February 02. 2012 2:00AM - Last modified: March 15. 2012 11:57AM

Develop employees through caring

  

What does "care" make each of us think of? Health care? Care for infants or the elderly? One definition of the word is "painstaking or watchful attention." If we want our businesses to thrive, it is critical to give this sort of attention to our employees.


For too long, corporate America has demonstrated too little care for employees, throwing it aside in favor of realizing efficiencies.  As an example, outsourcing overseas often dumbs down support services to the extent that employees left on American soil feel its corporate leaders only care about slashing costs. The U.S.-based employees are left to bear the brunt of problems generated by ill-fitted overseas service.  They clean up the problems, or worse, have no time to deal with them. When management doesn't support them, they conclude no one cares. And when this happens, employee morale suffers and people shut down.  Trust starts to erode.


At the end of the day, if bosses don't truly try to understand employees' challenges or give them the latitude to fix problems, employees feel unappreciated and become less productive.


Small business owners have a huge advantage over large companies when it comes to showing employees their appreciation and providing support. And it doesn't need to be an Employee of the Month program or other formal initiative.


Appreciation is embedded in bosses' actions and words. It's the way we genuinely thank a janitor for their hard work cleaning up after a staff party, the way we respond quickly when someone needs data to move their project forward, or the way we spend a few extra minutes to talk to a front-line person whose mother is ill.


When we take good care of individuals, it's genuine, heart-felt, and personal. Our grandmother's idea of showing appreciation wasn't through a formal Grandchild Appreciation Day; she did this through baking cookies with us and listening intently as we stumbled through knock-knock jokes.


You can't institutionalize caring. It's done at a one-to-one level.


Caring is a behavior and skill set we all possess. Some of us have practiced it more than others over the years at work. Some bosses leave their personal, emotional side at the door.  This is a big mistake. Not only does it deprive a person of truly living in the moment, but it also deprives them of forming meaningful relationships. 


The next time we interact with an employee, we can engage them. We can find out what the person did over the weekend, ask their opinion on a new idea, or ask what we could do to make their work easier. If we connect with them, they'll start to understand that we care.


There is an entire science behind caring.  In general, we relate to others when we not only see their emotions, but also experience those emotions ourselves. Our brains allow us to simulate what the other person is experiencing, so that we derive the same emotion.


The idea here isn't to get involved in an employee's life or accompany them in all their emotional ups and downs. The point is to let the employees know that we understand them, that we see them for who they are.  In the end, we all have a basic human need to be understood.


Other positive characteristics of a relationship can also emerge once a sense of caring is in place.  Caring leads to trust, trust leads to a sense of safety and loyalty, and these lead to a greater sense of ownership in the success of the business.


This joint sense of ownership is a critical element missing from today's business world. Many employees worry about job security. A sense of vulnerability permeates today's workforce and limits employees' ability or desire to fully engage.


As owners and bosses, we understand this lack of security. While we can't predict the future, we can honestly address employees' anxiety head on. We can share sales projections, budget constraints, and prepare our employees for change. If we care, we can also get their input on possible alternative routes to navigate through tough times. Their perspective is valuable and they will appreciate the chance to demonstrate that they care. This care thing crops up everywhere once we start noticing it.


Painstaking or watchful attention is at the heart of every important endeavor we pursue. Golfers who try to improve their game can attest to this truth.  Homeowners who restore bungalows to highlight their best features practice this level of attention. The parts of our lives that flourish are the ones that we focus on the most.


It's important to become aware of how we choose to partition our limited energy at work.


This art of caring is vital to the development of our employees and our relationships with them. When we take the extra time each day to demonstrate our genuine care, we strengthen our business, create a safer environment for our employees, and feel better about ourselves as decent human beings.


Julie O'Keeffe of Wauwatosa is a speaker, coach, author and owner of Next Step Goals LLC.


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