Connecting with employees 

Editor’s note: Gary Harpst is the founder and CEO of LeadFirst. 

More than anything else, Millennials and Gen Z workers want employers to care about their well-being. Sure, they need a paycheck, but they also want leaders who are invested in their mental, physical and emotional health and who are committed to helping them live up to their potential. Frankly, it’s not just a generational thing. Humans of all ages crave this style of leadership. But what does it really mean to care about your employees?

It boils down to showing them unconditional love – also called agape – and that’s a lot tougher than you might think. Agape love is about relating to someone with their best interests in mind, regardless of their response. This is far from easy because, as we all know, employees don’t always behave the way we’d like them to.

You might be thinking love, especially a form with Christian connotations, doesn’t belong in business. But – regardless of your belief system – there’s a very good reason to love your employees: It’s the only way to get them to subsume their individual desires and pull together to work toward your mission. Without love, there’s chaos.

Just as there must be a form of energy holding together the trillions of atoms that make up a single cell in the body, there must also be a force uniting team members and holding them together. In the network of human relationships that make up a great organization, love is that bonding force. Learning to practice it is the No. 1 job of a leader. It is a huge part of bringing order out of chaos. 

How to practice unconditional love in the workplace

Determine why you care

Do a gut check about your attitude towards other people. Do you care for people as a manipulation technique or as something worthwhile in itself? If you are being kind and loving only to get what you want, people will eventually recognize that you are being insincere. It’s not enough to go through the motions – your caring must come from within. 

Spend one-on-one time with your people

When I spend one-on-one time with my grandchildren, the conversations differ greatly from those held in the chaos of all of them together. These conversations are more focused and less influenced by what others around them may think or say – and they value receiving my undivided attention. Adults are no different – we all need meaningful one-on-one time, which contributes to our self-worth and identity.

The first comment some leaders make when asked about how much time they spend one-on-one with their workers, especially those with 30 direct reports, is, “I don’t have time.” What they are saying is, “I have time for turnover, retraining, increased error rates and all the other firefighting activities.”

Get to know them 

Take an interest in their life outside of work. Employees won’t believe you love them if you don’t know them. Devote some of that one-on-one time to stay up to date on their family, interests, concerns and joys. Ask honest questions that show interest – questions are powerful because they penetrate more deeply than statements since the brain has to do enough processing to provide an answer. However, be aware that you might need to go first by demonstrating openness.

Share some of your own interests and let people see who you are. You can do this without getting into inappropriate personal information. The point is to allow yourself to be vulnerable. This can be incredibly difficult for some leaders, but real relationships cannot happen in the absence of vulnerability. 

Always be respectful

Treat people right even if they don’t reciprocate. The idea of “treating you right regardless of how you treat me” may not sound fun or even practical. But unconditional caring or love means giving 100% regardless of how the other person treats you. The alternative is to go through life in reaction mode – a sure recipe for chaos. Love is centered in what you believe and not in reacting to what others do. 

I admit this is hard for me. I want to treat people based on their behavior. After reflecting on this for years, I realize what I really want is for others to treat me right, regardless of how I treat them – in other words, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Yet, as leaders, we need to keep working at this, even though we know we won’t always succeed. Over time, employees will look back and see that we’ve done the best we can by them despite their imperfect behavior.

Don’t be afraid of difficult conversations

Don’t be a doormat. An agape approach toward relationships can lead to tough love interactions. Don’t back down from these hard conversations. If you are coming from a place of care and concern, and not from a place of anger, your message will be received. But do remember, being firm is not the same as being cruel. You can say anything you need to say if you say it with sensitivity, kindness and, above all, care.  

Offer what you can

Give what’s in your hand. You may not always be able to give an employee a huge cash bonus or a promotion, but you always have something you can give that will be meaningful and valuable. Always ask yourself, “What can I offer this person?” and you will never come up short. This is true even in worst-case scenarios. Here’s an example of an interaction I had with a former employee, David, who could not get along with others and was being terminated. 

I did not know David personally, but I felt I should do something for him. I had no motive as he was leaving the company. I met with him and slowly and carefully related the feedback that others had provided me on how he interacted with them, his belligerence, uncooperativeness and unwillingness to take input. I told him I had no motive other than to help him see himself as others see him. 

David broke down in tears. He said he didn’t realize he came across this way and that no one had told him that before. I gently pointed out that was not true. Many people had tried, but he could not “hear” them. By the end of the conversation, David understood how he came across. He sincerely thanked me for helping him. He said it would change his approach in his next job. He seemed relieved and refreshed in his outlook by the end. 

Learn how to apologize and forgive

Get familiar with two key words: apologize and forgive. Apologize when you screw up. Do it quickly and mean it. The best way to establish a high standard of behavior is to declare the standard and admit when you don’t meet it. No one is perfect. Don’t pretend you are. Likewise, forgive others when they screw up. It’s a two-way street.  

When we invest in our relationships with people, we are more likely to tolerate and forgive each other as needed. It really is a two-way street. Caring for people makes for a more resilient organization where our inevitable failures don’t derail the teamwork.

If all of this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. But the payoff is well worth it. Care and love require intentional action. Keep this in mind as you consider how to show your employees their well-being matters to you. Your good intentions count only when you back them up with consistent action. When your behaviors come from your heart, you will reach your employees’ hearts too and that kind of connection leads to greatness.