It’s human nature to watch out for one’s self. But when you’re a leader, the people you lead expect you to also watch out for them. Employee engagement is a result of leadership behaviors, and highly-engaged employees deliver results with very little resistance. But let’s focus on the first part of that last sentence: “Employee engagement is a result of leadership behaviors…” In my years of coaching and developing leaders, I’ve found that some leadership basics are common knowledge, and others are not. In particular, I’ve found that few leaders realize that their people expect them to be protectors. “Protect your people” usually isn’t written into job descriptions. In fact, many weak leaders will take the opposite approach and treat their relationship with their employees as an adversarial one.
But if employees expect their leaders to protect them, how does one go about developing this dynamic in the leader/employee relationship? By following 3 simple steps a new and learning leader can quickly develop a relationship with their people where they understand that their leader is one who will protect them.
- 1) Declare your intentions of protecting them. Effective leaders will have a declarative discussion with the people they lead where expectations and relationship dynamics are overtly stated. By simply saying, “As the leader of this team, I want all of you to know that I have your back. I’m here to make sure you’re safe in the workplace and others treat you well,” you’ve set the stage for your people to believe that you are there to protect them. You could do this 1-on-1, or in groups, but it’s certainly best to do it face-to-face where your people can look you in the eye as you declare it.
- 2) Check-in and observe. Make a point of asking your people how things are going. Find out if they feel comfortable in their work environments. It’s critical, however, to do this regularly. In my experience as a leadership coach, I’ve observed that developing leaders make the most impact by checking in on a weekly basis. A simple, “How are things going? Is everything good or can I help with something?,” is all you need. With sincerity and consistency, your people will open up to you when necessary. But you can’t just leave it up to checking in, you have to pay attention as well. Sometimes your people won’t want to speak up; you’ll need to know your workplace and people so well that you will just know when they need your help.
- 3) Take action. The adage that “actions speak louder than words” is true. Just imagine if you had your own boss who said they would hold everyone accountable equally and then they continually allowed one or two employees to arrive to work late without consequence – what would you believe about your boss? You must follow through on your promise to protect. (Right now, you might be thinking to yourself ‘But when did I say “promise?’ You didn’t, but you didn’t need to; when you’re the leader, everything you say is perceived as a promise.) Provide safety equipment without hesitation. Help your people in stressful and strenuous situations. If you see that an employee is about to make a bad decision, step in. Intervene when tempers flare. If you’re in the service industry, take the lead on handling belligerent customers. Whatever it is – take action.
When I was in my early twenties, I sold shoes for a large retailer in Oregon. One day a man and his son came in for a pair of shoes for the son. They had asked for a size in a style that I happened to be out of. The father instantly became aggressive. He was noticeably angry and took it out on me. Unfortunately, I was alone that night. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard so many four-letter words directed toward me personally prior or since. And because I was new on the job, and had what I believed to be no authority, I stood there and took it.
I wrote a note to my boss explaining that she might get a customer complaint about me and then described the situation. The next day she asked me about it. After I described again for her what happened, she told me “Derek, you don’t have to take that. We don’t pay you well enough to accept that kind of treatment. Just tell them that this is a family establishment, it’s inappropriate to speak that way and that you’re going to call the person in charge to help them.” I had heard this message before, but since this was the first time I had to face this kind of treatment, I had frozen in the moment. Hearing my boss reassure me was helpful.
We talked on further and through that conversation we discovered that she knew the person who berated me. She said, “I know who that is. We’re good friends actually,” and I saw her face get quite tense as she said this. She told me she’d take care of it. A couple of hours later, the very same man walked in and found me and apologized. I was shocked to see him, but my boss had my back and I knew it.
The above event happened almost twenty years ago. But I’m still loyal to that old boss of mine. If she picked up the phone and called, I’d be there for her.
She declared her intentions to protect me, she checked in with me, she took action, and I will forever be grateful.
Derek Rey Consulting, LLC