A manager I’ll call Tom reached out to me recently because he was overwhelmed with administrative minutia and was getting burned out. He was checking things off his to-do list, but not connecting with his people. Connecting with his people seemed “soft” and less important in light of the daily pressures to make good on strategic priorities. He gradually became more isolated and removed from the issues on his team that were hindering performance.
The Primary Job of a Leader
As leaders and influencers, we often focus the least on the most important intangible things that create a culture of connection. Why? It’s human nature to focus on tangible things like productivity. The immediate reward of seeing things get done and accomplishing things that build our credibility give us a rush. We keep going back to the rush, gradually losing sight of the deeper realities that drive the health of our teams and organizations. When this happens, we lose contact with the deeper meaning of our work — the human connection.
In contrast to your natural inclination, your primary job as a leader is to establish security.
Leaders Eat Last: The Circle of Safety
In his recent book, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek emphasizes the importance of safety and security in an organization. “Being a leader is like being a parent,” Sinek says, “and the company is like a new family to join” (p. 17). “It should be the goal of leadership,” he continues, “to set a culture free of danger from each other. And the way to do that is by giving people a sense of belonging.” Sinek refers to this as the “circle of safety.” When there is safety and security inside an organization, it frees people up to focus on the work tasks at hand. In attachment theory, this is called a “haven of safety.” When a child has a secure attachment to her caregiver, it frees her up to explore her environment, play and learn.
Attachment security is just as needed in our organizations as it is in childhood. We need to free our people up to play at work — to explore and focus on their work. When the culture is insecure (one of control, indifference, or chaos), people have to focus internally to manage their emotions. And this kills productivity and collaboration.
4 Ways to Establish Security in Your Organizational Leadership
So, just as professional athletes and musicians engage in deliberate practice, you need be deliberate about establishing security. Here are four practices you can implement today.
1. Treat everyone with respect and dignity.
This is a matter of integrity and a matter of having your priorities and motivations in line. Regardless of someone’s position level or background, and regardless of whether anyone will ever know, it’s critical to treat every single person with respect and dignity. People will notice, and this will build trust because you will be demonstrating integrity and trustworthiness.
2. Tune into others’ connection or attachment strategies.
Pay attention to how your people respond to distress. Do they shut down? Or do they become really anxious, clingy and demanding? What do they need from you as the leader when there is uncertainty or they are distressed?
I worked with an executive who had a preoccupied attachment due to loss of his mother at an early age. He had numerous managers who were very inconsistent, which amplified his anxiety and insecurity and had a negative impact on his productivity. He grew and developed over time, but he also now has a manager who is very consistently available and supportive – helping him to thrive. He needed consistent availability. His manager sensed this and provided it.
Other employees may shut down and need you to draw them out.
3. Build Trust
In order to build trust, you have to be trustworthy and demonstrate trustworthiness. Understand how others interpret indicators of trust; this will be affected by their attachment.
In a recent study, Gallup identified four basic needs of followers:
Gallup also found a six-fold increase in the chance that employees are engaged at work when they trust the company’s leaders.
Part of building trust is demonstrating integrity by following through on organizational commitments. This is one trait found by Cisco of highly collaborative leaders. Not following through models a lack of integrity and creates an emotional block for people to commit to shared goals. The result is organizational inertia. So, follow through on your commitments, especially the little things because little things are the biggest indicators of trust.
4. Be emotionally available.
Be a haven of safety for people to process challenges.
Sometimes these challenges will focus directly on work tasks, and other times they’ll focus on emotional issues that are impacting work. Whatever the type of challenge, be available for your people to process them. This doesn’t mean you don’t hold people accountable, but it does mean you listen and provide guidance and support. In fact, this is the best approach to holding people accountable. It lets your people know that you expect a certain level of performance because you care about them personally and about the organization. This will win their loyalty.
A manager I worked with recently went to her manager to process an exception to policy she wanted to push for, but wasn’t sure it was appropriate. Her boss listened and was supportive. This gave the manager more confidence in her judgment and the security of knowing that her boss had her back.
I hope these practices help you to be more intentional and deliberate about establishing security in your work culture.
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