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I never thought I’d lead in a crisis. Here’s the technique that I found keeps workers engaged

The power of the one-on-one check-in lies in its personalized format.

I never thought I’d lead in a crisis. Here’s the technique that I found keeps workers engaged
[Source illustrations: nadia_bormotova/iStock]
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This past year has tested companies, their senior management, and team leaders in ways that seemed unimaginable before. We’re in the middle of a once-in-century global health event while also working toward long-overdue changes in racial and social justice. As team leaders, we are navigating new territory without a clear map, trying to guide our teams under new environments and evolving rules, often without any in-person interaction.

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As team leaders, we are responsible for keeping employees engaged and feeling that they’re capable of sustainable work. This can seem like an insurmountable task when trying to manage your team virtually or, even harder, when some members are remote and some are in the office.

Yet team leaders have a high potential to impact people’s perceptions about their work experience and how they will overcome disruption. Gallup research shows that 70% of a team member’s engagement is attributable to the team leader.  What’s more, their workplace resilience, or their ability to withstand and work through tough circumstances, is also shaped by everyday experiences at work with team leaders. The Workplace Resilience Study by the ADP Research Institute also found that people’s level of workplace resilience is closely related to their team leader. So it’s clear—team leaders matter, a lot.

This puts a lot of pressure on leaders, many of whom came to the role simply by being promoted for being great at their job. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s just reality. The problem is, when we step into a team leader position, none of the leader training and guidance we receive—if we receive any at all—is for us. Most of it seems to be designed for the people who already want and love to be leaders. What do you do when you’re charged with leading a team but secretly wish you weren’t responsible for all of these people and would prefer to be in individual-contributor mode?

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Don’t get discouraged! Being a really good team leader is within anyone’s reach, and it’s possible even in remote settings. The action required is simple: holding personal check-ins.

More specifically, it’s establishing frequent, positive-minded one-on-ones about near-term future work. Let’s focus on three key steps to using check-ins successfully and examine why they’re so important.

Make check-ins frequent

The optimal frequency for check-ins is weekly. In fact, a good, light-touch weekly connection about near-term work is more powerful than an infrequent awesome connection about long-term work.

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Work happens in the present, and weekly connections help you and your team members focus on what is most important right now. The ADP resilience study found that the most resilient employees were those who’s team leaders told them what they needed to know earlier rather than later.

Talk about strengths first

Prioritizing your employees as humans is critical. Your workers’ humanity is how you connect with them. When you approach people through a lens that recognizes their strengths, you start to see people for their best, creating the foundation for helping them to be at their best.

We’ve been trained to believe that telling people what they’re doing wrong will help them excel. But correcting what’s wrong isn’t enough. Teams and organizations thrive when people are doing their own version of their best at least a little bit every day. As a team leader, when you change your perspective to see strengths first (rather than focusing on what’s wrong) you will not only change the way you see the world, but you will also change the way your people show up.

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Commit to being present

Committing to check-ins ultimately provides what every human being needs to be successful: attention. We humans crave attention in every aspect of our lives, and that’s true for work as well. In a check-in, example language that demonstrates focused attention on your employee may sound like specific questions, such as “What are your priorities?” and “How can I help?” Your team members want to do their very best work for you. By paying attention and remaining present when gathering more insight from them, you pave the way for great work to follow.

Being a team leader is a highly important role, no matter where you sit in the organizational hierarchy. And it can be pressure-filled, especially when your ideal job description never included leading people. Leading a team doesn’t require intense memorization of the 20 top qualities of natural leaders from a textbook. These overly promoted techniques are not the only tried-and-true way to lead. Mostly you need to employ the one best practice of the world’s best team leaders: Pay attention to your team members—and do it frequently and from a perspective that sees your members’ strengths, not only their weaknesses.

Even reluctant team leaders can make this simple step a top-of-mind priority. And you never know, maybe you’ll find that being a people leader isn’t so daunting after all.

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Amy Leschke-Kahle is vice president of performance acceleration at the Marcus Buckingham Co., an ADP Company, where she collaborates with clients to transform engagement, performance, and leadership development based on the unique culture of each organization.