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Supporting Employees

In today’s episode I would like to discuss why supporting your employees is so crucial, what is actually worth sharing on the subject, how to support your people wisely and what to avoid in your day-to-day routine.

It might have occurred to you, as organization owners or team managers, that leaders’ life is often quite lonely – they neither get support from the outside, nor they are generously backed by the staff they have hired. This is particularly the case in the companies established by one person, not a group of founders.

Too soon, such sole owners are likely to become frustrated, burnt out and unable to get on with their subordinates. This happens for a number of reasons.

Having spent a long time thinking why this happens, I have defined 5 problem areas that underlie the lonely owner’s inability to give proper support to their crew. One of the basic reasons here is that, in the European business culture, there is no practice among company owners to seek support outside an organization, among their counterparts in other organizations. I don’t only mean the managers’ and proprietors’ support groups, but the support that we, leaders, sometimes fail to offer to our staff, that they can find themselves, with our help, among people performing similar jobs in other organizations, at a similar stage of development. So, the first step here would be finding and seeking advice from counterparts in other organizations and encouraging our team members to do the same.

Another issue here, obvious as it may sound, is employing the right people, which is more easily said than done. It is believed that only the top-class leaders can recruit top-quality personnel. By saying top class I mean people experienced and modest enough to appreciate the fact that someone may know better than us, the awareness that by hiring people wiser than us, the company is more likely to grow faster. If, on the contrary, we employ people with much lower qualifications, perhaps in fear of becoming redundant, our newly hired staff will recruit others with even lower soft and hard competencies and so on, so forth. This not only perpetuates the cycle of decreasing degrees of competency, but also creates a decision bottleneck at the top of this hierarchic pyramid, where all decisions are expected from line managers. The higher you move, the higher the competencies get, instead of being evenly spread.

The third element here is trusting the people we have taken on. We have not hired them to tell them what to do. We have recruited the people who are better than us so they tell us what we should do. We have built a team of qualified people to trust them and let them do their work.

However, entrusting our people with work is still not enough. Our fourth component here is the support we give to those we have put our trust in. This means giving them relevant feedback in the appropriate way, sensible delegation of … well, can we call them “tasks” – there’s more on that later – and supporting them while working towards jointly set goals.

The fifth point of this short list is the proper communication of aims, that famed “WHY?”. Why do we and our company do things in this and no other way? This is key not only to the motivation of the whole team, but to everybody’s awareness of where the “big bus” is heading, beyond the perspective of individual daily workload.

I have spoken a lot of times about the importance of recruiting the right people from our network, not necessarily from our organization, in order to learn about and avoid the mistakes these people have made, drawing on their experience.

The proper delegation of tasks and objectives will be the topic of a separate episode, so today I would like to focus on supporting the people we have trusted. Why is this fourth point of my list so vital? Mainly because most of you already have a team. You manage or are part of a team that somehow relies on your experience, your role in the company and maybe not your rank, but on what you are expected to contribute to the team. These people, particularly if you are their manager, also expect your support and empathy. The way your team members are treated not only has an impact on their happiness but, in terms of business, it affects their efficiency, dedication and commitment.

I’m sure you’ve heard the term “micromanagement”, much and rightly frowned upon, especially in corporate life. Micromanagement occurs, when the decision process is “bottlenecked” by the managers, who delegate tasks but don’t define where the team is headed or why the jobs are being done. Their instructions tend to be very detailed, like “make this blue button green and move it two pixels to the right”.  Well, such things shouldn’t be dealt with by any department managers – they should put their faith in their team of specialists who will do the job right. Micromanagement takes place when we failed to rely on our crew, we haven’t sufficiently explained our goals so as to enable them to choose or at least co-decide how to achieve these goals, instead of being led like blinkered horses.

Some time ago, in a Polish Facebook group called “Start-up Talks”, I surveyed entrepreneurs and business founders on how often, if at all, they have one-to-one meetings with their staff members. To my pleasant surprise, three-fourth of them replied they do it at least once a month or even more often and, what’s more, such meetings happen no matter who initiates them, an employee or them. This is very important. If we just declare our readiness for such meetings and do not make them happen, our employees, unaware that they can benefit from such support, simply will not ask for them. Their challenges, problems or doubts that in time might develop into more serious situations, do not get a timely opportunity to be clarified.

My optimism here should be perhaps moderated because only a few tens of the managers have responded to my survey. Also, they may not exactly do as they say, concerning the frequency and commonness of such meetings. Finally, the people who do not have such meetings probably haven’t taken part. Still, despite its imperfections, the survey gave me the impression that, these practices, rather rare in Polish business 5-10 years ago, with little awareness of why or whether such tools of management existed, nowadays are becoming more popular, following in the footsteps of the western corporations.

The question remains, however, whether they are properly conducted and whether only younger managers have noticed that there is such a tool, so this is something managers ought to do. Also, I’m not sure whether the idea behind these meetings is understood as to why and how to run them. Why? As it followed from the survey comments from my Facebook respondents, my Sauna Grow clients and my AirHelp managers (we had more than 40 in the Operations Department alone), the meetings often turn out to be devoted primarily to the changes in the scope of duties, the famed “corporate task updates”. It is much less remembered, however, that these meetings are one-to-one so as to make sure that the team member is happy, feels his/her development and, should there be any difficulties, we are able to help him, not just tick his task list items off, but support him/her as a person, make sure we share the understanding of our goals. It’s not about a perfect completion of a given task, not about this button, green or blue, being moved to the right or left; it’s about knowing what we are trying to achieve – who, for instance, we are building this website with this green button for. These, however are just tasks and projects. If our employee does not understand where the company is heading, why we are carrying out tens, hundreds of our projects, these various small tasks, they will find it harder to feel happy. It will be also harder to expect their long-standing commitment, their feeling comfortable with their work. So, such meetings (which by no means can remain the only form of the line manager-team member interaction), should be focused on that particular person, on their development, on how they feel, on the things that have an impact on their perception and on things that we, as managers, can do to improve their well-being.

In closing, I think it is worthwhile to mention the rule of four-to-one. You might have heard about it – it says that each negative feedback comment should be accompanied with four positive remarks. I don’t mean the employee should be thanked for showing up at work not being late or praising his outfit. Let’s note the things our staff really do well. Let’s keep in mind that if the proportion shifts towards one-to-one or worse, one-to-four (one positive to four negative points), this criticism will in time lose its appeal and will not build up any motivation. On the contrary, they will bring the employees down and they will gradually lose their workplace and team spirit. So, remember about your 4-to-1 positive – negative proportion to be able to back our team members up and enhance their long-term development beyond their current task list.

There is a very good strategy of running feedback conversations – sometimes very tough ones – in fact, in a range of life situations, with various people. Apart from the employer – employee context, these could also be meetings with external parties, negotiations or team meetings. The strategy is called FUEL, and I’m going to tell you about it in a separate episode. For now, I’m asking you to remember that feedback meetings do not only serve the purpose of settling task completion accounts, but can be used as a reminder about the direction the company is going and making sure there is a mutual consent. They are to reassure the employees that we are there to help them, to appreciate them so as to boost his growth beyond his current load of work.

If we support our staff in this way, there is a chance we will not become organization bottlenecks ourselves, we will not be snowed under piling-up duties because our personnel will take actions and risks. If they are sure they will find our acceptance despite our slip-ups (because these are avoided only by those who don’t do anything), they will simply get on better with us and we will feel more complete as managers.

That’s it for today, a sauna session shouldn’t last longer than a quarter of an hour, so let’s take a break.

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