Do You Really Know Your Team Members?

Sándor Sipos
Leadership Trainer | Life & Business Coach | OD & HR Developer | Creative Thinker
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I was a speaker at a conference on employee wellbeing last week. I talked about how the business version of our self coaching app, Symblify, can help maintain the mental wellbeing of managers while improving their self-awareness and the quality of their decision making. I was happy to see how many presentations on the conference dealt with leadership self-awareness, as a foundation of employee wellbeing at any company.

Hundreds of small signs that every person’s body transmits if we pay careful attention.

The GM was devastated after the walk, as this was the first shop floor visit when he was observing the workers as human beings. Not as employees, not as the executors of processes, not as people in charge, not as performers, but as individuals with body, feelings and struggles.

The visit was a turning point in the management buy-in of wellbeing programs at that company and a change in the executives’ attitude toward the importance of employee wellbeing. Which is especially impressive in an industrial company culture.

But I think, the lesson of this story can also be applied in office environment with white collar workers. It can change leadership mindset and teach us a simple and practical method of observing our team members. Let’s see how anybody in a leadership position can use this observation method to be more connected to his/her team and become a better leader.

Action mode – observation mode

As leaders, we are always in a hurry. From meetings to meetings, from creating reports to analyzing them, from difficult problems to hard decisions. There’s something common in these activities: we are always in action mode when trying to do our best in our leadership position. A lot of managers are afraid of slowing down from this action mode because they would feel themselves unproductive. 

But the truth is that the more we spend our time in single action mode without breaking it with observation modes, the more we lose connection with reality that leads worse decisions, conflicts with team members, stress and, at the end of the road, burnout. 

I could write a couple of articles about how we could use these observation periods to raise our self-awareness, regain our mental wellbeing and reconnect with our true self, as I did before and I’m sure I will in the future. But today I’d like to write about how switching to observation mode for a brief period of time can significantly improve our relationship with our team members. 

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Slow down, stop, observe

What I suggest is simple. It’s an exercise you can practice every day, but at least once a week. This specific exercise has some rules, but after you start practicing it, you can use the mindset behind to switch into observation mode in any situations.

The goal of the exercise is to observe one of your colleagues in order to get to know him/her better and deeper, noticing tiny signs in his/her behavior you may have never noticed before.

The first step is to slow down and stop for 2 minutes in your work. You need to consciously decide to leave action mode for a short period of time. Stop what you are doing, maybe mute your phone, turn off the monitor. If you are on a meeting, stop paying attention to the topic. If you are on the cafeteria, stop chatting with others for a while. You will do only one thing in the next 2 minutes: observe.

The second step is a bit harder. Choose a colleague you want to know better and start observing his/her behavior. Don’t focus on the topic s/he is talking about or on the professional problems s/he is dealing with. Focus on his/her body language, gestures, posture, speed, loudness. Everything that may sign his/her physical and emotional state as well as his/her stress level.

You need to keep observing him/her for 60 seconds uninterruptedly. This is not always easy, as of course you will want to do this without being noticed – nobody likes “being watched by the boss”. And your colleague wouldn’t know that you don’t watch him/her to judge but to know him/her better.

In an open office you can lean back in your chair and start contemplating in a seemingly aimless way. You can also observe your team member’s behavior from your office or from a meeting room if the walls are made of glass. Drinking your coffee or tea on the corridor or at a public lounge in the center of the office is also a proper opportunity to do some observation unnoticed. You can also choose 60-sec observation during a team meeting when your colleagues are talking. Others may think you are paying attention to what they are talking about, but for 60 seconds, you will observe their body language instead.

Find your feasible situations where you can observe your colleagues without bothering them, and gather as many information about their body language as you can.

But it is important not to make any conclusions for 60 seconds. Just watch and observe what you see, and don’t start to think about it for now.

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Don’t judge – become curious

What do you see? Is she smiling or does she seem confused? Is there any pain you can notice from his body language? How energized do her movement and gestures seem? How loud or silent is his speech? Does she move clumsily, carefully or in a determined way? What do you see on his face? Sleepy eyes, hollow cheek or on the contrary, tight skin and bright face?

It is important to spend 60 seconds without trying to interpret the meaning of these signs. Give your brain a minute to gather enough information before you start thinking about the reasons behind the gestures.

And after one minute, spend another 60 seconds trying to understand what’s going on inside your colleague.

But there’s an extremely important rule here. Body language almost never can reveal exact information about the other person. Do not jump to any conclusions, make hypotheses instead. You cannot be sure in anything you think his/her body language could mean. Yes, maybe that is the meaning. But maybe not. Maybe she is cold or she’s just hit her leg into the table, and these trivial explanations are behind what you see and tried to interpret as “Julie is seriously broken down, she must have problems again with her husband.”

The easiest way to keep you from being judgemental is to become curious about what you see. You observed Peter and noticed that he is a bit slower and more silent today than he usually is. That can mean a lot of things. So stay curious and gather more information before decide if there’s anything you need to do as his manager.

Observe more, ask, communicate

If you stay curious, you may want to keep observing Peter’s behavior. You observed him during the morning meeting for 60 seconds, noticed him being slower and more silent than usual, and you spent another 60 seconds trying to find out why.

You have some theories about it (he got a feedback from you yesterday afternoon, and he is in charge of a messy project for weeks), but you know that these are only your assumptions. Maybe he only had a long night and is a bit tired. So you decide to go after it, and spend another 2 minutes of observation during lunch in the cafeteria.

And you notice that nothing has changed, and he is as silent in his lunch break than on the meeting.

As his manager, it’s your duty to approach him at this point and ask some questions. A lot of people in leadership positions have problems opening conversations like this. Their gut feelings usually tell them two things:

Start with a typical social chatter like “Hi, how is it going?”, or asking something about the family.

Start with asking directly about the problem they assume the colleague has: “Everything is alright at home?” “Can you handle the recent deadline changes in your project?”

I think none of these gut feelings are the best solutions. I always suggest starting a conversation with stating the goal of that conversation. It’s easier, more honest and usually much more effective.

“I saw you this morning on the meeting and you seemed slower and more silent than usual. And I see that this hasn’t changed since. It seems to me that something is wrong. Would you like to talk about it?”

This version is much more honest, direct and easier. You don’t have to “chatter” before talking. Just talk about what’s important, everybody will appreciate it.

Back to action mode

If you manage to start an open conversation with your colleague, based on the observations you made, that will certainly strengthen your relationship. In addition, s/he may share you things you will have something to do with as the manager of that colleague.

This is an important question you should ask yourself often as a leader: “What do I have to do with this thing as a leader?” In a leadership position we have a lot more responsibility than making sure KPIs are achieved.

Paying attention to our colleagues as human beings is a leadership duty. Observing their behavior to know them better is a leadership duty. Asking questions about your observations even if it’s uncomfortable is a leadership duty too.

And it’s also a leadership duty to ask yourself the question: “What do I have to do with this thing as a leader?”

Answering this question can switch you back into action mode. Now, that you know a lot more about your colleague current state as a human being, you may have to do something to help him/her.

Why not try something unexpected today? How about a self coaching app? Check out Symblify – Life Made Simple, the first self-coaching app that combines symbolic thinking and solutions focused coaching in a 20-minute coaching session.

Are you into mindful leadership? Do you think your team members and your own wellbeing are essential prerequisites of high performance? Try Life Cross Training, a customized one-on-one coaching designed to help professionals achieve optimal wellbeing and peak performance!

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