The final implementation date for the customer software was just a few weeks away. The problems were mounting and everyone on the team was putting in long hours. The stress level was high. Maria kept a careful eye on her team members. She began to be concerned about signs she saw in Elizabeth, who was short with her colleagues and was making some errors.
Confronting Elizabeth, Maria got an apology and the expected rationale – the stress of the deadline and the accompanying long hours were tough. But Maria quietly took the conversation one step further. “That’s a good enough reason for what I’m seeing, Elizabeth, and yet, I’m concerned there may be more contributing to your overload. Please know that if there is, we can work on it together. Your well-being is more important to me than this project.”
Elizabeth thanked her and left, but a day later came back and asked if she could talk. She told Maria that her marriage was in danger and the job’s long hours were becoming a flashpoint. Maria made good on her commitment to Elizabeth’s well-being. Together, they worked out a way to remove her from the final weeks of the project and even to take a few days off, so that she could use them to seek counseling with her husband. Maria didn’t just say that her employee’s well-being was more important than the project – she demonstrated it.
It cost Maria something. That afternoon, she announced to her boss that the project implementation would be late by a week. She didn’t mention the reason, and she knew she would take the performance hit.
As we go through our daily work lives, we often miss the opportunities to offer uncommon caring to our employees – the moments that tell them our interest in them is more than incidental to the job. Consider how you might go from polite to compassionate just by changing up the conversation a little:
- Ask uncommon questions. Instead of “How was your weekend?”, try “What was the best moment of your weekend?” And then ask more questions about it, looking to learn about your employee’s loves and dreams and sense of meaning.
- Exhibit uncommon interest. When someone is unusually quiet, sit down with a cup of coffee and ask a thought-provoking question – for their opinion on something, for example. If the quiet behavior continues, ask if this is a poor time to be delving into a conversation with them and whether another time might be better. If the answer is to defer conversation, let the employee know you are always open to whatever they wish to discuss. Take opportunities with employees to dig deeper rather than accepting changed behaviors.
- Find uncommon time. Rotate taking employees out for coffee, and keep the conversation off direct work topics. Let them know this is their time – they can ask you about other things related to the company, they can describe what they hope for in their jobs, or they can just use the time to get to know you better and have you get to know them better.
- Build uncommon relationships. You don’t need to get buddy-buddy with employees. You don’t even need to have social relationships with them. What makes a difference, though, is when you care enough to have more than a casual relationship – when you learn what trips their trigger, when you know what they most take pride in, who they care about in their lives, what their pain points are outside of work, what incites their passion or drains their energy. And when you use that information to engage them as co-journeyers on the long ride of a work life.
- Create uncommon benefits and development. Fairness is important, but it doesn’t mean equal. An employee with a couple kids in on-site day care may appreciate a half hour visit with them each day more than work-at-home time, where they’d need care. A younger employee might appreciate a membership in a young professionals organization. You show caring about the person by assuring their development and perks are meaningful to them.
- Offer uncommon endorsement. Bosses are pretty good at complimenting employees on jobs well done – when they’re done and when they’re big. But it’s when you’re in the daily slog of the routine assignments that the endorsement is most valuable. When you hear grumbling about a work effort involving your employees and know it’s just a function of change fatigue, step in to endorse the importance of the work and your appreciation of those implementing it and those who have to make it work. When you see how well people are working together on a project – even though it’s not a big one – bring in a party to thank them for the collaboration. Send a message to senior leaders asking them to stop and thank the team for the amazing work they do every day to support the company.
The American actor Edward Albert said, “The simple act of caring is heroic.” That may seem overblown, but for those who receive the caring it is not. In today’s stressed and sometimes uncivil workplace, a simple act of caring takes on outsize proportions – and is deeply felt.
Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant
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