Why your employees don’t care about you or their job

(Estimated reading time: 3 minutes)

I liked the guy, but I could tell the feeling was not mutual.

He was my boss and we were on good terms. We saw each other mostly in passing, often greeting each other with witty banter. Occasionally we would strike up a conversation centered on random interests: sports, movies, music or past work experiences. On the surface an observer might have believed we were friends.

We weren’t and I knew it. How? He never asked me any questions about my personal life.

Everyone knows when someone is interested in them or not because they ask questions, whether about themselves, their passions, their interests, and so on. The questions are not forced or perfunctory, but represent a genuine interest and passion in knowing the person beyond their name tag or resume. When you don’t ask these questions about someone else, it sends a clear signal: I don’t care about you.

Why don’t your employees care about you or their job? It may be as simple as a failure to ask the right questions.

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Your One and Only True Business Offering as a Leader

Estimated read time: 7 minutes

A friend of mine owns a business providing a vital service. Without it, his customers would not only lose money, they would likely die. 

His business? Water. 

Specifically, anything and everything associated with drawing water out of the ground and distributing it to those in need. Someone else drills the hole; he does the rest. Among a multitude of charlatans and hacks, he is the genuine article, a fact his customers know well. 

His business is not my focus here. Rather, my focus is on his employees, many of whom provide manual labor with some degree of technical skill. Leadership skills are not necessary for fulfilling their roles; he directs what needs to be done, and they do it.  

Regardless, each year my friend takes his employees to a three-day leadership conference. He gives them paid time-off for the event, all while covering their expenses. Although this yearly conference is stuffed with innovative ideas regarding leadership, few, if any, of these ideas are directly applicable to his employee’s roles in his business. 

Why does he do this? 

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The Experience Many Leaders Miss (and how to gain it)

(Estimated reading time: 7 minutes)

How well do you know your followers? 

If you’re like many managers and leaders, the answer is “not much.” Time is always the challenge: the constant drumbeat of operational tasks interferes with the kind of in-depth conversations necessary for learning about them and their challenges. This dynamic is true for all leaders throughout any given organization, regardless of position in the hierarchy.

Some organizations recognize this problem, sponsoring efforts like company picnics for increasing association and building relationships. Although better than nothing at all, such activities result in leaders and followers knowing each other in only one way: as coworkers. 

The problem, of course, is that each of your followers is more than a mere employee. 

Regardless of the quality of the relationships, your association likely ends with the end of the workday. You commute back to your neighborhood, while they commute back to theirs. This disconnect between you and your followers is far greater than different neighborhoods. It also includes different associations, hobbies, interests, families, upbringing, heredities, religions, ideologies, education levels, values and norms, to name just a few. 

In short, you don’t know your employees because you don’t know their culture. 

And, if you think they’re like you, you’re living a lie, one likely reflected in your broken organizational culture.

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The Value of an Ethnographic Life

Estimated read time: 6 minutes

“Were you intimidated?”

My friend paused. Just a few days prior, he gave a speech to a group of homeless men at a local shelter, part of a church initiative focused on mentorship. After a few moments, he chuckled.

“Yes,” he drawled for a moment. “I have to say, I was!”

It was ironic, given my friend’s resume. He gave lectures and presentations all the time, both in his community and to those in Washington. His past experience included flying planes in war zones. In spite of all of his experiences, he was intimidated by a group of men with no stature. 

“You know what would overcome this?” I asked rhetorically. “If you spent a night in the homeless shelter, mingling with those men and talking to them about their life experience.”

He agreed, but he was also honest with me: he couldn’t bring himself to do it. I was empathetic with his response because I know what holds him back.

Ethnography, after all, can be downright terrifying.

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How to Obtain the Best From Your Employees

Estimated read time: 10 minutes

“I’m not going to like this guy,” he said while chuckling.

It was my friend’s first impression of me, in a group where he was the newcomer and I was an established voice. After I provided my viewpoint on something neither of us could no longer remember, this was the unspoken thought he shared with me. 

“Really?!” I exclaimed in astonishment. 

“Yea,” he continued, “but after the third meeting, I had a different thought: ‘Ya know, I think I like this guy!’” Now we were both laughing.

It wasn’t the first time I heard something similar. A high school friend of mine affectionately labeled me “the fungus”. “He’s like a fungus; he grows on you,” he would say while grinning (um, thanks?). Others would later express it more constructively: “I like you; you keep it real.” 

Yet, it was in the conversation with the friend from that group where I had an epiphany. Each of these statements was a reaction to a character trait I have sought since I was young: authenticity. And I was pleased to be someone’s fungus.

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