Leadership Series: Empathetic Listener
Shared social experience will open up opportunities for personal conversations and for listening with interest to what is important to each other- and that will carry over to the workplace.
This is the fourth of a six part series on leadership by Geoff Van Berkel from Calvin College and Eco Green Supply. Read the previous installments listed below and stay tuned every Friday for more.
I am convinced that for the most part people want to be known.
Our society makes that a challenge. Texts, Facebook, email, and other non-personal ways of communicating has made it really easy to craft a somewhat fictional public profile that allows people to hide from exposing real-life struggles and joys.
We do that at work as well. How many of your crew do you really know? How is their family, what are the struggles, how’s their marriage, what stresses them out, what are their hobbies, what do they do for fun?
A few months ago, one guy on our staff at Calvin College said that he wished that we as a department could all spend more time together doing things outside of work- his comment reflected a desire for relationship outside of the parameters of work. He doesn’t just want co-workers, he wants to work with friends.
That got me thinking a bit about how we really know the guys we work with, and if our work could become richer if we invested a bit more into those relationships. After all, we typically spend more hours of the day with our co-workers than our spouses or kids.
Yearly, our Environmental Health and Safety Department (EHS) conducts mandatory training on things like asbestos, fire suppression, fall protection, infectious disease prevention etc. Our EHS staff came up with a brilliant idea- instead of 8 hours in a classroom on the campus, they bring the entire staff to an indoor arcade/ go cart/ pizza joint for training. We will have 3 hours of class in the morning, then 2 hours for lunch and go carts, then finish the day with class.
Just let me say- there is a mystery in the go carts….
For 2 years in a row the staff at the track complained about the Calvin group. The third year we were asked not to come back. The fourth year they brought us back with some pretty stiff boundaries.
Why you ask?
Well, something interesting happened when you take 20 guys who have worked beside each other for years and put them in carts in a semi-competitive environment away from the job site. Big talk, spin outs and brake checks. Bumping in the corners and screaming foul. Screeching tires and laughter- lots of laughter. Memories and stories and laughter that carries into the next weeks and months at work about this spin out and that head-on collision. That guy got hit so hard his glasses flew off. That guy hurt his back and we all loved it. There really is something magical about it.
We bonded. We enjoyed each other’s company. We got to know just a bit about the guy we have worked beside for years- a different side of the person that we actually discovered we liked being with.
That shared experience led to a new “closeness” over the next weeks. Sure, it faded over time- but for a while after the go carts the guys care a bit more, listen a bit more and work together a bit more cooperatively. It led to more personal questions, and a willingness to maybe open up to each other a bit more- to be known a little more deeply.
There is a saying, “The family that plays together stays together”. There is some deep truth there that can carry over to our work life. What does it look like for us as leaders invest in knowing our staff on a personal level? To be willing to pursue a co-worker and allow our lives to be a bit more transparent? A Friday afternoon barbecue in my backyard, a fishing trip, dune riding on quads or an afternoon shooting skeet. Think of the stories, laughter and memories that are just waiting to take place.
As a leader, it takes some work and imagination to craft the venues for the “play”. The time and resources spent there will lead to employees who will invest in each other and in you. When that happens- you have a team who care for each other and will look out for each other. Shared social experience will open up opportunities for personal conversations and for listening with interest to what is important to each other- and that will carry over to the workplace.
Listen to your staff. Understand that they do want to be known. Give them a space to learn to like each other. Get to work on creating some opportunities and venues for that to happen. Trust me, the resources invested will pay dividends.