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  • stone-arch3A manager had just stepped into her new appointment as co-director of a division at a large government agency. Having just attended my workshop on servant-leadership, she was determined to begin every conversation as a dedicated listener.

    Making the rounds of her new workplace, she listened carefully as each member of her new team talked about their projects, deadlines, and ideas for new initiatives now that the new management team was in place. As she listened to one employee talk about their job, the manager became aware (another servant-leader characteristic) that all was not well with this person. She could not quite put her finger on it, but there were clear indicators that something was bothering this employee. Wanting to get started on the right foot in demonstrating her openness to frank, honest discussions, the manager asked the employee point-blank, “Is something bothering you? I’m here to help. Tell me what’s on your mind.”

    Pretty straightforward and for most of us that would be a great lead-in to a fruitful discussion. But four key components are missing. The lack of these key components could torpedo the whole conversation and make future conversations difficult.

    Relationship – The first missing component is a Relationship built on shared Trust. Neither person knows each other well enough to have complete trust in the other.  Nan Russell, author of four books including Trust Inc and The Titleless Leader, says “Trust doesn’t come with a title. Trust is built through everyday actions — the alignment of what leaders say and what they do.” The new manager needs to take the time to build a relationship with the new team and its members.

    Empathy – Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another being (a human or non-human animal) is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. At this particular point in this scenario, the manager can’t help but speak only from her life and her perspective. She needs to figure out how to come into the employee’s life and understand their perspective. It’s a more indirect approach. But taking time to put herself in the employee’s shoes and developing empathy will go a long way toward building trust.

    Authentic – I once observed a new President of an organization who had clearly taken a page out of Leadership 101. He was trying to Manage By Walking Around and score easy wins by listening for “low hanging fruit.” He looked for things he could easily do right away and so build his reputation as someone who was decisive and had everyone’s best interests at heart. The difficulty came when it became very clear that he wasn’t authentic. John Maxwell talks about this. He says, “Authentic leaders connect with people.” Authentic leaders look for and build a connection of common ground. Once leaders are connected with followers in an authentic way, only then can they be led into an area of growth.

    Listen – The new manager has her heart in the right place. She is listening and is trying to help. Listening in healing conversations is different from everyday listening.  It goes beyond active listening.  The first priority for the listener in healing conversations is to create a bond, providing support so that the storyteller can share freely. It means having a singular focus on the present moment and person. It means engaging in such a way as to be fully present, mindful, nonjudgmental, and stepping out of the storyteller’s way so that the storyteller can open up in a way that is most comfortable for them.

    Liz Wisman, President of The Wiseman Group, a leadership research and development firm headquartered in Silicon Valley, suggests that new leaders should “embrace their rookie status.” As a new leader, you’ll only get so far by drawing on what you know — especially when the world around you is changing fast. Don’t rely on what got you there. Don’t act in the ways you think leaders should. Embrace your rookie status, says Wiseman, and you’ll keep your entire team at the top of their game.

    David McNamee