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Why Sensitive Leaders Get Better Results


Odell Mitchell III is an organizational effectiveness consultant and the Founder of Three Kindnesses.

It is so often stated, it’s almost a cliché: People don’t leave jobs; they leave managers.

This is being confirmed over and over again in the pandemic era, as many people aren’t in the office but are still interacting daily with managers. In the time of the Great Resignation, we are watching people choose between reporting to toxic managers and finding a better work culture that doesn’t leave them feeling stressed, devalued and disrespected.

Call it “leaving managers” or “exiting toxic workplaces.” The truth is that people leave jobs either because they don’t feel safe or they don’t feel respected within the team environment or the company culture, and that comes down to how bosses boss and how managers manage. Managers touch every aspect of corporate culture, and their sensitivity to their people (or lack thereof) has far-reaching effects.

Building A Culture Of Respect

A recent study about organizational culture found some surprising results: “Topics that you might expect to matter, such as friendly colleagues, flexible schedules, and manageable workloads, were commonly discussed but had little or no impact on a company’s overall culture score.” It turns out that the factor employees found most important to building a good workplace culture—nearly twice as important as the next most important factor—was feeling respected. And the next three elements were all related to the behavior of managers and leaders and their impact on workplace culture.

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“I’ve learned,” the brilliant Dr. Maya Angelou once said, “that people will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” This is perhaps never more true than in a manager-employee relationship. Gallup polled 25 million employees and compiled decades of exit interview data, and this one factor never changed: People leave bad managers.

Do you want to keep good talent? Then you must be, hire and train good managers. What do I mean by “good managers?” It’s about kindness and sensitivity.

A sensitive leader respects your time.

There’s a tip going around in coaching circles about how to get your manager to respect your time and your workload. When assigned yet another thing to do on top of a heavy workload, people are being coached to ask their bosses, “Could you help me prioritize my workload?” This ostensibly forces the manager to recognize how much work someone is already doing and encourages them to either assign the work to someone else or take some other task off the plate of the overloaded employee.

Whether or not this works, it draws attention to what a sensitive leader should already be doing: paying attention to how their people are spending their time and energy and working to ensure equity of work, recognition and respect throughout the team. If your people feel overloaded, devalued and unseen, to the point where they have to force the issues with you in this way, it’s likely they will not remain your people on your team much longer.

A sensitive leader creates healthy boundaries.

Many years ago, in the middle of an emotionally fraught team meeting, I watched a manager—fairly new to his role—thump his chest and proudly proclaim, “I never ask anyone on my team to do anything I’m not willing to do myself.”

There was a brief silence, and then a team member quietly spoke up.

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“All that means to me is that you won’t stand up for this team when bad policies arise. What you’re saying is that you are willing to do anything your managers tell you to do, and you expect the same from us. And this is why I don’t trust you to keep any of us safe.”

To respect and care for your people, you have to let them know that you are willing to do whatever it takes to protect the team and keep them safe. This means creating healthy boundaries and being sensitive to the needs of your team, even to the point of pushing back on your own leadership sometimes.

A sensitive leader excels at perspective-taking.

Frequently in my work coaching leaders, I have to remind them that empathy is a choice they can make. In fact, it’s a choice they need to make if they want the results they are striving toward. Even if they cannot summon a direct emotional connection to an employee, they can engage sensitively through something called perspective-taking, a form of cognitive empathy that allows them to see another perspective and actively engage with that person around it.

In my experience, this never fails to open up communication channels and create methods for seeking important information on both sides of an issue or problem. It is also a powerful tool for seeing and respecting different styles, wiring and communication methods. It’s estimated that almost half of workplace conflicts occur because of personality clashes. Perspective-taking gives leaders a chance to slow down, engage in deliberate kindness, and honor the needs, speeds and creeds of their people.

Final Thoughts

Most people aren’t at work because it’s how they choose to spend their time. People are at work to … well, work. So if employees have to be in an environment that is out of their control and often requires sacrifice, brainpower and deep expertise, they at least want to be respected for what they bring to the table. And the number one way a manager can show that respect is through kindness and sensitivity to their people.


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