If you've ever had the privilege to work for one, have you noticed how the best of leaders have their best people's interests in mind? I mean, they genuinely care about the goals, career paths, and personal well-being of their people.

By default, that statement may have just eliminated the majority of my readers' bosses. Because serving the needs of employees first, ahead of their own, is counter-intuitive for most bosses. Heck, it's just plain crazy talk.

But yet, as we've learned from research and the stories from the world's top ten leaders (whom I've ranked recently), putting the focus and spotlight on the people that make your business go around releases discretionary effort across an organization. That's very good for your bottom line, too.

There are undeniable, high-impact traits found in these leaders. The evidence documented in the literature, case studies and, personally, in my own practice developing servant leaders is overwhelming. Here's what I have studied and observed, narrowed down to 5 uncommon leadership behaviors.

1. Leaders pay attention to their people.

Before the possibility of alienating your team sets in, the best way to prevent team morale from spiraling downward is to not neglect your people. This is especially important for new managers who have recently been promoted.

Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill, author of "Becoming the Boss, says direct reports will be scrutinizing and looking for evidence of three specific things in their managers:

  • Are they competent?
  • Do they want to do the right things?
  • Will they have the right network, respect, and ability to get the job done?

Hill advises, "If you are conscious of signaling your competence in these three areas, you'll go a long way to quelling your team's concerns. Some of it is simply changing your mindset: Are you their ally? Are you concerned that they shine, not just you? Are you fair in how you make decisions?"

2. Leaders provide their people with purpose and a sense of belonging.

In Adam Grant's bestseller, Give and Take, Grant says when a person finds purpose in their work, it will not only improve that person's happiness, it will boost productivity.

One way to extend purpose to people's work, according to Grant, is to give employees the chance to connect with and meet the people they are serving.

In research cited by Grant, three groups of employees in a university fundraising call center were tasked to call donors to ask for contributions. One of the groups read personal stories from scholarship recipients, about how those scholarships had changed their lives. Turns out that particular group increased their fundraising by 143 percent versus the other groups who just made calls as part of their job description.

Grant takes it a step further: When these same fundraisers were given the opportunity to personally meet with and talk to a scholarship recipient -- ask them questions for as little as five minutes -- their fundraising output went up by more than 400 percent!

Grant's conclusion? Having employees meet the people they are helping is the greatest motivator, even if it's limited to a few minutes.

Employers have a competitive edge when they can give their people access to customers, so they can see firsthand the human impact their work makes.

This is about having work that brings with it meaning, every day. When employees feel they are making a difference in the world through the work they do--whether they're designing apps or laying down asphalt--it increases their motivation to perform.

3. Leaders model radical transparency.

Transparency will quell a toxic work culture where people are at odds, the political climate is heavy, and personal egos stifle teams.

In a recent interview, Chip Bergh, chief executive of Levi Strauss & Co., told The New York Times how he practices leadership transparency. He tells The Times:

Being extremely transparent builds trust over time. I'm not a big fan of organizations where people backstab or talk behind others' backs. So when I've led teams, it's always been about how we work together to get the best results.

I've got some trusted people who will tell me if [politics] is going on behind my back. If I see it, you've just got to squash it like a bug as soon as it happens and not tolerate it.

You have to be really clear about how we're going to operate, and if you can't play that way, then you should probably find another team to play on.

While he minces no words and clearly draws the line, transparency, for Bergh, has always been about the team and getting the work done. When people are not pulling their weight, you have to pull the trigger by being real with your own feelings first, followed by being radically honest with those who need critical feeback.

4. Leaders ask, "Is there anything I can do for you?"

Managers must do their absolute best to know the status and condition of employees under their care. This is where the ability to be transparent does its best work, and gives managers competitive advantage.

There are questions every leader must ask for open and productive dialog to take place. When you are curious enough to find out what's going on with your tribe, how they feel about things, your tribe feels valued and gives discretionary effort.

The best approach is spending time meeting through one-on-one conversations.

Take Sameer Dholakia, CEO of email delivery platform SendGrid, whose story was recently captured in Forbes. Dholakia is one of the most highly rated chief executives in tech, with a Glassdoor approval rating of 98 percent, the same level as Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg.

Dholakia spends about half of his working hours meeting with SendGrid employees -- checking in with both managers and front-line people to affirm them and let them know he's there to help. He says, "We'll have no agenda. I just want to know how things are going. I'll ask if anyone has any questions about our strategy."

And then there's the question most bosses never ask. Dholakia says, "I end just about every meeting with, 'Is there anything I can do for you?'" He adds other questions to the mix: "Anything our leadership team or I can do? Any problems that we're not capitalizing on, but should be?'" He says this practice spawns great ideas for how to run the business better.

5. Leaders create psychological safety.

The term--psychological safety--was coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, who delivered a 2014 TEDx talk on the topic.

She explains the experience of psychological safety as "a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking." What Edmondson found is that better performing teams seemed to be making more errors than worse performing ones. The reason? Edmondson says the best performing teams were admitting to errors and discussing them more often than other groups did. In other words, what distinguished the best performing teams was psychological safety, which facilitated a "climate of openness."

This has been clearly documented in the captivating book, Turn the Ship Around! Author and retired Navy captain David Marquet talks about the culture of fear he inherited when he took over his nuclear submarine, the USS Santa Fe. For years, his crew suffered under drastic command-and-control leadership, taking away intrinsic motivation and causing severe low morale among sailors. As a result, Santa Fe had the worst retention rate in the entire fleet.

Since the dangerous missions of nuclear submarines requires competent and skillful crew members able to perform with sound judgment to maintain security and safety, Marquet's first order of priority for "turning the ship around" was to eliminate the fear that historically made it difficult for sailors to think clearly, act quickly and confidently.

That meant prevalent authoritarian tactics (common in the military) of yelling at sailors for making mistakes, not knowing things, or challenging authority was out of bounds. This greatly decreased their stress and increased their ability to use their brains at critical times.

Marquet employed an egalitarian environment where crew members felt psychologically safe to make decisions without fear of punishment if they made mistakes. They became increasingly more confident and accountable to act, rather than waiting for permission from a commanding officer. The transformation of a leader-follower culture to a leader-leader culture led Santa Fe to award-winning status.

Published on: Aug 23, 2017
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