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How Much Do I Care?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Christopher H. McKinney Sr.
March 7, 2022

In today’s hyper competitive labor market, leaders must seek every competitive advantage possible to attract and retain the best talent. Even once an employee is onboarded, we must remain vigilant as other companies will continue to entice the top talent to join their team. I have worked with several organizations that have had employees leave after six months due to being offered better incentives and pay—but I suspect that it was not solely about pay. Now, we cannot always outcompete higher wages, but we can better hold our own when we ensure people know that we genuinely care.  

In his Harvard Business Review article titled “The Real Secret to Retaining Talent”, Roger L. Martin provides examples of the negative impact that’s had when people feel we do not care. It articulates how caring for our people can make a significant positive difference. What I have come to know over my career is when you pay a fair wage, have a positive culture and your people know you care, folks will think twice before they jump ship. 

At a conference, I heard leadership expert John Maxwell say, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  Former U.S. Secretary of State Collin Powell said it this way, “People don’t give two cents about what we think we know or who we think we are if they perceive we don’t care about them (perception is their reality).” From my own experience and observations I can personally attest that it makes a significant difference when people know how much you care about them as an individual. 

So, what does caring for your people mean? Let’s start with what it does not mean. It does not mean being their bestie or “BFF”. It does not mean neglecting an opportunity to correct incompatible behavior or holding them accountable. It does not mean inviting them over to your house routinely or hanging out with them afterhours. It does not mean downplaying the truth to avoid hurting their feelings. It does not mean showing them favoritism. 

Caring for your people begins with making a genuine connection with those who we have been given the responsibility to lead. The stewardship of the individuals in our organizations is the #1 task we have as leaders. Our people are the #1 resources in our organizations. It is not the product or the fancy equipment. It is the people. So, how can we show them that we genuinely care?  

We show our staff we care when we get to know them on a personal level. First and foremost, knowing first names is a great place to start. But beyond learning their names, learn at least one fact about each person that you can follow up on in future conversations. This is a great next step. Do they have a kid? Do they have a significant other? Do they have a favorite hobby? I have witnessed time and time again that the #1 topic of interest for almost every person on this earth is themselves. Ask questions about them and you will learn a great deal about who they are as an individual. If you do nothing else but ask questions, listen and retain information, you will change your relationship for the better. 

Next, push past the standard “I’m fine” response. We are all moving so fast from task to task that our conversations tend to become formalities. This shows up in cases where you pass a person in the hallway and ask, “How are you?”, not genuinely looking for a response as you continue to walk down the hall and move on to your next thought. This often leads to the standard reply, “I’m fine.” I encourage you to take the time to stop and push past that standard reply. Try stopping for two minutes and fully engaging the person by saying, “No. I really want to know how you are doing?” If you look them in the eyes with a sincere expression, it is likely that they will open up, and 120 seconds is more than enough time to create a sincere connection. In the Harvard Business Review article “Why People Follow the Leader: The Power of Transference” Michael Maccoby posits that when employees relate to their boss in a way that reminds them of a past relationship, they transfer those feelings to the boss. So, when we engage people in a way that makes them feel genuinely cared for, they connect with us on a deeper level. 

To be competitive and move our organizations forward, as leaders, we must show genuine care and concern for our staff. The more genuine connections that exist at multiple levels in an organization, the “stickier” the organization becomes. Stickiness refers to how willing employees are to remain with an organization. People will follow someone to the end of the earth when they know that they care. Make time to get away from your desk and engage with your workers. Take time to listen to their stories. Take time to get to know them. Take time for touch leadership. After all, leadership is caught not taught.  

Author: Christopher McKinney Sr. is the founder of North Pointe Enterprises a consulting and public speaking firm that supports senior executives in the government and private sectors with a focus on mentorship, conflict resolution and telework. He also served as the Executive Director of a Planning District (COG) supporting four rural South Carolina counties. Prior to his service at the COG, he retired from the USAF after 30 years of service as a Command Chief Master Sergeant. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @chrismckinney68.

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