Every Employee Has A Story
Recently I stumbled across a photography exhibit that reminded me of one of the most fundamental principles of leadership- every employee has a story. The photographer, Milton Rogovin, documented factory workers in the 1970’s and 80’s. His portraits depicted workers on the job and then in their homes, rendering them as complete people with hopes and dreams, passions and pride. I stood mesmerized by the image of the gruff steel worker covered in dust standing on the shop floor next to the image of the same man proudly showing off the boat in his driveway. And the image of the middle age woman in kerchief and coveralls surrounded by machinery then shown dressed in her Sunday best sitting proudly with family in front of a wall of bowling trophies.
Fulfilling work is central to our lives, but for most of us, it is one important part of a much richer story. We are employees but we are also parents, friends, volunteers, artists, athletes, coaches and so much more. I believe it is our job as leaders to see people more completely and that when we do, we can inspire greater commitment and better results from our teams.
In one of my favorite books, Leadership is An Art, the author, Max DePree, shares the story of a young manager attending the funeral of one of his key employees, the factory millwright. The man’s widow reads from a bound book of poetry. Upon asking who wrote the beautiful verses the manager is shocked to learn that the millwright was also a poet.
DePree writes, “it is fundamental that leaders endorse a concept of persons. This begins with an understanding of the diversity of people’s gifts and talents and skills…the art of leadership lies in polishing and liberating and enabling those gifts.”
Really knowing the people who work for you takes effort and energy. In our time-pressed lives it is often easier to focus only on who your employees are as producers rather than who they are as people. But being known is a key component of belonging. And research suggests that belonging, or connecting in a way that enables you to bring your full self to work, creates lots of positive behavior. Employees who say they belong are likely to:
- Be more helpful to co-workers without the need for personal gain.
- Be more productive
- Encourage and support one another.
- Work more cooperatively with other teams.
- Take fewer sick days or be late to work.
I have by no means mastered this art but I have learned a few ways to unlock employee stories that have helped me as a leader.
- Start staff meetings with everyone sharing a short personal and professional win. Hearing about your team mates successful choir audition or their kid’s soccer championship helps create deeper camaraderie.
- Try putting personal and professional appointments on your office calendar. Seeing that the boss has lunch scheduled with a friend or has a parent teacher conference gives the team permission to not hide their own personal commitments.
- In 1:1’s try to spend at least a few minutes catching up on employee’s personal activities. Years ago, a young woman I worked with commented on how much it meant that the head of our department asked her about how her kitchen remodel was going. A simple question like that signaled to her that she was known and cared about.
- If someone on the team has special talent find creative ways to use it. Someone with artistic skills may be able to create some beautiful signs to celebrate a team milestone or the group baker may be able to make cookies to say thank you to folks in another department.
- Include outside activities in employee’s development plans. Volunteering as part of a non profit can provide an opportunity to work on leadership skills. Coaching a team can be a first step toward learning to manage others.
When we feel known by our boss and by our teammates, when they get our story and understand all the unique value we can bring to the job we simply do better. And when our teams do better we as leaders achieve more.
Would love to hear your ideas for understanding and utilizing your employees’ full stories.
Also you can check out Rogovin’s photos here Working People.