Quit managing with 'social auto-pilot' engaged

You know when someone is asking you a question because they have to.


The lovely checkout person at your supermarket is the perfect example; they’ll usually greet you with a chirpy ‘How’re you going today?’ and most of us know the appropriate response is ‘fine thanks, and you?’ mumbled into the trolley while we start unloading the groceries. It’s almost an automated process. We are so conditioned that we often answer without even waiting for the question sometimes! We’ve all said ‘good thanks’ in response to someone asking ‘how can I help you?’ because we’re pretty much on social auto-pilot.


The reason is because these types of interactions are low value. We aren’t going to unload our life’s problems on a poor 17-year-old high school student working a checkout (ok, some people DO divulge all that, but that’s a whole other issue!).


We know the checkout person can’t solve the problems we’re facing and we know they are asking how we are to be polite rather than because they have any emotional connection to us or concern for our wellbeing. So we make the interaction as pleasant and as painless as possible with idle chit-chat and low emotional investment. And that’s ok for check-out operators, people at the drive through window or the barista brewing your favourite caffeinated beverage.


But, sadly I've had managers that have pushed me into social auto-pilot mode. You get to work and there’s a perfunctory and occasionally awkward greeting. Sometimes they’ll mix it up and ask how your weekend was, but you note that their eyes remain fixed on their screen of choice so you mumble some inane reply and move on.

you note that their eyes remain fixed on their screen of choice so you mumble some inane reply and move on

Then you have the joy of the one-on-one meeting. You both know they have 4 minutes of ‘personal connection’ time scheduled and the awkward ‘so how are your pets going?’ or ‘the kids must be back at school now? or ‘you still playing touch on a Wednesday night? questions begin. I know you may be thinking ‘well at least the manager knows they have pets, or kids or play touch!’ and sure it’s a good start, but in some of my experiences the questions have been the same month after month.


I’d be impressed with that from a senior manager I saw once a quarter, but the manager I work with every day?!? I expect more.


I read a horror story on LinkedIn today where an employee was publicly berated in a video-conference for dialing in 10 minutes late to a weekly team meeting. The employee had worked at the organisation, and with this particular manager, for years without incident.

Rather than checking in on the employee after the meeting finished, this manager chose to dress them down in front of their peers for a total misdemeanour. The real kicker for me was this… The employee is a single parent. They have 5-year-old child with special needs who they’re solo parenting while currently trying to work from home with no support.


So, for me there are two possible scenarios here:


  1. The manager knows full well what this employee’s circumstances are outside of work and chose to take their course of action anyway; or

  2. The manager has worked with this employee for years and somehow has no idea about their home situation.


Neither scenario is ok in my book. The employee in question logged off the video-conference and started the search for a new job and I don’t blame them.

Either the manager knows the employee's circumstances and chose to take the course of action anyway, or they've worked with them for years and still have no idea about their home situation. Neither scenario is ok in my book.

A member of my women’s networking group shared another incident (must have been the day for them today!) where a person had commented on one of her recent posts on LinkedIn. She’s a mental health and wellbeing coach, and this person had shared in a comment that they have a neurological condition and feel it can be difficult to access the supports they need to be effective in their role.

Well, their manager took it upon themselves to reply to the comment arguing that they couldn’t possibly feel unsupported. The manager went on to say that they are supportive, but ultimately the business has to make money and it’s not unreasonable for them to ask the employee to sometimes just ‘fit in’ when it’s very busy. The manager had no idea how their actions were impacting on their team member and refused to hear or acknowledge their lived experience.


Now I'm very grateful that I’ve never had a manager behave as poorly as the managers in those two examples, but I’ve certainly had a few who took no interest in me personally. They shared nothing about their own lives with the team. They asked perfunctory questions and got perfunctory responses. I did a good job in those roles, but I could have performed better. My investment was low and ultimately it didn’t take much to entice me to leave.


That’s the issue with managers who don’t bother to connect with their teams; they flatline productivity and do nothing to enhance employee engagement. The only thing these managers are driving are organisational exit rates.

The only thing managers on social auto-pilot are driving are organisational exit rates.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting managers become besties with their employees. In fact, I caution against it. But you don’t have to be best buddies with someone to take a genuine interest in who they are and build a quality trust-based relationship.


