He was being nosey and eavesdropping. It was obvious. 

Typically, I leave a crowd to take any phone call. But, on a recent business trip, a friend who owns an advertising agency called me as I walked through the airport to pick my brain. And, apparently a stranger in the airport wanted to hear my conversation. 

My friend is a lifelong entrepreneur. He's innovative. He's brilliant. But, he struggles with the people side of business. He wants to understand good leadership practices, and he wants to know how to make his employees care about the business as much as he does. 

"I don't get it," he told me. "I hire the best writers, the best designers, and the most creative people to manage accounts. But, once they're in the door, they just don't care any more."

I hear this all the time--so much that it makes me question whether we all truly understand the definition of "caring." You know what it's like to care for another person, a desired outcome, or a cause. But do you understand why you care? 

That's often the part you don't think about. What makes one person care about homeless cats when another seems to care only about school lunch nutrition? Why do you care about some people more than others? Why can you care deeply about one project at work, but can haphazardly sign off on others as just good enough?

"Here is what you need to understand," I told my friend over the phone. "You can't make people care. You can't force them to be engaged. You can't will someone into an emotional connection with you, your company, your clients, or your projects. They have to choose to care."

At this point, my nosey new airport tag-a-long was hardly even trying to pretend that he wasn't eavesdropping. I like my personal space to be a good arm-distance or more. This gentleman had definitely encroached my comfort level.

"That's it?" asked my friend. "There's nothing I can do?"

I've had this conversation with numerous leaders. I've had the opportunity to learn from many of the best culture builders in the corporate world. And although leaders and organizations do different things to engage people, most things fall into a few simple buckets.

"You can't make people care," I said. "All you can do is provide all the right elements so that people choose to care."

Specifically, I told him, these are the four elements that matter:

Safety and wellbeing 

This might seem obvious if we're talking about high-rise window washers. It's much more delicate when we're talking about your average office employee.

Employees want to feel safe with their job and the people with whom they work daily. They want to know that their boss, team, and organization cares about their personal wellbeing. If they don't feel that their leaders care, they'll be less likely to give their all--because they'll be focused on protecting themselves.

Fulfilling activity 

Many of us didn't end up in the jobs we dreamed of having as children. However, our career paths often lead us to roles that we, for the most part, enjoy doing.

Employees who find their work--or at least an occasional project--fulfilling are more likely to be engaged, and care about the company. As a leader, it's your job to know your people well enough to understand who might find certain projects fulfilling.

Appreciation 

Research shows that when employees are asked what their boss or organization could do to inspire them to produce great work, the No. 1 response (beating out increased pay, promotion, and autonomy) is "recognize me."

People want to know their energy, effort, and commitment is valued. They want to know their boss and coworkers appreciate them. When they feel appreciatied, they're far more likely to care about the quality of their work--and the organization as a whole. 

Opportunity 

This shouldn't be a surprise. Nevertheless, I can't tell you how many leaders and organizations overlook "opportunity" as a reason for employees to care.

Imagine I recommended exploring a career path that wouldn't lead to anything greater than what you have today. You wouldn't grow. You wouldn't learn. You wouldn't make any more money. It's a dismal outlook.

People want to know they have opportunity. It gives them a goal. It gives them a reason to care. 

After I explained these four things to my friend, we hung up our phones. My nosey neighbor smiled at me. "Nice list," he said. "Seems to me that list would work with most personal relationships as well."

He was right. The list does work with personal relationships. And, ironically, I couldn't help liking this stranger--quite possibly because he cared enough to be interested.