Leaders and team members feel much more connected when they have an understanding of and agreement about the nature of the work itself. When leaders are experts in the work, they can teach, coach, and provide support without needing detailed explanations. A lot of people are actually uncomfortable when their boss doesn’t have any personal experience of their work. They may lack confidence in their boss or even discount their authority and behave rebelliously toward them.
But many leaders come from outside the company–or at least, from outside the group. You may even be one of them. Can these leaders ever feel fully accepted by and comfortable with the team? How can they show that they’re connected to their people? Here are a handful of suggestions for how to approach your team members if you start out without experience of their work.
Know When to Say, “I Don’t Know”
Some leaders believe that they’re supposed to know everything, and that not knowing something either signifies weakness or means it’s not worth knowing. These leaders may therefore either ignore or fake having knowledge of any topic they’re not familiar with. Over time, their team members may feel ignored themselves, or as if they don’t count. These feelings can create distance and lead to team members trusting and consulting these bosses less and being less candid with them.
It’s much more effective to own up to the gaps in your knowledge and ask the team for help or direction. Showing respect for what the team knows can be a real plus, and many team members will feel pride and closeness if they get to teach you about the work. But you can’t plead ignorance for long.
Know When You Need to Learn
At some point, it needs to be clear that you’re learning more about your business all the time, and that you are becoming familiar, knowledgeable, and wise about the jobs your people do. This will help team members feel they can rely on you and your judgments. If you don’t have enough credibility with your people for them to bring you their problems, then they’re likely to feel abandoned by both you and the organization, and they will disengage.
But it may not be practical for you to fully learn your team members’ roles. Total understanding might involve getting additional education or credentialing or else practicing, as if from the ground up, frontline or mid-level jobs that you would otherwise never do. And that may not be a good use of your time.
It is a notable mark of respect, though, to explain that you want to understand what another human being does. So observe your team members at work or ask enough questions that you can legitimately know something about it. Actually sitting with them, if it’s physically possible, shows that you’re investing in both understanding and relationship, which can go a long way to build employee respect and confidence.
Important Things to Understand
As you’re learning about your subordinates’ work, pay attention to their stories about what it feels like to do their jobs and what the ramifications are when the job goes bad; take note if there are particular, consistent ways that the work can go wrong. Ask about the costs of those disruptions, both at the individual level and to the team in terms of the ability to service customers, for example, or to deliver the products.
It’s also important to understand that each person doing a particular job has had a slightly different experience of that job. Rather than reducing the lived experience of all the people doing the job into a single profile, remember that each person brings a unique background and experience to the work. Recognize and acknowledge the different styles, approaches, and needs of the people doing the work. It can make a real difference in employees’ willingness to accept any changes you want to make and to come along and participate in whatever new or modified “game” you’re asking them to play.
Get to Know Your Team Members as Whole Human Beings
So go into the field, to the branch offices, and to the distribution centers whenever you can. Embrace the frontline and all the lines between you and it. That’s the way to keep workers feeling that you understand their needs and help them put their trust in you–which you’ll need if you ever want them to do something different, and to change and grow. Leaders who don’t really understand their employees’ work can end up “othering” them or treating these employees as if they know everything, even when they happen to be wrong or ignorant of crucial realities.
Losing touch creates separation and alienation and can increase turnover and presenteeism. Draw your team members to you by understanding their work, which is just one aspect of recognizing them as the whole human beings they are.
Onward and upward —