Leadership tips: why managers must put ‘care’ at the heart of their people strategy

care at work
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Economic volatility, rapid technological change and political uncertainty have created a challenging environment for business in recent years, which is why the issue of care is more important than ever before when it comes to managing employees.

Care in business? Why in a business context, would we need to mention care? At first glance this may seem an odd topic but in fact, it’s an essential one when it comes to discussing management styles.  

In a dictionary sense, the term ‘care’ is depicted in two basic ways - as troublesome worries and woes, as in ‘all the cares in the world’; or as in the solicitous and genuine act of caring for another person, situation, issue or object.

Either way, there are few models or descriptions of managing that mention a care aspect in either sense - although I suspect most leaders would intellectually recognise that both are needed.

A failure of discourse

So why don’t we mention care in leadership and business? I seriously doubt there will be managers who say they don’t care, yet we fail to discuss, describe or contemplate this aspect of human interaction in our professional endeavours.

I do wonder if in our attempts to become more professional, we have lost these origins of leadership itself. Those ‘soft’ aspects of human interaction that describes the solicitous, compassionate attentiveness, which facilitates human change and the development required, to achieve the business outcomes desired.

A female trait?

It’s probably a cliché to suggest that women might feel more at home discussing care than men, or that in business women disregard their feminine leanings for care, to be seen as more business-like. Nevertheless, there remains a gender consideration when making statements about care in the workplace.

Is it perhaps an indication of the difficulty in articulating the esoteric nature of care, compassion and other terms that we have become afraid of using in the business arena, for fear of seeming ‘soft’ and un-business-like?

A holistic view

The recognition of ourselves and others as ‘whole’ human beings – the sum total of the experiences, beliefs, learning, background and aspirations that make people the individual they are, is essential.

This isn’t the soft option, in fact it’s the option most likely to get the best possible performance from your team. 

It’s crucial in ensuring we get the best from everyone who works with us – valuing them, appreciating what they bring and caring generally about their wellbeing, so people are enabled to come to work and do a great job.

This will include all those messy, non-business-like feelings, emotions, troubles, habits and fears that we have become programmed to avoid in business, because they are considered difficult, unprofessional or they aren’t the concern of the workplace.

Care in business

As leaders we must both ‘take care of’ the business processes, objectives and outcomes as well as ‘care for’ the person. This includes at least an acknowledgement that the individuals we work with are whole people.

The person they are outside of work is not different to the person they are in work, even if the behaviours change between contexts. We must care as much about what ‘matters’ to the individual as much as what ‘matters’ to the organisation.

This is the only way people will arrive at work and remain there, working hard and achieving what they are supposed to. Caring is what it’s all about – it doesn’t have to be soft and unprofessional, simply a human interest in those we work with, to gain the best and ensure the success of our business.

Experts already

Most of us are already experts and even in our more gender-aligned modern society, women often have the most experience in our private lives, with the principles and practice of caring. However, every human being has people and things we care about deeply outside of work.

We hopefully also care about the work we do and the job we are in. Care is a transferable skill, so consider how you can apply care in the workplace and you will have a team who are further enabled to come to work and do their very best.

Soft option or hard business?

This isn’t the soft option, in fact it’s the option most likely to get the best possible performance from your team. Why? Because we come to work to feel valued, respected and able to contribute meaningfully to business life.

If we feel this, we will stay longer, work harder and ‘go the extra mile’. What leader doesn’t want this from their team?

The stereotypical view of the woman who cares, is in fact highly influential when directed towards the human resource required to make business great.

If leaders are able to reflect care, it is easier to challenge our teams about their performance and business outcomes. This is because they feel that they ‘matter’ as much as the business does – we all need to feel that what we contribute is important and who we are matters within the team.

Care provides the safety needed to explore, analyse, reflect and challenge to make significant change. It provides the safety net necessary to become fully involved in activities that inherently carry significant personal risk (admitting that we might be wrong, need to change or adopt new skills) – because the situation is safe, and someone cares sufficiently about us to ensure the outcome will be positive and worthwhile.

What if we don’t care?

If care is absent, we can easily see it. We see managers who disregard others, lack manners and behave in a superior way. In return we see teams who are derogatory about their managers and who work against them rather than with them.

Anecdotally, most people I speak to are able to recount a story where they have felt less than conscientious attention, care or compassion from their line managers.

This may be short term or transient in nature in the most part, although where it is more consistent in leaders and managers, we instinctively know it impacts on staff turnover and retention rates, complaints, grievances and general personnel issues in the workplace.

What happens when ‘hard business’ is pursued, and care is absent? I would argue that all the things we want to achieve at work – business success, profitability and growth – will also be absent or at least affected negatively.

This is also why the stereotypical view of the woman who cares, is in fact highly influential when directed towards the human resource required to make business great.

Care in the workplace is crucial

Care and the creation of a safe place to work with challenge and difficulty, is about acceptance and a recognition that individuals desire to do a good job. No one gets up in the morning wanting to be difficult or perform poorly!

If the leader reflects a tolerance – ‘cares for’ their people - development occurs and outcomes can be achieved. Individuals and teams flourish and positive change can happen.

What has previously been viewed as the ‘feminine’ side of business truly is an indicator for the realisation of business greatness.

Interested in this topic? You may also enjoy reading We have hugely underestimated people’s need for social connection at work

About Tracy Kite

About Tracy Kite

Tracy is author of Love to Lead (£14.99, Panoma Press). She has many years of experience in the design, delivery and implementation and evaluation of learning and leadership development programmes. Her work is focussed on achieving strategic and operational leadership excellence and a defined return on investment for organisations.

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