How to be a Human Leader
It seems funny to have to write an article about how to be human, to uh, humans. However, our concept of leadership is being slowly disrupted — with more speedy breakage in 2020 of course, and the old command and control ways are dying out in perfect concert with newly entering generations of workers. With the entry of new worker majorities, and a regularly remote workforce, there is a shift in values and therefore new mandates for leading towards results. You simply cannot lead like you did five years ago, or even two years ago, and expect to get results today.
The primary demand that workers have of their employers these days is to simply be more human. Be thoughtful, be empathetic, be inclusive and in every way possible, treat employees like they are assets, not resources.
Harvard Business Review released this report 5 years ago on the benefits of a positive workplace culture (culture is driven and fostered by leaders.) None of these observations are outdated in today’s environment — in fact, they are more mission critical than ever. The study observes three key areas of cost for negative work environments; increased medical costs due to stress, disengagement, and lack of loyalty. In addition, all other markers of success go bad as well: “18% lower productivity, 16% lower profitability, 37% lower job growth, and 65% lower share price over time.” The cost of bad culture and outdated leadership is too great to cling to.
Now while you may not be able to control your whole company, you can make a difference in your own individual behavior and impacts. When results are achieved, divergence is forgiven.
Here are three simple (and free) ways to be a more human leader, and start to foster the best in your teams so they can blow their work out of the water.
1. Acknowledge their humanity. I don’t mean you need to get into an existential conversation about their life’s purpose — although you could. Lol. Honestly, in the workplace, it’s the simple things. The easiest way to do this is at the start of a meeting. Meetings are so transactional these days — it’s why they’re so exhausting. Ask someone how they are doing and actually engage with the answer. Ask a curious question about them if you are getting to know them. Ask a follow up question about something you know was happening for them last week. If you know something happened that was or is tough for them — acknowledge it and let them share what they’re comfortable sharing about it. In short, be present in their world for a minute, and actively listen to them talk about it. It’s such a gift.
2. Be your most real self and publicly acknowledge your own humanity. Stoic leaders do not gain trust, and, according to Forbes, work environments without trust underperform on everything. Acting as if you don’t have bad days sends the message that you only allow perfection — which is an expectation that cannot be met and stifles innovation as well. If you never show any kind of vulnerability or underbelly, then you are unrelatable and categorized as “other” which creates a barrier of communication. Be authentic and don’t be afraid to mention when you are on the struggle bus — but as a leader be sure to share what you will do to progress out of the dark side. Modeling this for your team will not only create safety but also increase communication, and help inspire them in ways that help them overcome inevitable day-to-day challenges.
3. Show and articulate gratitude in a way that will land. Think about, for each person you work with, how they like to receive recognition and praise. Some people like a written note or email. Others want to be publicly praised. Others still prefer a 1:1 interaction of acknowledgement. I see too many leaders who forget to recognize their teams altogether, or do so in a way that matches their own style, and not the intended recipient. Unfortunately, that results in no results. The person you’re recognizing doesn’t hear it, and the benefits of recognition go untapped. Providing recognition is just not nice, it is fundamentally how you get the most from your team, AND it is nice. Where people feel valued and happy, there is loyalty, strong culture, and a desire to deliver.
Like any new muscle this may feel more awkward in the beginning, but I promise it gets easier over time, and observing positive outcomes will be reinforcing as well.
I believe in you, and your teams will always offer grace to those who are at least trying.
Be well humans!