Leadership Lesson: How’s Your Mama?

By Jennifer B. Kahnweiler, Ph.D.

As a consultant on-site for a few days I could feel the tension. The “suits” were making a visit to the plant, and people seemed on edge. They had heard rumors of corporate changes and, in particular, a shift reduction, meaning fewer overtime opportunities.

I watched the vice president of manufacturing walk into the break room. He earnestly approached each individual. I could hear him asking questions, and his attentive body language showed me he was tuned into the answers they were giving. I heard him ask one young worker, “How’s your mama?”  The man told him about the progress his mother had made since her illness the previous year.

These kinds of conversations continued as he made his way around the room.   In the formal update later that day in the cafeteria he gave a sincere picture of the state of the company, and then opened it up to questions.

He neither talked down to the group nor appeared to gloss over the challenges ahead. In addition he addressed the over-
time issues directly by listening to their concerns and stating his commitment to keep the group informed.

When he walked back to his waiting car, I asked several of the workers their impressions and the general consensus was that he “was cool.”

This guy had presence! He knew an important lesson about getting work done.  People want you to treat them as more than cogs
in a wheel. They want to matter. By being genuine and showing a sincere interest in people’s top-of-mind issues (both personal and work-related), you build trust and honest communication.

Do you remember what it felt like the last time someone asked about your life and your work concerns in a genuine way? When
they listened to the answer, you probably felt like you were the only one in the room. This ability to be so truly present with another person is one of the marks of effective leadership.

People who are considered introverted often report that they are more comfortable talking to others in a one-on-one situation than in a group. They are also considered to be excellent listeners who go for depth rather than breadth in their conversations.

Often it is a matter of knowing how to begin the conversation. You can start small. Learn people’s names. Find out if they have children or pets and use ice-breakers to get the conversation going. The conversation usually will flow when you have hit an interest or concern the other person feels strongly about.

Two caveats: Don’t ask so many questions that people feel they are being grilled. Also be sure to truly listen to the answers they are giving you. Many people begin focusing on the next question or person as soon as they finish asking a question. This is something to avoid.

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