Building relationships is a skill possessed by effective leaders and it should be utilized first and foremost with the leader’s own team members. Trust and respect are not easily given away by most people, but they are the very relationship traits that must be earned by leaders and team members alike. Only once that relationship of mutual trust and respect has been earned will team members accept the influence of a leader. To achieve mutual trust and respect, both parties must know and be known by the other.
Knowing your team members is much more than recognizing a face or knowing a name. Knowing a person in the work setting means that you understand who they are, what motivates them, their strengths and weaknesses, and some of their personal story. The unfortunate reality is that often managers only learn this type of information through an exit interview. Only after it is too late, do we discover that we failed to motivate a person, or that we never recognized a skill or passion that some new employer will tap into, or that the team member had a personal struggle that conflicted with their ability to perform to our expectations.
In the day-to-day activities of an organization, a manager might not recognize the importance of knowing their team members and building relationships. They spend their time dealing with issues, schedules, meetings, staffing, production, reports, and other tasks that seem pressing. Or they simply haven’t recognized the importance of building relationships as a prerequisite for influence.
A true leader recognizes that you manage things, but you lead people. And you lead people by developing such relationships. One somewhat popular philosophy is MBWA—or “management by walking around”—in which a leader prioritizes the time to observe and interact. A part of MBWA is engaging in casual conversations with people in the organization to develop relationships and a knowledge of the team members. Some organizations have actually incorporated a “stay interview” into their management systems so that they do not wait for the exit interview to develop a knowledge of their team members. It seems that caring personally about the people in our organization should not require the creation of a bureaucratic system. It should be a part of normal human interaction.
The first step to getting to know your team members is to recognize the importance of it and place a priority on doing so. In a small business, the leader might build a knowing relationship with everyone in the organization. In larger organizations, the leader certainly wants to know well all of their direct reports and have a good knowledge of the people at the next level in the organization. Building this knowledge is best done through a series of casual conversations that might be a part of periodic one-on-one meetings or could be intentionally more casual.
In developing our knowledge of our team members through casual conversations, we might want to ask questions such as these examples:
- What makes you excited about coming to work in the morning?
- What do you enjoy most about your current work situation?
- If you won the lottery, what would you miss the most about coming to work every day?
- If you had a magic wand, what would you change about your current job?
- What is bothering you most about your job these days?
- What did you love about your last (or a previous) position that you are missing these days?
- How would you describe an ideal boss?
- What would make you most proud and how would you want to be recognized for achieving it?
- What are the reasons that you might use to persuade a friend to come to work here? Or to not come to work here?
- Outside of work, what makes you happiest or most proud?
- What are you typically thinking about on your way to work? And on your way home?
These are just examples and the range of discussion can be broad. Throughout this conversation, a follow-up of “And why is that?” builds real depth and value. Obviously, for such a conversation to be effective requires that there is already a relationship of authenticity and trust between both parties. If you are reading questions from a form and writing verbatim responses, then your heart is not in it and it is probably a waste of time. There is also a fine line between developing an understanding of the person relative to the job and digging into personal information where a leader has no business. A leader can offer caring support for personal struggles but must guard against developing emotional attachments that are out of bounds.
The obvious benefit of knowing our team members is that we, as leaders, can help them be both more productive and more satisfied on the job. We can give the new project to the person who hungers for challenges and ask the person who loves the routine to manage the administrative or routine tasks. We can tailor our leadership style to be responsive to both those who desire more autonomy and those who are uncomfortable with the unknown. In the end, we all win through the building of authentic and trusting relationships.
Ken is a business strategy consultant and leadership coach. His passion is helping companies and people grow and succeed. With an engineering degree and an MBA, he spent more than 20 years working in M&A and business development in the corporate world before founding New Horizon Partners, Inc. in 2002. His consulting practice works with a wide variety of industrial companies, helping them make good decisions about where and how to compete and building their leadership capabilities. To read other articles by Ken on business strategy and leadership, visit the New Horizon Partners website.