We all know today’s talent wants to forge great relationships with their leaders. Gary Harpst says there’s no way to fake it: We must genuinely love our employees, which can be shockingly difficult.
More than anything else, Millennials and Gen Z employees want employers to care about their well-being. Sure, they need a paycheck, but they also want leaders who are invested in their physical, emotional, and mental health and 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?
Gary Harpst says it boils down to showing them unconditional love—also called agape—and that it’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,” says Harpst, author of Built to Beat Chaos: Biblical Wisdom for Leading Yourself and Others. “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 Harpst says that—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,” he says. “In the network of human relationships that make up a great organization, love is that bonding force. Learning to practice this is the number-one job of a leader. It is a huge part of bringing order out of chaos.”
So, how do you practice unconditional love at work? Harpst offers a few insights:
1. First, do a gut check about your attitude toward other people.
Do you care for people as a manipulation technique or as something worthwhile? If you are being kind and loving only to get what you want, people will eventually recognize you are being insincere. It’s not enough to go through the motions—your caring must come from within.
2. Spend one-on-one time with your people.
Harpst says when he spends one-on-one time with his 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 his undivided attention. Adults are no different—we all need meaningful one-on-one reactions, and it contributes to our self-worth and identity.
“The first comment of some leaders, 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.’” writes Harpst. “What they are saying is, ‘I have time for turnover, retraining, increased error rates, and all the other firefighting activities.’”
3. 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 updated on their family, interests, concerns, and joys. Ask honest questions that show interest. (Harpst says questions are powerful because they penetrate more deeply than statements since the brain must process enough 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,” says Harpst. “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.”
4. 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 percent, regardless of how the other person treats you. The alternative is to go through life in reaction mode (this is a sure recipe for chaos). But love is centered on what you believe and not on reacting to what others do. Harpst admits this is hard for him.
“I want to treat people based on their behavior,” he says. “After reflecting on this for years, I realize I really want 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.”
5. 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.
6. 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. Harpst shares an example of an interaction he had with a former employee, David, who could not get along with others and was being terminated.
“As CEO, I did not know David personally, but I felt I should do something for David,” he recounts. “I had no motive as he was leaving the company. But there appeared from nowhere within me an agape-like interest in this person. 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,” Harpst continues. “He said he didn’t realize he came across this way and 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.”
7. Get familiar with two keywords: 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,” he adds. “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 are both verbs—they require intentional action,” concludes Harpst. “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.
Gary Harpst is the author of Built to Beat Chaos: Biblical Wisdom for Leading Yourself and Others. He is the founder and CEO of LeadFirst. LeadFirst was founded in 2000 (as Six Disciplines) with a mission of building effective leaders and helping small and mid-size companies manage change, grow, and execute. Having been a CEO for 40 years, Gary has experienced the challenges of every aspect of business ownership, from start-up to rapid growth to acquiring other companies to being acquired. (Solomon Software, which he co-founded, was purchased by Great Plains and ultimately sold to Microsoft.) He is a keynote speaker, writer, and teacher whose areas of focus include leadership, business, and the integration of faith at work. He has been recognized as one of the Top 100 of the nation’s top thought-leaders in management and leadership by Leadership Excellence magazine. In addition to Built to Beat Chaos, he has written two other books: Six Disciplines for Excellence and Execution Revolution. Learn more at leadfirst.ai.
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