As a manager, I’ve always felt proud of the teams I’ve built and how I help the people in those teams to grow. While there is an awful lot for me to develop as a leader, developing teams and people is a ‘super strength’ for me, and one of my most important motivators at work.
Recently, someone asked me what my management process was and how I was able to develop personal commitment from my team. I struggled to define anything more articulate than ‘I listen and I care’. They were surprised, perhaps because I love a management model and theory, that there wasn’t anything more sophisticated at play.
It got me thinking about the importance of caring at work, regardless of whether or not you’re a manager. It doesn’t seem very fashionable or ‘cool’ to talk about caring. We (and I include myself in this) spend a lot of time talking about purpose and productivity, which feels more concrete and measurable. The act of caring about people you work with and about how you do your work doesn’t get much air time.
The good news, based upon social neuroscience, is that we are wired to help others. It’s biological. Daniel Goleman, in his 2007 TED speech which asks ‘Why aren’t we more compassionate?’, states that we have “mirror neurons that act like a neuron WiFi” enabling us to empathise with others.
Empathy is key to working with care, so what’s the challenge?
Well, for one thing, the epidemic of busyness and the rise of workplace stress are getting in the way. One third of the UK workforce is now experiencing a health or wellbeing issue of some kind. Research shows the greater the stress people feel, the less empathetically they behave, which creates a lose-lose-lose scenario for the individual, their colleagues and the business they work for.
Without a doubt, elements of our roles will become automated in the future, but you can’t automate empathy and care. It’s what makes us human and we need to ensure our operating environments don’t turn us into robots.
There are many ways we can bring some conscious care into our work. Option B is a brilliant book by Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg about how to face adversity, build resilience and find joy. One of the suggestions from the book that stuck with me is about genuinely taking the time to ask how people are. Instead of passing them in the corridor with a flippant ‘how are things’, take the time to ask ‘how are things today’ and create the time and space to listen to what they have to say.
We spend a lot of time talking about purpose and productivity, which feels more concrete and measurable.
Also think about where your interest lies. Is it towards yourself, your profile and your achievements or is your interest and effort about helping other people to be successful?
When we measured and reflected on performance at Microsoft, the extent to which you had enabled other people to be successful was an important part of our feedback and performance management process. You can support this by giving people timely, objective and clear feedback that can help them to improve.
Delivering quality feedback shows that you care about someone’s growth and development. Another option is to proactively ask people about how you can help them to be their best.
Operating with care means that it is important for you to create a safe space for people to talk to you and that you respect the trust that people place in you by keeping those conversations private. It doesn’t mean you can’t challenge people, and I frequently do, but that you create an environment that is supportive and non-judgemental.
Finally, think about the impact on others of how you work on a day-to-day basis. Do you create work for them by making assumptions and not asking for their involvement in projects? Do you forward on emails without summarising the request you are making, letting people waste valuable time trying to understand what you need? Do you interrupt them in conversation to ‘help’ them get to the point?
If you do, none of these things are coming from a position of care for others. They are coming from a position of care for yourself. I’m definitely guilty of this at times, but you can think before you act. You can create new habits to relate with, and not dictate to, others. You can reflect each day on whether you have operated with selfish or selfless interest.
Operating with care builds better relationships and increases commitment. We all spend so much time at work, so perhaps it’s time for a reset. A shift from the focus on productivity and efficiency to care and empathy.
It starts with you and me and it can start today.
Helen Tupper is commercial marketing director at Microsoft and founder of Amazing If.