As a first-level leader, the decisions you make impact not only the experiences of your team, but also their professional possibilities and the results that you get.
Cultivating meaningful connection with the members of your team can significantly improve that decision making and consequently, their engagement. Knowing a little bit about your team can go a long way to building trust and strengthening collaboration within the team.
Here’s one way to do it.
What builds empathy more than a good story? There is incredible power in story and narrative. One of the things that first-level leaders can do is really know and be interested in the stories and experiences of their employees.
Humans of New York is a popular social media campaign that essentially started with a gentleman walking around, taking pictures of people he would encounter, and asking them questions. He would post their picture and a snapshot of their life in the caption. When you read the stories, it often feels like there’s dissonance between the story and the picture. If you were tasked with writing a story based on the picture, you’d likely write something completely different than the truth. It would be almost impossible to match the variation, the extremes, or the reality of the actual stories shared.
The same is true of all people.
In the absence of information, our brain writes stories about what we see. You see someone who is chronically late to work, you come to a conclusion about their work ethic or commitment. You see someone always floating around, talking and making jokes at other people’s desks and decide they’re unfocused and detracting from everyone else’s work.
These conclusions happen automatically, based on the cognitive shortcuts that we use to navigate the world.
Those stories are shaped in part by our biases. When we lean into these biases without exploring further, we miss the caregiver to a recently disabled parent who really needs to adjust their hours to accommodate their new normal but is hesitant to have that difficult conversation with a leader they don’t know or trust. Or the employee who makes it a point to greet every member of the team personally before sitting down to begin her day because a colleague did that early in her career and it made an impact.
Consider the members of your team. Have you taken some time to understand what motivates them, makes them excited and interested?
Do you know and understand their expertise, perspective and desired communication style? If you took the time to connect with them — ask them questions, listen empathically to their responses, seek to understand — what would you learn? Would there be things that shock or surprise you? Maybe you would learn things that not only interest you but also give you tools to better lead this individual.
Finally, exposing yourself as a first-level leader to a broad stroke of stories and information in what you read, what you listen to, and what you watch is important and the wider you cast that net, the more you will be able to connect with and understand the broad perspectives and experiences that exist on your team. Deploying curiosity and empathy in other aspects of your life and in the information you consume will accelerate your efforts at connection with your team.
You can then use this knowledge as you make decisions – to delegate assignments, set team goals, and make the fundamental shift from individual contributor to one who achieves results with and through your team.
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