The relationships that you form with each of your direct reports are central to your ability to fulfill your three core responsibilities as a manager: Create a culture of feedback, build a cohesive team, and achieve results collaboratively. But these relationships do not follow the rules of other relationships in our lives; they require a careful balancing act. You need to care personally, without getting creepily personal or trying to be a “popular leader.” You need to challenge people directly and tell them when their work isn’t good enough, without being a jerk or creating a vicious cycle of discouragement and failure. That’s a hard thing to do.
When you can care personally at the same time that you challenge directly, you’re on the way to successful leadership. The term I use to describe a good manager-direct report relationship, and this ability to care and challenge simultaneously, is radical candor. So what can you do to build radically candid relationships with each of your direct reports? And what are the pitfalls to avoid?
Don’t focus on socializing. Do listen and give a damn. All too often, managers behave as if relationships get built and repaired at the office holiday party or other social events, and damaged by the work. If the only way you build relationships with your employees is by socializing, one of two bad things will happen: You won’t work enough at work, or your work social obligations will take over your nights and weekends and you’ll have no life outside of your job.
Rather than endless lunches or dinners or boondoggles, one of the best ways to build a good relationship with your employees is to make sure they feel heard. I will never forget the words of an entrepreneur whose company had been acquired for hundreds of millions. He was quitting less than a year after the acquisition, leaving enormous personal wealth on the table. Why? With tears in his eyes, he lamented, “Nobody listens to me here.”
I knew what he meant. When I left a job I’d once loved, I explained why: “It’s too frustrating to watch a company spend so much time hiring great people, and then refuse, steadfastly, to listen to a single word they say. It’s humiliating, like getting paid to sit down and shut up.” In that case, the problem was that my boss’s boss didn’t listen. His inability to listen rendered thousands of conversations that were happening under him pointless.
So make sure you know what your people are thinking. Solicit feedback from your employees, and show you care. This starts with effective one-on-ones. Make sure your employee sets the agenda, not you. And make listening tangible. Showing you’re listening is important not just for your relationship with each of your direct reports, but for everyone who works for them. The combination of these relationships is what really creates a culture that is self-reinforcing and helps you achieve results.
Don’t focus on chitchat. Do focus on feedback. Your employees don’t really want to gab with you about sports or the weather or politics or TV. What they want from their boss is somebody who can help them grow professionally. People grow most when they make mistakes. This means that you’ll build better relationships by sharing your feedback than by having idle conversation. And remember, feedback is both praise and criticism. Praise your employees early, often, and in public. Be specific about what was good and why. Be sincere — if you don’t mean it, don’t say it. Remember, the purpose of praise is not to boost egos; it’s to boost learning and growth.
Don’t focus on perks. Do focus on achieving results collaboratively. Extra vacation, a free lunch, a fabulous office space — all these things feel exceptionally empty if your team is not achieving results, if they are achieving results in the wrong way, or if their contributions to success are not recognized. Perks can reflect and reinforce a culture, but they can’t create it.
Much more important than buying a Ping-Pong table is taking the time to help people on your team nurture new ideas; creating a culture of debate for important topics; making it clear who owns decisions and why (and making sure you aren’t always the decider!); bringing others along; ensuring that employees have time to execute; and being open to admitting mistakes and learning from them. This is how you achieve results collaboratively. Your relationships deepen with collaboration, not with extra perks.
Don’t be promotion-obsessed. Do focus on career conversations. Helping employees achieve career goals will certainly help you build better relationships. Russ Laraway, my co-founder, showed me that it’s both necessary and possible to teach managers to get to know their employees at a human level. When we worked together at Google, Russ developed a Career Conversation methodology that required all of his managers to have the following three conversations with each employee: (1) Listen to the employee’s life story to learn what motivates them at work; (2) ask employees about their dreams of the future to learn what skills they need to develop; (3) together, develop a career action plan that is focused on the employee’s motivations and life goals, rather than a narrow and uninspiring focus on the next promotion.
When Russ first told me he was going to fly dozens of managers to California to teach them how to get to know their employees, I was skeptical. Don’t people already know how to do that? No, not always. And even those who do often don’t realize they are supposed to have those kinds of conversations with their employees. They are worried about crossing boundaries in our litigious world. Rolling out Career Conversations moved the needle on employee satisfaction metrics like “My manager cares about me” more than anything else Google tried that year and won Russ accolades for being one of the best people leaders at the company.
In summary, the best way to build relationships with your employees is to improve how you work together, not to take a break from working. Listen to employees during your one-on-ones. Let them set the agenda, but at the end solicit feedback on what you could do or stop doing that would make you a better boss. Give feedback — both praise and criticism — that helps your employees grow. Achieve results collaboratively by taking time to debate important decisions and making sure it’s clear who the decider is. And, finally, have the kind of career conversations that are not narrowly focused on career ladders, but that instead help each employee take a step in the direction of their dreams.
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