At first I scoffed. I was partway through orientation for learning to work with individuals with disabilities, and the trainer was emphasizing the importance of eye contact in interpersonal communication. Eye contact has long been a weakness for me, and I couldn't see why it mattered. That is, until I started paying attention.
In movies, the bad boss is characterized as the one who lords over the underlings by standing above them and talking down to them. This makes me cringe. I think it's important to be eye level when you're talking with someone. I want to communicate that we're working on this together, that I value what the person thinks, and that we have a common goal.
I value this message so much that I discard convention. I've been known to balance squatting down, rest on my knees next to someone's desk, pull up an extra chair, or sit on a yoga ball. Whatever it takes to be eye level with my team member. Does it look professional to be on your knees next to your coworker's desk? Probably not. But I don't care. I think the human element is more important.
If you're about to offer criticism of someone else's performance, first ask yourself when you last complimented the person on something she is doing well or thanked her for a time she went above and beyond. Criticism, even when constructive and offered from a place of wanting to help, cannot be received without a foundation of trust.
Let's say you're in charge of two projects: moving a large boulder that got stuck and traveling 1,000 miles on foot. I know, I know, these are strange projects. But let's run with it to illustrate one of the reasons why projects fail.
Both projects require a lot of effort. But how to execute them varies greatly.
If you walk by the boulder every day and give it a light push, it will move nowhere. Even if you do this every day for a year and try really hard, the boulder will not budge. Incremental, small steps will lead to failure. If instead you gather the troops and meet at the same time for one monstrous push, the boulder will move.
Now imagine gathering the same troops and meeting up to take a single step together for the 1,000 mile project. Where will that get you? Exactly one step from where you started. You will have missed the goal by 1000 miles minus one step. But here incremental, small steps are perfect. You can take a series of small steps each day, chart your progress regularly, and estimate how much time remains at your current rate.
Traveling a great distance on foot can be done in a series of small steps, but unsticking a boulder requires a single motion that is coordinated and focused. Figure out which type of project you're facing.
To me the values of a good leader are communicated through the small things. Even though I believe this is true, more often than not I get to the end of the workday and realize I've misused my time. Sure, I'll have gotten things done, but I may have failed to do the stuff that matter most.
I may have neglected to:
- Send a 'thank you' message to a coworker who recently improved something around the office.
- Communicate appreciation to the team member who volunteered when no one else did.
- Ask how the intern's big school project turned out.
- Do a quick lap around the office to see if anything can be straightened up or made to look better.
- Tell a coworker thanks for speaking up during the morning meeting when I had wanted to say something similar but couldn't come up with the words.
These may not be on my "official" work responsibilities list, but I firmly believe that improving the environment and recognizing people for great things is as important if not more so.
I can't stand referring to employees as "resources". I fully get that employees are resources in that they have an output and a cost, but even the word "employee" bugs me because it emphasizes too much that a person is being employed (and therefore paid) to do a task. The human side is completely lost. Let's stop saying employee and resource altogether.
Organizations are made up of people. We all walk in the door with personal lives, baggage, unique skills, personality traits, and individual desires.
Let's adopt the phrase "team member". "Team" because we're working together and will fail if we don't, and "member" because we're part of something and each playing a role. Let's reserve "resources" for inanimate objects.
I once received a glowing compliment via email. The sender's words seemed warm and genuine. I appreciated both the recognition and the person who took the time to send the kind words. I spent the rest of my day relaxed and inwardly smiling. The glow carried into the next day until a wave of embarrassment hit me. When did I last send someone else a "thank you" of that magnitude? When did I last offer a compliment that lasted hours? When did I last validate another's strengths so fully? When did I last do any of those things… and have I ever?