A successful leader needs to meet people where they are at, invest in their holistic development, and be fully committed to mutual success. Anything less is likely to put your organization on a path to a degraded culture that can lead to an unnecessarily high turnover rate.
A poorly performing culture and consistently high rate of exodus will hit your bottom line hard and fast. Over time, it can start to impact your top line revenue as unhappy employees tend to create unhappy customers. One need not look any further than bi-partisan politics to see that when mutual success is not a priority, calamity and frustration can ensue.
Early in my management career I was introduced to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs through the lens of leadership. If you are not familiar with Maslow’s theory, here is a quick overview.
It seems quite commonplace for people to assume only they themselves have complicated and sometimes messy lives. We tend to look upon others and assume they are happy and whole. We glean this assumption from minimal evidence gathered while observing their emotional facade. Our opinion of their life comes from our observation of their smile, happy social media posts, and that one afternoon we spend at their house watching the Superbowl.
Every now and then, we get a glimpse into another personal reality and only then realize how many hurdles they must clear every day, just to make it to work. The online world of social media and blogging even has a word for it, sonder.
The best employees, the most successful people, are self-actualizing. They develop a drive and desire within them to be better, do better, and often lift up those around them. These are often the people among us that have great ideas, drive innovation, seem to effortlessly tackle that big project and then do not brag about it.
In my personal experience, co-workers and good leaders, that were self-actualizing, did all those things and then still found time to help and mentor me, and were happy to do so! There simply is no book, college course, or weekend seminar to achieve self-actualization overnight. It is, instead, a journey. Often the path is riddled with derailments, resets, and setbacks. The journey never really ends.
As with any journey, most of us need a guide. While Google Maps has made many great advances, they still have not quite figured out a GPS feature for our lives. The role of guide can, and in my opinion should, be filled by a good leader.
Given the simplicity of meeting people where they are at, it perplexes me that so few leaders and companies pursue this approach within their corporate culture. It is even further baffling when, as I have, you see firsthand the benefits of this approach and still do not commit to it. To be fair, I slip up from time to time and catch myself failing to follow my own advice in some situations. Regardless of my human fallibility, it is always my intention to meet people where they are at and it is also a skill that must be in continual development.
Granted, the details of this framework are much easier to type than it is to practice its practical application. The good news is you need not be an expert day one. The biggest hurdle I see most leaders face is making the time to ask someone how they are doing and then commit to the conversation to work past the happy facade. Some of the worst managers I ever worked for intentionally took an opposite approach. If anyone has ever told you to ‘check your baggage at the door’, and you were not standing at the jetway of a plane, you have experienced the negativity of that tactic.
An employee with a less than ideal attendance record gets called into their manager’s office.
Do you see any reason this manager was not justified in their approach or any reason to not support firing the employee? They violated the attendance policy, they were warned, they re-offended, they were fired. Seems pretty cut and dry by any employee handbook standards. However, let’s try a different approach, let’s explore sonder and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs this time around.
An employee with a less than an ideal attendance record gets called into their leader’s office.
This fictitious scenario is based on a number of very similar situations I have helped my employees navigate. Listening with a commitment to hear, can uncover a number of viable solutions that provide a mutual benefit. Just because you as an experienced leader can think of several solutions, it does not mean your employees have the same knowledge or experience to help them navigate.
If you have the mentality of a manager, you may read this and think, this is not my job, I do not have time to waste on employees that cannot show up on time, why don’t they just have someone else deal with his dad, and so on. If you have the mentality of a leader, and meet this employee where they are at, your reaction will be much different.
A quick recall of the Maslow Hierarchy will remind a leader, that at this moment of life, your employee is operating at the very low end of the needs pyramid. They are worried about their “safety needs” and might even have some ongoing concerns in the “physiological needs”. A rather simple, and brief, check in with this employee and few supportive suggestions, could quickly move this employee up a few levels.
An amazing, and frequent outcome of this approach is a corporate culture that prioritizes the well being of each other. A team guided by a leader that consistently meets them where they are at can form a strong culture within the team. As that grows, peers will invest in each other’s success and increase their personal commitment to their team and the entire company. Additionally, time spent helping an existing employee overcome life’s challenges it less expensive and less time consuming than hiring a replacement and repeating the cycle.
MEET THEM WHERE THEY ARE AT
In our company this element of our culture is very strong. Employees have helped each other overcome housing challenges, coordinated car pools to resolve transportation issues, back each other up when babysitters fall through, and much more. It has not stopped there. Our employee’s treat our customers with the same "meet them where they are at" approach and listen with a commitment to hear them. Instead of serving our customers at arm’s length, our team becomes a part of their team and a partnership is built and nurtured with every interaction.
There will be bad actors. It seems to be an unfortunate inevitability. Putting this approach in practice can expose your organization to the risk that someone will take advantage of your support. The best counter measure is to ensure your company policies and employee handbook have a complementary framework. If an employee repeatedly misses agreed upon remediation goals and their performance is still missing the mark, dismissal may still be the best outcome for both parties. As a leader, you will know you did everything possible to help the employee be successful, even if the final outcome means they need to find their success elsewhere, they will still be better off for your guidance and demonstration of compassion.