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Focus on connection, caring to build engagement.

For the last few months, we’ve been working with a mid-sized company in the manufacturing sector on an ambitious strategic plan.

This organization rocks at production and logistics. Its team is stacked with action-oriented leaders and high-energy doers who excel at productivity and process improvement.

But one thing has become abundantly clear through our project: they’re not good at connecting with their people. Employee engagement is lower than it could be. Relationships are okay but not awesome. These relational weaknesses are hurting their business and holding them back from achieving their potential.

Caring is key.

Relationships are the core of every business, even those outside of what we consider people-centered, service-oriented or “caring” fields. People are the heart of any organization, even companies, like my manufacturing client, where logic and objectivity are prized (yes, I’m looking at you, engineers and accountants!).

Everything flows from how well the team knows their leaders care: for the organization to be its best and for each team member to work at a place where they can be the best version of themselves.

Most leaders do care about their teams. But, often, their teams don’t see that.Too many leaders neglect relationship-building to focus on tasks. It’s understandable. One leader we know called it “the burden of connectivity.” Leaders are swamped, and building relationships takes time. Others worry they’ll be perceived as unprofessional or lose their “authority” if they’re too friendly with their staff.

What they aren’t getting is that building relationships isn’t abstracted from the work, it IS the work of leaders. A lot of research backs this assertion, proving that the most effective leadership is relational.

Engagement is good for business.

Research has correlated a number of positive organizational outcomes with strong relationships, including lower turnover, better performance and higher productivity.

That’s because a positive and productive workplace is one in which people feel safe — safe enough to experiment, challenge themselves and others, share ideas and be themselves. Research shows that people value communication from their manager not just about their roles and responsibilities, but that also shows they care about them.

The best leaders make a concerted effort to get to know their employees and help them feel comfortable talking about any subject, work-related or not. It’s about seeing people for themselves, genuinely caring about their success and growth, and intentionally helping them to be their best.

When people feel seen and heard, not just for their work, but as people, it nurtures trust, which is the bedrock of engagement.

Build better bonds.

Here at WhiteWater, we’ve identified the key components of authentically deeper, more caring, and ultimately more effective relationships with your team.

1. Establish your base.

The best place to start is one-on-one.

To build deeper relationships with your team members, you need to proactively make time to connect. These intentional one-on-ones differ from accidental water-cooler conversations or work-focused meetings. They are an opportunity to develop a mutual understanding of each other as people, not just co-workers.

Remember: relationships aren’t a one-way street. To build trust and rapport, you also need to let your people see who you are.

Book some time with each team member. Before your meeting, ask them to reflect on the current state of your relationship and let them know you’ll do the same. You can even rate it with a simple 1, 2, or 3 ranking:

  • One: Your relationship is distant or even negative.

  • Two: You have a neutral to a positive connection, but it feels superficial.

  • Three: You have a positive connection where they feel known, understood and cared for.

During your time together, compare your ratings. Discuss why they might be different. What do you both see the same? Where are the gaps?

2. Build on your foundation.

Keep meeting to build your understanding of your respective drivers and preferences for high performance at work. This is about aligning expectations, and exploring both what you are trying to achieve and the why behind it. When you understand your team members’ career aspirations and what motivates them, you can help them succeed.

3. Show genuine appreciation

Celebrate successes. Along with sharing how much you appreciate their contribution, use this success to build on it. Jointly discuss what drove that success and explore ways they can use their skills and talents to benefit both themselves and the organization.

4. Embrace challenges.

Openly discussing challenging or sensitive topics is part of a healthy relationship. Don’t avoid the chance to connect when there are problems. When there is trust and respect, difficult conversations, such as those about inappropriate behavior or subpar performance, are much easier and much more likely to result in understanding and a positive change.

Taking the time to understand what drives your team members gives you the best chance to create the conditions for them to build that career within your organization rather than elsewhere (and, occasionally, help them achieve those aspirations in other organizations, if that’s what’s best for them).

Connections, not transactions.

A word of caution: creating deeper, more authentic relationships with your people is not a check-the-box effort. You can’t just go through the motions or meet once and consider this a task completed. Mere transactions are not enough to maximize engagement. In fact, that can easily backfire, breeding disconnection and even contempt.

So be present – and be real.

And remember that this takes time. Don’t rush it. But as you make time and space for relationships, as your comfort and capabilities in this area grow, and you connect better with your team, you might find the burden of connectivity becomes the joy of connectivity.

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