we sometimes forget that, what drives our actions is often not logic or reason, but mostly about emotions. Let’s be clear on this, emotions are king. If people were logical, how many models of car would there be? People don’t buy cars based on what they do, they buy them based on how they make them feel.
So it is the same for your people, and, there are three emotions in particular I want to focus on two emotions to build engagement: Hope and Love.
Firstly, Hope. Nietzsche said a man with a why to live can bear almost any how. So it is up to leaders to build the why, create the vision and engage their Hope. Hope feeds dreams and a leader who inspires Hope can spark imaginations and start to engage their people.
Secondly, let’s talk about love. The reality is, loving your people is about showing them you care. Backing them when they need your help and standing up for justice. At Patagonia, they have a policy to bail out any employee arrested during a protest. While it has only used it once in many years, it is a symbol that they care about their people and the causes they support. They love them enough to put their money where their mouth is.
Be consciously curious
The final strategy to employ is to be consciously curious. The sad reality for most adults is that we think we know all we need to know and we are not overly curious. There are exceptions, when we listen to a TED Talk or read an interesting article (hopefully now), we engage our curious brain, we listen, think and actively seek new types of understanding.
The problem is that it is hard, it takes effort, so we generally don’t engage our curious minds. In our homogenous workplaces with people like us all around us, we assume that the motives and drivers of others must be the same as ours. While this is fast, it is too often wrong.
Stop. Pause. Ask an open question and then listen with the genuine curiosity of a child. Build empathy.
Modern Leaders need teams of talented people ready to go above and beyond to meet the business objectives. They need you lead with Principles that allow them flexibility and autonomy. They need visions of hope and your caring and loving support when times get tough. But most of all, your people need you to embrace empathy. They need you to listen, they need you to seek to understand them and be the leader that inspires curiosity to create a workplace they love.