As leader, sometimes it stares you in the face – employees blatantly showing you disapproval of a decision that has been made, children voicing their disgust of having to leave a neighbourhood and social context where they have comfortably settled or a partner digging in her heels when an issue has not been resolved adequately. People do, on occasion, express their needs in ways that leave you with no doubt in your mind – you know what they need and the issue has to be solved. In fact, my dogs have developed this skill as well – they let me know when it is supper hour or they bring their leads when it is time to go for a walk!

On other occasions, however, and perhaps more frequently, the needs of people are far more difficult to perceive. The leader may notice instances of nuanced behaviour changes, some employees keeping their distance or changes to normal office behaviour that creep in, but for the most part, the needs are largely left unexpressed and submerged beneath the veil of corporate culture. These needs are discussed of course, but not directly with the leader. They surface in corridor conversations, in the tea/coffee rooms and rest areas or form part of the company grapevine, the same of which can be so destructive to healthy relationships and teamwork. Needs, left unresolved, may “simmer” at first, but typically grow into “monsters” over time.

Most needs, although not true of all issues, have relatively simple solutions. The following pointers may assist the leader in understanding employees’ needs more frequently and acting on them:

  • Build healthy relationships with employees – in the context of good relationships, need surfaces. Most employees are hesitant to voice concerns when relational distance exists. Get to know the respective family contexts of your staff and most importantly, demonstrate that you care.
  • Listen intently – force yourself to put your agenda aside for the first five minutes of any conversation and just listen reflectively. Listening is a skill and needs practise. Ask relevant questions and listen not only for what is being said, but also for what is being meant. Listen “between the lines”.
  • Have “crucial conversations” often – move into ambiguous space (a discussion of which you don’t know how a person will respond) frequently. I remember speaking to my employees when I worked within a banking corporation, often asking them questions like: “Where would you like to be in the next five years or so?” Some used to tease me and suggested that they would like to occupy my position. Smilingly, (as I knew that I would have been promoted if they occupied my position), I would answer them: “I would love you to have my position”. I would then follow up and ask if they knew what qualifications were required for the position and then offered my assistance to help them getting there. When employees sense that you care for their welfare, they are much more open to share needs with you.
  • Once needs surface, facilitate a conversation on the issue and work on possible options together – a leader never has to be a sole solution-provider. Facilitating options places the responsibility for possible solutions back in the lap of the employee. It also demonstrates that the employee has a very definite responsibility in making necessary changes to create better circumstances.
  • Act on obstacles that can be removed – a leader is not always aware of obstacles that stand in the way of employee productivity and success. Once these surface, however, act immediately to remove these barriers. Some examples of these obstacles could include: eliminating unnecessary reports, giving someone embarking on a course of study access to the corporate library, granting flexi-time, developing a care centre for small children of employees within the corporate building, including employees in decision-making processes, etc.
  • Follow up on progress – always revisit issues to assess levels of satisfaction and whether or not the designed solutions actually worked. Redesign solutions if necessary and implement again.

In the workplace, unresolved issues and pressing needs may not be evident initially, but the leader needs to discover them and facilitate solutions to grow the culture appropriately. Engaging employees meaningfully and, as leader, acting on potential solutions with them leads to an environment of trust and respect.

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