Taking the time to connect pays dividends

Gale Mote/Tree Full of Owls

In 1984, I accepted a position as a master production scheduler for Norand Corp. in Cedar Rapids. Approximately one week into the job, as I was sitting at my desk peering over a sales forecast, a tall, thin gentleman with a kind smile was standing near my desk.“I’ve heard so much about you, Gale. I wanted to introduce myself,” he said. “I’m Bill Mustain – vice president of operations.” I was stunned and unable to manage a reply. “May I sit down?” he asked. I nodded and he pulled up beside me at my desk. While I don’t remember all of the content of the conversation, I will always remember how he made me feel – important, valued and respected. This was my first encounter with making a connection.

According to the Gallup Organization (1999), one of the questions of a strong workplace is, “Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?” As I work with organizations across the country, I see managers and supervisors struggling to find time to connect with their employees. With all of the e-mails, meetings, reports and project deadlines – managing people seems to happen “whenever I get a few spare minutes.”

So why should managers make connecting with employees a top priority? Sharing yourself as a person and getting to know what is unique about each of your direct reports helps you tap into the intrinsic motivators that drive performance. As a manager, you can capitalize on each employee’s strengths, finding ways to let their talents shine. Spend time with your best employees. Some supervisors feel these stars don’t need their time and attention. Wrong! You don’t learn about success by studying mediocrity. If you want to lead the best possible team, start with your “A” players.

Connecting demonstrates openness, builds trust and creates a foundation for candor and transparency. It is impossible to know everything that is happening within your department unless you are a notorious micro-manager who has to be involved in every decision. Your employees know what is working and what needs fixing, who needs help and what needs celebrating. If you take the time to connect, employees will view you as an authentic person who genuinely cares about the work, the team and each of them as people. In return, they will share information you need to know to lead effectively along with asking for your guidance and support.

During periods of change, uncertainty and stress, it is even more important to spend time connecting. Wouldn’t it be great if you knew about a rumor before it got full momentum? What about recognizing the “mood of the room” and being proactive in taking steps to curb a downward spiral in attitudes and motivation? Managers have been able to improve retention, increase morale and keep teams focused by simply taking the time to be there.

Emotional intelligence plays a big part in making connections because you have to be paying attention – watching for verbal and non-verbal cues. Have you ever had someone ask you, “How are you doing?” and then walk right on by without waiting for your response? You need great self-management to turn off the “auto-pilot,” pause, slow down and acknowledge what the other person said. When someone says, “I’m really having a rough day,” your response should not be, “Great — glad to hear it!”

The wonderful thing about connecting is its simplicity. The secret to success is getting started.  One effective way to connect is to simply “make the rounds.” I know a very effective manager who makes it a practice to arrive early to work and spend the first 30-40 minutes walking through his department, greeting employees, checking in on projects and following up on personal issues. “How is your dog this morning?” “Tell me about the meeting yesterday afternoon – how did that revised agenda work for you?” “I’ve been thinking about this new customer application – you seem to have all the right stuff.  Are you interested?” Coaching is about noticing – getting your antennas up – being prepared to say the right thing at the right time in the right place for the right reason.

Media Partners, a video production firm, suggests managers engage on a weekly basis with their employees using a technique called the “10 Minute Check-In.” Three questions – 10 minutes. “How are you?” “How is the team?” “How can I help?” Sometimes, you won’t make it past the first question and that’s okay.  Take time to write down some questions you might ask to get to know each of your employees better as people. “Tell me about your best day ever at work.” “What makes you feel valued at work?” “How do you like to be recognized?”

When Mr. Mustain connected with me that afternoon, he left an impression for life. He showed me how important it is to make the effort. His investment of time generated a huge dividend in my commitment. An employee may be one out of 20 to you. Remember, you are one-out-of-one to her. You are the only manager she has – she knows how busy you are. The time you spend will not be lost – it will be the best investment you can make.

Gale Mote is a trainer, organizational development catalyst and coach in Cedar Rapids. Contact her at galemote@galemoteassociates.com.