MP recently spoke with Heather R. Youngerthe best-selling author of “The Art of Caring Leadership.” An international speaker, consultant, adjunct organizational leadership professor, and facilitator who has earned her reputation as "The Employee Whisperer," Younger is a champion for positive change in workplaces and communities. She is the founder of Employee Fanatix, a leading employee engagement and leadership development consulting and training firm, to inspire others by teaching the kind of caring leadership that drives real business results. 

What is caring leadership, and why is it important?

Caring leadership is about showing concern and kindness towards those who look to you for guidance or leadership. Why is it important? I think it's in short supply and we're all so internally focused that we are guilty of not focusing on the needs of others. In the workplace, it's crucial because of depression and burnout. People are looking to their leaders for support. An employee's vision needs to align with the workplace’s vision. The more that we can show caring leadership, the more we can align the two.

Why is it important to cultivate self-leadership skills?

We can't give what we don't have, and we must start there, which is why it's the first chapter in my book. If we try to give from an empty cup, we are trying to give from a place of depletion and offer people depleted energy. So, for these reasons alone, we need to ensure that we're starting strong and focusing on filling our cups first to help others better.

What are three benefits that come along with making employees feel important? 

Employees often feel like they are just a number inside the workplace, and nobody notices or cares about what's going on with them. But as humans, we are validated for who we are and what we bring to the table. Once they feel appreciated, they will keep going over and above to do the work you appreciate them doing.

When creating connections with your people and meeting them where they're at, you quickly see that the more we give, the more they give to our teams, colleagues, and the organization. As you progress forward on your journey, its revenues and customer satisfaction scores will increase to make your team members feel important. 

It's not always easy, but how can leaders proactively recognize greatness in those they lead? 

Firstly, leaders should identify the strengths of their people. A strengths assessment is a great start. But if you spend time with them, you can ask questions about the things that light their fire. Learn what makes them want to jump out of bed in the morning rather than hit the snooze button. Then, when you figure out what lights them up, you can determine their strengths. 

When we're paying attention, we are taking the time to be fully present with our people. Notice when they're volunteering for tasks, enjoying project work, or coming alive in meetings. These moments should help you identify the thing they want to be doing. It's also essential to measure their success and help them recognize where their greatness is.

You talk about leading "whole people." So often, leaders focus on leading employees in a way that focuses solely on how those employees can benefit the business and its cause. How can leaders break from this mold and successfully lead the whole person? 

I say this repeatedly, but I think we can't know the whole person until we know who they are. Leaders need to spend time with their team members, getting to know who they are inside and outside of work. So, it's taking into consideration what's happening to them with their spouse, children, mother, aging parent, or anything important to them. It could even be some of the things related to their mental health. As leaders, it's our responsibility to support our people. 

We can help them find resources and be there when they need a shoulder. When we do that, I promise you it does pay off in spades. Whole people leadership means in and outside the workplace during the ups and downs and everything in between.

How can leaders create and develop a long-lasting culture of listening?

Listening is a five-step process about recognizing what's not being said when listening to them, ensuring you are following up with them to connect the dots, and that you're acting on their behalf. Once leaders understand the process and follow it all the time, it becomes second nature. Ultimately, practice makes perfect.

It's also crucial that you track and measure your progress. After following that process, remember to check your engagement or diversity, equity, and inclusion scores. What kind of feedback are you getting from your listening sessions? You must measure in qualitative or and quantitative ways to understand what moves the needle. 

Leader walks a path
Adobe Stock

What is a safe space?

The idea of safe spaces was created many years ago in academia and on college campuses where marginalized groups could speak their truth. It's become much broader now. And it's open to pretty much any space where you want people to be able to talk openly on any topic. 

It's mostly for marginalized groups, but it's also for those with an unseen disability such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, or anything you want them to come and talk about different problems or barriers at work. You are essentially opening a space for safety where your people are free from the fear of ridicule or negative ramifications when they speak their truth.

Many leaders believe employees shouldn't make too many decisions unless they align with their personal views. Do you agree with this?

Absolutely not. I think that the workplace should consist of collaboration. Yes, people with titles often do have to make tough decisions. But if they include more people, they're more inclusive in decision-making. It'll become more informed by allowing more voices to be heard in the process. In the end, it will empower employees to make their own decisions.

Why is it important to empower employees to make decisions on their own?

The more you allow your people to make their own decisions, the more you empower them to take educated and calculated risks. There are so many benefits to being inclusive in your decision-making. When you collectively consider all avenues, every decision will be much more grounded.

What is resilience, and how can leaders develop resilience in their employees?

Resilience is the idea of recovering quickly from mental issues that are happening with you. It's the ability to shift mentally and to stay strong. It's also about how leaders can develop that in their employees' lives, but they must develop it in themselves first.

Even psychologists use countless tools, tips, and resources to help people through tough spots such as reframing circumstances. Another huge thing is to focus on a mission that's bigger than you. Make sure that there's something that's in front of you, like a bullseye, that you just keep focused on. Then, when rough things come your way, or when your team members experience challenges, if you can help them find that mission, that thing to focus on makes it a lot easier.

You talk about the ROI of caring leadership. What can leaders expect to achieve with caring leadership, and how long can they wait before seeing any results?

My biggest mistake in many organizations is the lack of data-driven decision-making in caring leadership. The work I do always starts with qualitative or quantitative data. This can be captured in surveys or metrics we're already tracking on dashboards. But it can also include interviews, listening sessions, and the comments we find on employee engagement or diversity, equity, and inclusion surveys. 

Leaders should always start every initiative with data that provides a starting point. You can then look at the baseline and measure your effectiveness from there. This method is critical to any change when we're looking at ourselves too.

For example, you might be doing a 360-feedback assessment, and then you do it a year or two after you've worked with a coach and want to tweak things; you want to see how you've improved. So that is just a data source that says it's validating your work and the changes you are making. 

Anything worth having is worth tracking. So, when considering what you expect to achieve, I would begin by improving engagement and retention numbers. Suppose you're listening deeply, and you are leading the whole person. In that case, you're going to have everybody bringing in more full selves, which means you will have more innovation and creativity that will come up in the workplace. But they must start with data and end with data.

Cover photo courtesy of Heather Younger.

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