Employees want less command and control and more conversational interaction.  Yet how do some Theory X’ers still choose to interact with their staff?  With an attitude of “its just business, its not personal.”  Wake up and smell the employee engagement surveys, people — IT’S ALWAYS PERSONAL!

The jury is back on employee satisfaction, and engagement wins overwhelmingly with strong links to organizational performance and profitability. “But our shop is unionized,” whines the non-creative supervisor.  “We can’t engage THOSE people that way.” I disagree, and know several people personally who work in tough unionized shops who make it work on a daily basis.  What is their secret to success?  How do they engage people to get results?  They follow three simple steps.  Whether they know it or not they are doing three things very well:  they Connect with people personally/conversationally, they Inquire and ask questions that open up conversation, and most importantly, they Respect the workers they lead by the way they interact with them.  So the model is simple and not rocket science, but are you taking the time to do it – Connect, Inquire, Respect.  It should echo in your head like a broken record (what are records? say the Millenials,) burying itself deep in your unconscious.

Connection, aka small talk, is the social lubricant that allows people of all walks of life to meet on common ground.  It is that moment that says to the other person you are connecting with, “You’re not a part in the machine, but a human being.” It helps people know that you see their humanness and want to treat them with dignity.  That is probably more than you expected from a phrase like “Did you see the game last night?” Or, “What did you do this weekend?” However, that is exactly the symbolic impact or subtext of those phrases.  (Note to others/self: those statements only work if you actually listen to the answer – “What you mean I have to listen?”)  It is that moment of reaching across boundaries that allows you to enter into their world and have a meaningful conversation.

“Ya, Ya, Ya, I connect with people just fine, but that doesn’t get me or my organization moving forward. I don’t see more work getting done because of that.  I see just the opposite – a manager standing around jawing with his staff.” Inquiry is the next phase of the conversation that starts to improve  productivity.  People want to know they have a say in their destiny.  It is one of the base motivators, (just ask Dan Pink).  If you want a person to engage in problem solving, or find out what happened in a certain situation, you need to ask (inquire.)  Most people crave “airtime” and want to be heard.  A leader can gain a lot of valuable insight from asking people their perspective on the matter (You also get smarter, as you learn from your employees.) Most of all, this draws your employees into their work and helps them to feel like a valued person.  If they feel like their leader DOES care about their opinion, they are more likely to be engaged in the work process.  Again the studies show that the more engaged in the work the employees are, the more productive they are – A win/win all the way around.

You can be a rock star at Connecting and Inquiring and fail at the last, most important hurdle, Respect, and it will all be for naught.  Have you ever been asked your opinion on something, then told that your opinion is wrong, not valid, does not count?  How you handle the Inquiry phase of any interaction makes or breaks the relationship.  As leaders we don’t have to agree with everything, but we do have to respect the opinions of those whom we ask for it.  How do we do that?  This is what separates mediocre leaders from great ones.  Respecting someone’s opinion happens when we acknowledge it as a perspective that could be legitimate.  It does not mean we will always go along with it.  For example, You (leader) ask team member Kim for his/her opinion on something.  Kim comes back and shares a perspective that you know will not be viable based on knowledge you may have, which s/he does not.  We can validate her perspective by saying something like “I can see what your are saying, AND I also have to consider (blank) in the decision.” What you have done here is used AND instead of BUT which says Kim’s perspective has merit AND this other one does also.   It raises his/her opinion to a more level playing field.

Another way of respecting Kim’s perspective is to Invite him/her To The Dilemma. This is a method of responding that invites Kim into your perspective to wrestle with the issues that your are considering in your decision-making process.  The subtext is, I heard your opinion, and I wonder how you would see that fitting into this situation as I unpack it more for you.  You can then ask Kim what s/he would do in that situation.  Watch out you may learn something!   I have used this perspective many times to gain engagement into a process that may have been faltering previously.

Overall, when people say it’s not personal, it is just business, there are several possible assumptions that your average person might conclude:  one that takes a somewhat noble spin on the statement and one that brings up assumptions about business which would make the likes of Gordon Gecko proud.  The former could be intending to say that this is the best decision for the good of the company, and all things considered it is the best option for the most people.  The latter assumes that business is always a cutthroat enterprise and that it is a given that you are swimming with sharks.  Both don’t consider the human impact business decisions have on people.  Connect, Inquire, Respect is one method of trying to acknowledge the humanness of the business world – IT’S ALWAYS PERSONAL.


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