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Skills of a Good Manager: What Does Caring about Others Look Like?

0347 - helping.pngI know a leader who doesn't care about her staff.

She genuinely believes that workplace relationships should be all business. She doesn't talk about her family, her hobbies, her past or her personal life. She doesn't ask others about theirs. She compartmentalizes her life, and she wishes everyone else would do the same.

A few members of her team are okay with this. They stick to business-only conversations and understand that even the most innocuous questions like "how was your weekend?" are to be avoided.

Most of the team, however, feel this leader is uncaring. Several have left for this reason alone.

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Caring is One of the Skills of a Good Manager

In the context of leadership & management, what level of caring about others is appropriate? Necessary?

The word “care” is one of those words that can easily be misunderstood. When we use words to mean one thing and they are received by others to mean something else, the risk for misunderstanding and conflict is significant.

The standard synonym for care is concerned. The dictionary defines care as being concerned about; to have thought or regard for another. A lesser used definition is to have a liking, fondness or affection for another. I'm not sure this encompasses what I intend when I use the word care.

In business relationships, there is a special need to be clear about caring. Everyone expects leaders to care for the people they work with. But the interpretations of what a leader should do to show that care can vary dramatically. That's why this leader had chosen the extreme of avoiding all personal connections.

What Does Caring Look Like in Management?

Does taking care of mean watching over and being responsible for someone? I have had people in the workplace who have expected me to take responsibility for them. That doesn't seem appropriate to me, given that I strongly believe leaders should promote autonomy and develop greater levels of capacity in others.

Does caring for someone mean showing concern for them? Perhaps. But that concern can easily become more personal than professional. I've worked with leaders who get enmeshed in others’ lives to the extent that they are no longer viewed as leaders.

What's missing from the standard synonyms and definitions, in my opinion, is this word: Understanding. One of the best ways we can care about those we work with is to understand each and every one of them as an individual.

This means taking pains to put ourselves in others’ shoes. It means stretching beyond our own perceptions so we can interpret what's happening from the perspective of another person. It means empathizing. Understanding or comprehending what someone else feels and believes and is motivated by gives us an opportunity to care about them in a much more meaningful manner.

You see, when you care about someone you can remain aloof and distant at the same time. You can suppress or never recognize what really matters to the person you care about.  By contrast, when you understand someone you will be sympathetic to that person's real, underlying interests.

Let me give you an example from my own personal life, the one I shared with this leader to help her move beyond the limits she had set.

I have always cared about my sister, Amy. I'm sure she has always cared about me, too. For various reasons, we went many years without being close to each other despite that mutual care. Only in the past few years have we attempted to understand each other.

Understanding is a whole lot harder than caring. Understanding requires effort. It requires setting aside our egos and judgments. Understanding forces us to care in entirely different way.

When I merely cared about my sister, I'd roll my eyes and dismiss certain things that bothered her. But now that I understand where those thoughts and beliefs come from, I genuinely want to avoid situations that aren't comfortable for her. I no longer press her on certain issues, ask certain kinds of questions or judge decisions that she makes in the same way.

She's trying hard to understand me, too. I can tell because she makes similar types of accommodations for me. That makes me feel so much more cared about than anything else she's ever done for me.

In practical terms, understanding Amy means I respect and acknowledge what she values. Instead of dashing off a quick e-mail to wish her a Happy Birthday this year, I sent her a card and nostalgic gift with a personal sentiment. I had to plan ahead to get that in the mail on time. I called her to honor her special day. I didn’t treat it as just another day (which is how I view most of my own birthdays). I didn’t project my feelings that a card is just a formality, forced on us by a smart marketing company. Nope. I looked at her birthday through her eyes and enjoyed doing something that put a smile on her face.

The best part is that this whole understanding thing isn't that difficult. It's interesting and engaging. It has opened up our relationship to all sorts of possibilities. The same is true in leadership and business. Being open, seeking to understand, and looking for common ground is a way to appropriately express how much you care. And it's not nearly as uncomfortable as the undefined and ambiguous "caring" seemed to be for this leader.

Leadership doesn't happen in a vacuum. Leaders need to connect with people by understanding them. To be a leader, you have to love 'em or you'll lose 'em. Loving them starts by understanding.

Make sure you don't have a blindspot when it comes to your soft skills or style. Take the free, self-paced course called The Essentials of Personal Effectiveness to build transferable skills and improve the quality of workplace interactions. 

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