“I’m here to support you.” “Employees are our most valuable asset.” “Let me look into this and get back to you.” Have you heard these lines before? They seem innocent enough, yet they’re often referred to as “lip service” in the corporate world.
I’ve found this is because of two different but all too common scenarios. In the first, leaders don’t walk the talk, but provide empty statements without action, so people don’t believe their words. In the second, leaders do take action, but people don’t feel their sincerity and continue to perceive even genuine care as “lip service.” In the long run, either situation can erode trust and loyalty.
Here are three ways leaders can bridge the gap between what’s said and what’s done and make people believe in our actions.
1. Be genuine and mindful of what people need.
Many employees in local markets have been told by visiting global or regional leaders: “I’m here to support you.” But too often, they would still describe their experiences with these visitors more in terms of disruption than support.
When I was a country manager, I too heard this statement often. But one of my leaders changed my perception. Each time he visited, he would make sure to value-add and minimize interruption. He would even send an appreciation note to staff who helped support his visit—even before boarding his return flight—and promptly follow up on action items discussed during his trip.
Now, as a regional leader, I’ve set his actions as my template. In addition to what a leader usually does for each visit, I often ask my local employees for a wishlist of requests I can support. I’ve received various submissions, from building a kitchen in the office to supporting a local charity or having a Christmas party. They aren’t huge requests, yet seeing our employees happy reminds me how meeting even humble requests can sometimes make the biggest difference.
Staying empathetic, compassionate and genuine will help employees recognize that you value them as people and individuals beyond workers. So be mindful of what moves people and tailor your actions to address their needs.
2. Differentiate yourself among employers and go the extra mile.
While any leader can claim that “employees are their biggest assets,” few companies do enough to show what this means. And even fewer do it in creative and differentiated ways.
At my company, we put in extra effort to support our employees and their families. For instance, we send gifts to our employees’ parents on Parent’s Day (a South Korean tradition), thanking them for raising a good child who has contributed to our company. We also established Talent X Junior+, a program for employees’ children to explore the world through homestay exchanges. We even provided food delivery credits to relieve employees and their families of having to cook during the lockdown.
I was incredibly moved by the responses we received from these initiatives. I still remember the mother of one South Korean colleague writing to us saying she had never received a letter from a leader of a big company that directly addressed her by her name. (For context, in South Korean society, a woman who is a mother is almost always acknowledged first as “mom of [their child]” rather than being addressed by her own name.) We’ve also received thank-you notes from children in the Junior+ program expressing gratitude for the opportunity to travel overseas.
These are very personalized and unique ways to make people feel what you say. Don’t shy away from trying something different, and challenge your organization to think creatively about going the extra mile.
3. Make room for accountability and correction.
When I moved to my current role as APAC President, I was asked by employees during our first town hall meeting: “Why aren’t ethnic Asians well represented within the APAC leadership team?” and “Why are there so few female leaders in our organization?”
At that point in time, 70% of our regional leadership team were non-Asians, and only 15% of the team were women. It would’ve been easy to answer with, “We’re committed to inclusion and diversity” or “Let me look into this and get back to you.”
Instead, I honestly told them that “this might be because Asians tend to prefer working in their home countries and have less overseas experience. Also, we don’t always come forward with new ideas and can thus be perceived as less proactive and ambitious. However, this is something we can change together.”
Since then, we’ve launched a few key initiatives, such as MDT Spark, which turns employees’ innovative ideas into reality and Talent X, which offers them a chance to experience working overseas early in their careers.
Today, most of our APAC leaders come from the market they lead, and half of them are women. I’ve also seen more and more Asian employees coming forward to lead the regional programs—overcoming language and culture barriers.
Ultimately, we should acknowledge where our organizations have shortcomings and intentionally commit to change by not only giving our word but also providing the right platform and tools to ensure change happens.
A New Era In Leadership
In conclusion, leaders must learn to authentically connect with their workforce by prioritizing genuine actions over transactional interactions.
Merely paying lip service to concerns will erode employees’ trust. It’s imperative that you take the time to understand the concerns and needs of your workforce. Address them not just with words, but with meaningful action. And remember to be creative—why do what everyone else is doing when you can be different?
At the end of the day, we’re in the business of people. And the people at the heart of your business deserve more than lip service.