How Leaders Can Better Engage And Empower Their Employees

Author: Tanveer Naseer | Source: HCI | Published: April 18, 2013

Most of us understand that to be successful in leadership, we need to be aware of what and how we communicate.  Of ensuring that we actively listen to what those around us are saying, and sometimes what they're not saying.  And yet, how many of us are also mindful of how we show up in these moments, of how present and engaged we are in those conversations with those we lead?
 
It's a thought that came to mind after attending the HCI Human Capital Summit last week.  Although the focus of the conference was on HR practitioners, there were some interesting insights shared on leadership and understanding how we interact, engage and empower those under our care in this increasingly complex and uncertain global economy.
 
Getting out of your own head to see the perspective of others
 
With the release of his latest book, “To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others”, the theme of Dan Pink's presentation was on getting us to rethink our understanding of selling and with it, the recognition that this is now a function of everyone's job in this age of “information parity”.
 
What was particularly noteworthy about Dan's talk was his discussion on perspective taking – where “you get out of your own head and see the perspective of others”.  Although Dan's focus was on how this can help us to do a better job selling an idea, product or service, this concept also plays a key role in how we show up in those interactions with those we lead.
 
For example, Dan shared research findings which has shown that the correlation between power and perspective taking is inversely related.  In other words, the more power we have, the less we look out to see and understand the perspective of others. 
 
Additionally, researchers have also found that when someone is made to feel more powerful by getting them to focus on themselves – on their accomplishments and/or their responsibilities – their perspective taking is significantly lowered.  Experiments have shown that all it takes is 90 seconds of increasing someone's perception of their own power to dramatically reduce their ability to take into consideration the perspective of others.
 
So with this in mind, how can leaders ensure that in these conversation moments, they're not only focusing on their perspective, but that they're being open to seeing the perspectives of those they lead?  Ironically, one of the ways leaders can increase their effectiveness in perspective taking is by reducing their power.
 
Specifically, you can increase your perspective taking capability by decreasing your feelings of power – by not going into the conversation saying 'We don't have time to discuss this.  I just need you to get this done'.  Instead, you need to involve your employees in the process, asking them for their insights to reveal what they will gain from the action, instead of simply looking at it in terms of what you will gain.
 
Indeed, another research finding Dan shared was how negotiators who kept in mind the thoughts and interests of the other party ended up with a much better, mutually beneficial deal than those who didn't.
 
So while the fast-changing and increasingly competitive environment might seem to demand a greater urgency on most fronts, these findings make it clear that we need to be mindful of how our power – whether real or perceived – can impact how we show up in those interactions with those we lead and with it, our ability to see beyond ourselves to understand the needs and perspectives of those we serve.
 
How leaders unconsciously create stress in their employees
 
One of the speakers I was looking forward to hearing from was Liz Wiseman, who was a recent guest on my show “Leadership Biz Cafe”.  During her talk, she got two volunteers from the audience to re-enact the famous story of the Swiss folk hero William Tell, who had to shoot an apple off the head of his son with a crossbow to save both of their lives.  One participant was told to stand still as though they had an apple on their head while the other was positioned as though she was aiming a crossbow.
 
At this point, Liz polled the audience to ask what they thought these two characters must have been feeling at this moment.  For William Tell, the consensus was that he must have felt pressured to live up to his reputation as a top marksman for fear that his son would die, either at his hands or at the hands of those who put the father and son in this situation.
 
But what was interesting was what Liz revealed through this exercise about what William Tell's son must have felt – stress, brought on by the fact that he had no control over his fate.  While his dad could at least be responsible for his ability to summon his courage to focus on hitting the target and saving both of their lives, his son was nothing more than a passive participant waiting to see what the outcome will be.
 
At the end of this exercise, Liz turned to the audience and asked how often do we as leaders put our employees in a stressful situation in response to our being pressured.  Of course, most of us would like to think that it's external factors like the economy that are creating stress for our employees. 
 
And yet, as this exercise by Liz clearly illustrates, many times the stress we feel at work can arise from feeling a lack of control and with it, a lack of connection between our efforts, our organization's goals and what matters to us personally. 
 
That's why creating a sense of ownership in your collective efforts, of demonstrating a shared purpose becomes key.  Even though they can't control or know everything, your employees can still be in control of something in their domain. 
 
This sense of ownership in their contributions will open them up to committing their full selves to the process because it's no longer a question of who will succeed – 'us' or 'them'.  Rather, the focus is on what do we need to do together in order to collectively succeed.
 
Understanding what your employees' real strengths are
 
As part of his presentation, Stuart Crabb, Head of Learning at Facebook, shared a video Marcus Buckingham created for the employees at Facebook to explain how they should view their competencies and contributions.  During this short video, Marcus makes this fascinating point:
 
“Your strengths are not what you're good at; your weaknesses are not what you're bad at.”
 
Now, most of us understand the value of focusing on building our strengths instead of trying to continually compensate for our weaknesses.  And yet, how many of us are truly aware of what our strengths are?  In other words, how many of us confuse what our strengths are with what we're good at?  And conversely, how many of us assume that our weaknesses are what we don't do well?
 
As Marcus elaborates in his video, our strengths are not simply what we're good at; rather, it's what strengthens us.  It's being able to do work which, while exhausting or challenging or even difficult, lights a fire within us.  That it makes us feel like we're contributing in a meaningful fashion; that we're making a difference.
 
As leaders, what are you doing to understand what really matters to your employees?  Of gaining greater clarity about the kinds of responsibilities, opportunities or tasks that would stretch your employees, make them feel empowered and that they're growing?
 
In other words, when you show up as a leader, do you play to the true strengths of your employees or do you simply assign them roles that reflect what you perceive them to be good at?
 
Throughout the conference, there was a common theme that looking forward, the biggest challenge organizations will face is finding and retaining people who have the talents and insights they require to grow and evolve.  And in that vein, there was the understanding that employees recognize that the salary and perks that some organizations will use to attract them can be found just as easily elsewhere.
 
Consequently, the focus for employees becomes less about what an organization can offer them in terms of perks and financial compensation and more about what do they stand for – what are their values, what defines their culture and perhaps most importantly, why do they do what they do and how they can contribute meaningfully to that purpose.
 
To that end, it becomes all the more critical that leaders are not only be able to communicate and exemplify those values and ideas, but that they also exhibit a greater sense of mindfulness about how they show up to empower and guide their employees' collective talents, creativity, and insights towards achieving their shared purpose.
 
Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and speaker.  He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with managers and executives to help them develop leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development, while ensuring they remain focused on what creates a fulfilling sense of purpose in what they do. You can read more of his writings on leadership and workplace interactions on his blog at TanveerNaseer.com.  You can also follow him on Twitter - @TanveerNaseer.
 
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