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How to be genuinely in tune at work

When you are at the top, CEO, director or HR leader, it is hard to break down the barriers and get a true picture of your workplace from the people who are in it. By listening to the people who work in your business you will gain a much better idea of how things really are, what the mood is and how you can make work a better, more productive, healthier environment. So how do you get the real story?

In an article in Harvard Business Review, “Begin with Trust”, Frances X Frei and Anne Morriss talk about digging Über out of a hole at the highest point of its negative publicity. They say a great many interesting things but “leadership really isn’t about you. It’s about empowering other people as a result of your presence, and about making sure that the impact of your leadership continues into your absence” struck a chord. This sits behind the concept of getting to know your people – it helps us all understand why it’s important. We know that being attuned to staff will help us get good information but ultimately they’re the ones who are doing the hard work and who will be able to keep the company going when we aren’t there. So understanding how they tick and what the real deal is at work will benefit absolutely everyone.

Margaret Heffernan is right up there on my reading list at the moment, she is incredibly addictive and recounts some great anecdotes in her business books. I love her motto: “Let's not play the game, let's change it” which supports our campaign to make work human very well. In her book “Summary of wilful blindness – why we ignore the obvious at our peril” she recounts the tale of the former CEO of Tata, Ratan Tata, one of the richest men in India. He rode to work each day, up front with his driver, because in India the roads were not good enough for him to sit in the back and read his newspaper or work. It meant that he talked to people that he might not ordinarily have interacted with and gained a significant insight into his business and the lives of the people who worked for him.

The more senior you become, often the more removed you are from issues that affect the people who work for you. The more senior you become, the less people will challenge you and your decisions. So you end up with a blind spot which is never good in business. So how do you overcome this - given that, chances are, you don’t have to deal with the potholes in Indian roads.

Make time and be accessible

Have an open door policy, call it whatever you like, but make sure that people are able to reach you. One of my clients puts his mobile number at the end of every employee communication bulletin and actively encourages dialogue. He also works in the main operations office. Making time for your people is really important. If you need to account for your time to yourself, view it as essential personal development or business investment.

Ditch your own agenda and get among the people

Don’t see every exchange as a research moment, just enjoy being around the teams. Absorb the culture, listen to their discourse, laugh with them, suspend your role temporarily. It’s important that you don’t hold court or lead the discussions, let things flow around you and people will become more relaxed in your company.

Be yourself and keep it natural

Stay true to yourself as you aim to integrate yourself more. If you are a quiet, thoughtful leader, stay that way – don’t invent personas that you think will make you more approachable. Just be yourself. People warm to honesty and transparency and they’ll see through any other versions you might present. Remember, you’re not there to be their best friend, but to genuinely get to know them better.

Be vulnerable and human

Don’t worry about maintaining a professional distance. People like people who are prepared to show their vulnerable side. If there is a fancy dress or themed day at work, get involved – even if it’s just a token nod to it. Being vulnerable is about the ability to say ‘this is who I am’ so if you show insights to the real you, that will be a real bridge to getting you closer to your teams.

I have noticed that quite often there is much value to working closely with any consultants who are retained within your organisation. They tend to work across the teams, across the levels and can be great observers. They will speak up, relay information and facts because they aren’t as invested as employees and also have less to lose. We’re not asking you to employ moles but you’ll find their impartiality and fresh perspectives quite illuminating.

Good headteachers can be interesting to observe as well. Watch how well integrated heads weave their way through the school, even taking lessons, walking and talking with students, watching sporting fixtures, being interested. It is a real skill and one that pays huge dividends.

You’ll see that anyone who is good at tuning in with their teams is genuinely interested and able to engage. They will invest the time getting to know their audience, knowing which questions to ask, allowing everyone a chance to be heard, whether it’s something serious or just a throwaway remark. It’s a gift. But it can be learned. Being genuine is vital.

This isn’t something that happens overnight. Take it slowly. Ease your way in. It could be quite alarming to find the CEO suddenly sitting next to you, eating a kitkat, at break-time, asking if you saw the game on Saturday.

Remember that “if you signal that you matter more than everyone else, why should anyone trust the direction you’re going in? What’s in it for the rest of us to come along?” [Begin with Trust, Harvard Business Review].



“Summary of Wilful Blindness – why we ignore the obvious at our peril”

by Margaret Heffernan

"Begin with Trust", Harvard Business Review, May 2020

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