3 Actions Every Leader Can Take to Serve Their People

Over the years, I’ve written a lot about servant leadership. I was recently reviewing Ken Jennings and John Stahl-Wert’s book, The Serving Leader (Berrett-Koehler, 2003 and 2016) when I realized how much I like the term serving leader—it makes the point that leadership is about doing something, it’s not just a philosophy. When you are serving, you are taking action.

In my recent work on servant leadership, I’ve been focusing in on three actions every leader can take to serve their people more efficiently.

The first action is about Presence. Be present when you’re with your people. Focus directly on them—not on the next meeting, or the call you need to make, or the text message that just came in on your phone. Don’t let distractions take you away from a living person who is right in front of you. As a serving leader, you need to listen with the intent to learn, ask questions for clarity, and offer the support and direction your staff needs to be able to perform at their highest level. Each person has very different needs, and as a serving leader it takes your concentration and attention to be truly present with each individual. In this 24/7 world, this skill takes practice and commitment.

The second action is Acceptance. Serving leaders look for and build on the strengths each direct report brings to the job. And, realizing no one is perfect, they also identify weaknesses—areas where they might be able to help the person learn and grow. Helping someone develop new skills is perhaps the ultimate act of serving. Accepting people as they are and paying attention to both strengths and weaknesses allows serving leaders to set team members up for success, which serves not only the individual but also the entire organization.

The third action is Creativity. Leaders work with teams made up of many different personalities and temperaments—and when you add the complexity of multiple generations in the workplace, the job of managing people can seem overwhelming. Some may see this as a challenge to be managed carefully, but the serving leader sees it as a chance to be creative and invite different perspectives to each project. Magical things can happen when different voices and opinions are shared in a trusting, collaborative environment. It brings about something I call one plus one thinking—where one plus one is actually greater than two. The job of the serving leader is to build a community where everyone feels they are part of the big picture.

I hope you think of yourself as a servant leader—but take it a step further and make sure you are taking the right actions to actively serve your people. Be present and focus on each person individually, accept people’s strengths and help them overcome weaknesses, and encourage creativity by inviting everyone to share their perspective. I guarantee that you’ll unleash talent and potential that will transform your direct reports, your team, and your organization.

PS:  Interested in learning more about servant leadership?  Join us for the Servant Leadership in Action Livecast on February 28.  The event is free courtesy of Berrett-Koehler Publishers and The Ken Blanchard Companies.  Twenty different authors, CEOs, and thought leaders will be sharing how servant leadership concepts work in their organizations.  You can learn more here!

Keep Your Praise-to-Criticism Ratio at 4:1 for a Healthy Workplace

I was once talking to a young woman and asked her if she liked her boss.

“She’s okay,” she said. “She seems to think I’m doing a good job.”

“How can you tell?” I asked her.

“Well, she hasn’t yelled at me lately,” she said.

Unfortunately, too many people have bosses like this—they never hear from them unless they do something wrong. That’s too bad. I am a firm believer in not only catching people doing things right, but praising them when they do.

I was involved in a corporate study where criticisms and praisings from managers to direct reports were tabulated and the reactions measured. The study concluded that in a healthy workplace environment there need to be at least four times as many positive interactions as negative ones between manager and direct report—a 4:1 ratio.

When there was one praising for each criticism (1:1), people perceived their relationship with their boss to be negative. When the ratio was changed and there were two praisings to one criticism (2:1), people still saw their manager as being all over them. It wasn’t until there were four praisings to one criticism (4:1) that people responded that they had a good relationship with their boss.

You know that people’s perception of criticism is powerful when it takes four positive comments to balance one negative comment. It’s pretty clear that when a leader doesn’t give a lot of praise, the people who work with them will think of them as negative and unfair. So how can you cultivate that much praise? It’s simple: catch people doing something right and give them a One Minute Praising.

In The New One Minute Manager®, my late friend Spencer Johnson and I wrote about One Minute Praisings. They work best when you follow these steps:

  1. Praise someone as soon as possible after you see praiseworthy behavior or work. Don’t save up compliments—unspoken praise is worthless!
  2. In very specific terms, tell the person what they did right—and be specific.
  3. Tell them how good you feel about what they did right and how it helps others or the organization. In other words, relate their good behavior to the broader picture.
  4. Once you’ve given a praising, pause to let the message sink in and give the person a chance to feel good about what they did.
  5. After a brief pause, let the person know you would like to see more of the same behavior.
  6. Make it clear that you have confidence in them and that you support their success in the organization.

These steps can easily and sincerely be accomplished in a minute. One Minute Praisings have a powerful impact on morale and productivity—and they are a great way to create a consistent 4:1 ratio in your organization!

Listening: An Essential Skill for New Managers

Looking over the comments from my last post, I am reminded that the key to being an effective manager is building good relationships. And the key to good relationships is communication. Management takes place mostly through conversations. Several of you mentioned the challenge of having conversations with direct reports who were once your peers.

In our new First-time Manager training program, we address many common challenges people face when they step into a leadership role. One of our main focus areas is basic communication skills that can help improve conversations and make managing people a little less daunting. When I think about something that gets in the way of effective conversations, I think about the importance of listening.

Listening? How hard can that be? Actually, listening can be difficult for new managers who feel as if they have something to prove or they are supposed to have all the answers. I encourage new managers to listen with the intent of understanding and being influenced by the other person.

