By Cory Rieken
There I was, sitting at the car dealership one morning waiting on a loan car, when a woman sat very close to me and made a phone call. I kept checking email on my phone and looking for things to do, but I couldn’t help myself...I heard a lot of the conversation.
The woman was speaking to someone who seemed to be a coworker, relating an encounter with her boss. She wasn’t angry or emotional in any way. She was confused. She said things like:
“I gave him every chance to say I was doing a good job, and he didn’t.”
“I don’t think he’s thinking of firing me, but I have no idea how I’m doing.”
“I sure know how [name omitted] is doing though—she’s doing great. Does that mean he’s comparing me and I don’t add up?”
“I don’t think he knows quite what to do with me because we’re so different. He gives a lot of attention to [name omitted] because she’s always solving some urgent problem and everyone knows it. That’s not me—I’d rather quietly handle everything that comes my way. So it seemed like he doesn’t know what I’m doing.”
“Well, I wanted to run this by you because I trust your judgment. Do you think I should talk to him again? By the way, will you let him know I’m on my way in and just had to stop by the dealership? I could text or call, but I don’t want him to think that he needs to babysit me.”
Yes, I feel badly about listening that long, but conversations like this bother me because leadership development initiatives have been around for decades. Yet the same skill deficiencies pop up time and time again. If this woman’s leader had used some basic key principles, she wouldn’t be left wondering if she is going to stay employed.
In DDI’S Interaction EssentialsSM, we described how each work interaction includes both personal and practical needs. The needs of the business or situation (the thing to get done during or after the interaction) are the practical needs. I have no idea if the woman was speaking about her performance review, but that might be a practical need—a task that needed to be completed by a performance conversation.
The personal needs are what humans bring to any interaction—the need to be respected and involved. And, not meeting them results in people feeling the way this woman described or worse. What can a leader do to meet those needs?
Principles to meet others’ personal needs
Maintain or enhance self-esteem.
Listen and respond with empathy.
Ask for help and encourage involvement.
Share thoughts, feelings, and rationale (to build trust).
Provide support without removing responsibility (to build ownership).
These aren’t just feel-good ideas, they are skills that anyone can learn and apply. They are based on decades of research, including very recent neuroscience explaining the human personal need to feel valued.
DDI’s more recent High Resolution Leadership report, a synthesis of over 15,000 assessment results, found that “overwhelmingly, empathy tops the list as the most critical driver of overall performance…Note, however, that only 40 percent of the frontline leaders we assessed were proficient or strong in empathy.” Unfortunately, the numbers don’t get better as you move up the chain of command.
What can you do about it?
Ensure your leadership development isn’t overlooking foundational interpersonal skills. Notice I didn’t say basic. No one said this is easy, which could be why we still need to practice the application of these skills every day. (And I’m not saying you should call them “foundational” either. Why label them at all?)
Don’t assume that your mid- and senior-level leaders got all this down when they went to “manager 101” training back in the day. Research shows that when people are promoted, they tend not to want anyone to think they might still be deficient in anything.
Don’t make this touchy-feely and PLEASE stop calling them “soft” skills. Just include them as important skills for getting work done. They are a critical part of great execution and every bit as important as technical skills.
Cory Rieken is Sr. Advisor – Leadership Insight and Growth, DDI.