A client called me recently asking my opinion about an article he read in BusinessWeek titled, “The No-Cost Way to Motivate.“ His take on it was, “the author says to take more interest in your employees’ personal lives. I say, is that really a good idea?”
Maybe. If I already had a relationship with my employees in which we talked about our lives outside of work, this reminder might make me realize I had been a bit too task-focused lately. I may need to lighten up and check in with how my employees are doing, regardless of what is due this week. If you don’t have that relationship, please proceed with caution.
Context is Everything
To be fair to the article’s author, Patrick Leoncini, he does say, “Take an active, genuine interest in the lives of your employees.“ For good measure I would underline, bold and capitalize the word, “genuine.” If you don’t feel genuine about it, don’t do it. If it’s already a bad situation, this will just make it worse. Even if your intentions are good, not all employees want you to ask about their personal lives, particularly if you feel awkward about it.
Leoncini goes on to say:
“One of the greatest causes of misery for employees is the feeling that the person they work for isn’t interested in who they are and what goes on in their lives, personally or professionally. Regardless of how much money people make and whether their jobs suit them, if they feel anonymous they’ll dread going to work—and return home deflated.”
I agree mostly. I want to put a finer point on it though. In Gallup’s work, one of the items that predicts employee and workgroup performance (from the popularly-known Q12) is worded this way: “My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.“ That does not necessarily require you to ask about an employee’s personal life. I agree with Leoncini in this way: Feeling unseen – bad. Knowing your manager is interested (in what you want her/him to be interested in) – good.
Don’t Just Blindly Take Instruction – Connect
“Take an active, genuine interest in the lives of your employees” assumes a certain level of trust and comfort with your employees and a certain level of skill. Just telling supervisors to “Take an active, genuine interest…” is sort of like telling an employee to go out and “have more initiative” or “show more teamwork.” If they knew how to do it, they already would.
So what’s a supervisor to do? Depending on your genuine interest and comfort level, it can be a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t situation. I like to start with what is within the domain of your role as supervisor. You can check in with what they are thinking about their work.
Get clear on what you DO have a genuine interest about that is clearly within your job description. Be transparent with what you are doing – maybe with something like, “I realize I don’t know enough about what you think of what you’re doing, and I want to remedy that. Ultimately it could help us both do our jobs better and feel more satisfied with our work.”
Now don’t expect miracles with this. It isn’t a transaction. It is the beginning of a transformation, to potentially more motivation, through a more human experience at work.