Even in 2022, most American workplaces still very much resemble the patriarchal society upon which this country was built. Thankfully, that is changing, but we have a long way to go. This structure seeps into the culture and values of the company, and has a powerful and insidious impact on how people feel about, and engage with their work. Employees who feel trusted, respected, and heard by their bosses and higher-ups are more motivated, engaged, and satisfied with their work. There are five key ways in which leaders can infuse their company culture with these values, and they are things that often get ignored or overlooked.
1. Ask questions
We have this weird belief that a boss should be the one with all of the answers. Leaders are meant to delegate, and “manage” (control) people into doing a good job. Gross. But think about the best boss you’ve ever had (if you’ve ever had a truly great one). I’ve had one, and her leadership style has always stuck with me and been one I’ve done my best to emulate. What made her such a great boss was that she asked ME questions. When I came to her with a problem or a question, she would ask me for my thoughts, opinions, and expertise, before giving me her advice or direction. This always left me feeling trusted, like she saw my natural abilities and wanted them to be part of the decision-making process. Rather than jumping right to conclusions, or rushing to the solution, leaders would be smart to slow down and ask open-ended questions of their employees. This leads to better solutions and a sense that all voices on the team are valued.
2. Listen actively
If asking questions is the first step, shutting up and listening carefully to what employees have to say is the second. If you are the person in the group who genuinely wants to hear from everyone, and is willing to listen without jumping to conclusions or answers, you are the hero. If a workplace culture is more competitive than collaborative, the loudest person wins. We know this doesn’t produce the best quality work. But leaders can infuse more collaboration into a workplace by being the first one to actively listen to all voices in the room. Take notes, demonstrate that you hear, and respect each person’s experiences and ideas. Ask follow-up questions. This has the added benefit of creating an inclusive space for your more introverted colleagues to share their ideas as well (which are often super brilliant, because they’ve been observing and taking in a lot of great insight while everyone else was talking over each other).
3. Be present
Whew, this one is a biggie. Presence requires us to take a breath, and slow down. It requires us to notice what is actually occurring around us and let go of the need to immediately jump to the past or future, thus taking us out of the present. In a work setting, this can look like a boss who prioritizes taking time to sit down with employees, even when there is a lot that “has to get done”. It is a boss who takes the time to learn all angles of the situation before jumping to find the solution. And it is the result of this presence that allows employees to feel comfortable enough to bring the best of themselves to the work they do because they feel safe enough to be present in their work. Nothing makes me cringe more than seeing the words “fast-paced environment” in a job description. To me, that means that work is being rushed and steps are necessarily being skipped, while employees’ nervous systems are about ready to snap. “Fast-paced environment” sounds like a recipe for burnout, high turnover, and a lower-quality product. It’s not sustainable in the long run. Sure, every work environment has busier seasons, but taking time to be present should never ever be sacrificed because of it.
4. Trust your people, and let them know it
Now think of the worst boss you’ve ever had. You know, the one who micro-manages you, even though they don’t fully understand the ins and outs of your job. The one who is constantly talking down to you, and piling on more and more work that is outside your job description. The one whose attitude and tone just ever-so-slightly sends the message that they don’t really trust that you are capable of doing your job well. No thank you! Referring back to the best boss I’ve ever had, she always let us know that she trusted us. This doesn’t mean she didn’t offer feedback or guidance, but it does mean she assumed we were doing our best, and she assumed that our best was very good work. This assumption led me to value my job even more and do everything I could to do it well. Employees who know their bosses trust them are motivated to keep that trust. This intrinsic motivation causes them to feel more engaged and satisfied with their work.
5. Praise your people for what they bring to the table
Companies would not exist, or be at all successful, without the employees who work for them. Each individual brings a unique set of skills and experience to the table. If a company hopes to continue to receive quality work from its people, leaders need to be actively providing authentic, positive feedback. A great boss is one who singles out employees and acknowledges specifically, what they bring to the table and how much they are valued. No, a company-wide pizza party does not count. Telling employees that they are doing well and why makes them feel seen and valued. And the best part is, it doesn’t cost the company anything.
What leadership qualities did I miss? I’d love to hear about what experiences you’ve had with either great or terrible bosses. Let me know in the comments.