A one-on-one conversation with a direct report is a great time to practice the skill of mindfulness. First, get rid of distractions—close the door and put away cell phones. Then, focus on understanding what the other person is saying. Ask questions to gain insight about the situation, and try to avoid judgment. Be present with them as they are speaking—and resist the urge to formulate your next comment before they finish. My son, Scott, says, “Listen more than you talk. Listen more than is comfortable. Listen more than you already do.”

It’s also important to listen for what is not being said. Ask open-ended questions to draw the person out and get them to clarify certain points. This is best handled by asking how and what questions instead of why questions. It is a natural tendency to ask why questions, but they can make a person feel criticized or challenged. Asking a how or what question helps build trust and improve the dialogue. For example, if you saw your direct report struggling with a project, instead of asking, “Why did you do it that way?” you might ask, “What would you do differently if you had that project to do again?” or, “How would you handle that project now with what you have learned?” Notice how one word can change the entire tone and intention of the conversation!

I saw a great quote the other day from author Sue Patton Thoele, Deep listening is miraculous for both listener and speaker. When someone receives us with open-hearted, non-judging, intensely interested listening, our spirits expand.” I think this really captures how important listening can be both on a personal and professional level. Just imagine how rewarding it would be for a new manager and a direct report to feel like their spirits have expanded. I think it would go a long way toward developing trusting, authentic relationships that lead to highly engaged employees and stimulating work environments.

I’m interested to hear more about challenges you’ve seen new managers face. Please share them in the comments section below so I can address them in my next post. Together, we can help new managers get off to a great start in their new role!

Meeting the Challenge of Being a First-Time Manager

Congratulations! You got that promotion you’ve been waiting for. You are a first-time manager!

My guess is that you earned your promotion by being a high achiever—and that’s fabulous. Keep in mind, though, that the skills that helped you succeed as an individual contributor are not necessarily the same ones you will need to achieve success as a manager. That’s why I’m so excited about our First-time Manager program, a new training program I’m working on with Linda Miller and Scott Blanchard that will help new managers master the skills they need to make it through this major transition.

In our research, we have found that first-time managers must deal with three new realities.

The first new reality: First-time managers must shift from being responsible only for their own work to managing the work of others, as well. As a manager, they need to work with their staff to set performance goals and then manage that performance along the way. This can be challenging when dealing with someone who is underperforming.

The second new reality: It can be emotionally challenging to manage a group of former peers who are now direct reports. Some new managers report suddenly being unfollowed on social media or not invited to lunches or other group activities. This can make a new manager feel as if they are alone in their new endeavor.

The third new reality: Managers have a greater level of impact than non-managers. Not only are they responsible for helping their own team succeed, they now play a role in the overall success of the organization. They must manage new relationships, both with their people and with other leaders in the company. And they now serve two groups—their direct reports as well as their own leader.

If this all sounds pretty daunting, it doesn’t have to be. Learning how to communicate effectively will set first-time managers up for success. I believe that leading is something you do with people, not to them. So knowing how to hold conversations that strengthen relationships and build trust will get your management career off to a great start.

Our new program focuses on four critical conversations new managers need to master: Goal Setting, Praising, Redirecting, and Wrapping Up. In the next few weeks, I’ll go into detail about how and why to hold these conversations and I’ll also show you four skills that will further improve the quality of your communication with others. You’ll learn how to Listen to Learn, Inquire for Insight, Tell Your Truth, and Express Confidence in each interaction. These tips will improve your relationships with your team, your colleagues, and your leaders.

In the meantime, celebrate your success in your new role—and be open to learning how you can make a positive and fulfilling transition to being a first-time manager!

Putting Servant Leadership into Action

Over the years, I’ve written a lot about servant leadership. I was recently reviewing Ken Jennings and John Stahl-Wert’s book The Serving Leader (Berrett-Koehler, 2003 and 2016) when I realized how much I like the term serving leader—it makes the point that leadership is about doing something, it’s not just a philosophy. When you are serving, you are taking action.

In my recent work on servant leadership, I’ve been focusing in on three actions every leader can take to serve their people more efficiently.

The first action is about Presence. Be present when you’re with your people. Focus directly on them—not on the next meeting, or the call you need to make, or the text message that just came in on your phone. Don’t let distractions take you away from a living person who is right in front of you. As a serving leader, you need to listen with the intent to learn, ask questions for clarity, and offer the support and direction your staff needs to be able to perform at their highest level. Each person has very different needs, and as a serving leader it takes your concentration and attention to be truly present with each individual. In this 24/7 world, this skill takes practice and commitment.

The second action is Acceptance. Serving leaders look for and build on the strengths each direct report brings to the job. And, realizing no one is perfect, they also identify weaknesses—areas where they might be able to help the person learn and grow. Helping someone develop new skills is perhaps the ultimate act of serving. Accepting people as they are and paying attention to both strengths and weaknesses allows serving leaders to set team members up for success, which serves not only the individual but the entire organization.

The third action is Creativity. Leaders work with teams made up of many different personalities and temperaments—and when you add the complexity of multiple generations in the workplace, the job of managing people can seem overwhelming. Some may see this as a challenge to be managed carefully, but the serving leader sees it as a chance to be creative and invite different perspectives to each project. Magical things can happen when different voices and opinions are shared in a trusting, collaborative environment. It brings about something I call one plus one thinking—where one plus one is actually greater than two. The job of the serving leader is to build a community where everyone feels they are part of the big picture.

I hope you think of yourself as a servant leader—but take it a step further and make sure you are taking the right actions to actively serve your people. Be present and focus on each person individually, accept people’s strengths and help them overcome weaknesses, and encourage creativity by inviting everyone to share their perspective. I guarantee that you’ll unleash talent and potential that will transform your direct reports, your team, and your organization.