Leadership Is the Art of Micro-Interactions
As 49-year-old Cara stepped out of her car, she noticed an employee was having trouble carrying a variety of bags from his car to the building. Cara approached the employee saying, "Good morning! I see that you've got your hands full; I've got a free hand, let me help." The employee was immediately grateful but declared that he would take care of it. Cara responded with, "At least let me take one of these bags to the front desk to save you some of the trouble." She picked up a bag and started walking with the employee to the front of the building. She casually noted, "Looks like a department party. Something special today?" The employee said, "Some new employees are starting today and the facilities staff wants to welcome them." "Great news," Cara said, "We're growing."
Cara left the bag at the front desk and while walking to her office she spoke to each person she met along the way. Her comments were usually something like: "Hey Joe, I hear we'll get to see your project report later," or "Hey Diane, I haven't seen you for awhile; I hope that everything is fine." As she made her way to her office, she interacted with every person, making each interaction brief and direct. Each time she addressed the person by name, asked a supportive question, and often invited the individual to let her know how things were going.
Total time investment in each interaction: eight seconds. Return on effort: employee loyalty, trust, and a flow of information that every manager desperately wants and needs to make intelligent personnel decisions.
Cara is the vice president of marketing in a $200 million dollar financial services company. She is known throughout the organization as an impeccably dressed, energetic leader.
Of the 67 established manager and leader competencies for success and the 19 behavior clusters linked to career failure or derailment, the vast majority of behaviors are related to the management of relationships. Among career stallers, 75% of the behaviors are relationship issues (e.g. arrogance, betrayal of trust, defensiveness). All of these behaviors are connected to our most basic interactions. These behaviors are aspects of emotional intelligence, which leaders can learn to more effectively access and use.
Relationships are built through micro-interactions. Each interaction has one of two possible outcomes: You are seen as either inviting -- or as cold and indifferent. After a period of time, and through numerous moments of potential interactions, the cold and indifferent are usually thought of as self-interested, too absorbed, and generally uninterested in others' contributions.
Those leaders with a long list of inviting interactions usually have more latitude and more options when working with others. The perception is that you are invested in others and that you recognize that your success is tied to the work of others in the organization. Everyone feels like they are in the same boat, pulling the oars in the same direction.
To be sure, leadership is a combination of vision, business smarts, persistence, and a commitment to realizing the vision through people's efforts. But the single most important and simplest aspect of leadership is working with others and getting their commitment -- rather than just compliance -- to work effectively toward goals and objectives.
Make the most out of every interaction, no matter how small you might think it to be. Each interaction is an opportunity to recognize others, which communicates to them that they are significant to the organization. Asking a general inviting question shows you have some confidence in their work. Suggesting that you are willing to help communicates you see them as worthwhile.
At the end of Cara's day, she dropped an e-mail to the manager of facilities: "I heard you had a welcoming party today. I hope it went well and that the new members of the team are excited to be here." Is there any wonder why everyone I interviewed about the senior team of this company made the opening statement: "Now about Cara, I would walk through hell for that woman. She's the most remarkable business person I've ever worked with."
Leadership is building capacity and commitment through building relationships. And just like a brick house, built one brick at a time, relationships that matter are built through micro-interactions. How strong is your relationship house?