Here’s what I’ve learned from my years of coaching a multitude of managers:


  • Manager-Employee relationships are like EVERY other human relationship. They take time to build and they require effort and energy from both parties. But, unlike most other relationships, you, as a manager, are in a position of power. You can’t just throw your hands up in the air and say ‘nup too hard’. By all means, put restrictions on the amount of energy you expend, but you can’t stop trying all together.


  • You can’t take a one-size fits all approach to connection building. Employees are individuals and will have their own preferences for relationship building. Read the cues and adjust your approach accordingly. Make the effort to build relationships consistently (don’t run hot one day and cold the next, it’s the actual worst).


  • Trust can be immediately given or earned over time. Some employees will tell you their life story 10 minutes into your first meeting, others may take months or years to share certain details with you. You have to roll with both situations. Being genuine and consistent will help the more reticent employees open up in time.


  • Vulnerability is key. If you expect employees to share details of their lives with you, you need to reciprocate. Talk about your life; the hobbies you enjoy, your pets, your kids, anecdotes of your life outside work etc. Remember to share the good and the bad. If you’re gutted because your pet guinea pig died, be open about that! It makes it that much easier for employees to be honest with you down the line.


  • Be authentically you. So many managers feel they need to sanitise their personalities (I know, I was one of them) but no one wants to work for a weird robot person. Put pictures or art work up in your office, add a book or wine or podcast recommendation into your staff newsletter and share one of your passions, bake cookies if you want to, have a lolly jar, laugh, cry, dance like a dork at the staff party. Not everyone will ‘like’ you but everyone will respect that you’re being your genuine self.


  • Find advocates. There are employees who you’ll connect with more easily, and often they can help sway other employees who are more reserved or guarded. This isn’t about bribery or favouritism, but about being consistent, honest, open and vulnerable with the employees you connect easily with. You’ll find those positive stories permeate through the team (or some employees will flat out vouch for you) and your relationships will improve across the board.


  • Small talk is an art that can be learned. Knowing what questions to ask to generate chat, particularly with someone you don’t immediately gel with, is hard. If chatter isn’t something that comes naturally to you, practice! Google good icebreaker questions, practice asking questions in a mirror until they flow more naturally, keep a discreet note on your PC or laptop to note things you learn about employees you can use (eg learning that an employee follows a certain sports team and noticing they win their round over the weekend is a good conversation starter). You can also reach out to a professional coach or therapist to support your development in this area.


Now, more than ever before, the ability of managers to connect with their teams and lead with authenticity is critical.


I heard a story last week that someone’s manager has started writing a weekly letter to her team, in the style of a diary entry, that shares her working from home experience. Things like the music she played, stories about her ‘fur-collegaues’, photos of her home etc. The person mentioned to me they’ve learned more about her in the past 3 weeks than they have in the past 2 years. And this was really well received by the team; ironically, they feel more connected with her now than they did 6 weeks ago.

A manager started writing weekly letter to her team during lock down. They've learned more about her in 3 weeks than they did in the past 2 years and, ironically, they feel more connected with her now than they did 6 weeks ago.

Perhaps that’s another silver lining of this whole COVID schmozzle. This recognition that we are all human and that we all have personalities and lives beyond the job title we hold. We’ve all heard the stories of kids interrupting Zoom meetings, dogs or cats interjecting in conference calls or half undressed partners meandering unknowingly past the active webcam… and we’ve all laughed about it. No one has said that stuff is unacceptable or unprofessional. If anything, it’s made us see ourselves in others; that everyone else’s lives (and houses) are just as messy and complicated as our own.


That’s an important point for managers to recognise. Employees won’t ever think less of you for being a human, if anything it will make them like you more!


And I don’t know about you, but these days when the check-out person asks me how I am, I make eye contact and I give a genuine reply. And I sincerely ask them how they are going and engage with their response.


I’ve switched social auto-pilot off. I challenge you to do the same.

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Supporting positive Workplace Culture Crusaders across Australia from sunny Brisbane.

I respectfully acknowledge and pay my respects to the Kabi Kabi, Jinibara and Turrbal Traditional Custodians, and their elders past, present and emerging, on whose unceded lands I live and work.

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