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Leadership: Art & Science Part 1 – If you Care about Business, you must Care about People first

Written by Silvia Garcia

“The business of business is people”

Herb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest Airlines, based his business on people and made this his priority for his company’s culture. Herb grew Southwest from scratch, from a regional carrier with only a few destinations to a consistently profitable company–even in the early 1990s, when oil prices were skyrocketing and the airline industry was losing billions. He achieved this by showing he cared for every one of his 50,000 employees who operated more than 4,000 flights daily to more than 100 destinations.

“We could have made more money if we furloughed people. But we don’t do that. And we honor them constantly. Our people know that if they are sick, we will take care of them. If there are occasions of grief or joy, we will be there with them. They know that we value them as people, not just cogs in a machine.” – Herb Kelleher

Why is caring about people so important? This is because people will follow you through hard times and struggles on the basis of how you make them feel. How you make them feel will be the fuel for how well they perform and consequently how well your company will perform. Joe Nocera wrote an article in the New York Times entitled “The Sinatra of Southwest Feels the Love” about two different airlines’ results based on how differently they cared for their employees. From the piece we learned that the same day that American Airlines held its annual meeting, Southwest held theirs. American Airlines was losing money, and its chief executive officer complained from the podium that the state of the industry was unsustainable. Members of both the Flight Attendant’s Union and the Pilot’s Union, in the middle of combative contract negotiations, picketed the meeting and handed out anti-management fliers.

By contrast, the Southwest meeting was a lovefest. The company had made $645 million in 2007, but that wasn’t the top of the shareholders’ minds. They had come to pay respect to Kelleher. When he entered the room, they stood as one, cheering wildly. Southwest’s pilots were also in contract negotiations, but instead of picketing they published an ad in USA Today to thank their founder.

This happened because emotion lies behind every decision we make. Emotions come before behavior. Modern brain scanning technology allows us to see how the areas of the brain related to feelings light up before the areas related to rational thinking and evaluation. If you make people feel good, they will perform their best and they will be loyal to you. On the contrary, when you make someone feel stressed or scared, their fight or flight mechanism is activated. This a spiral of negative consequences: bad cognitive functions, uncontrolled risk-taking, less collaboration, less creativity, decision-making that isn’t thoughtful, less engagement and ultimately less productivity.

Our human brain considers emotions to be so vital for our survival that it stores them in one area of the brain called hippocampus. It uses them to quickly make a decision when you encounter a similar situation (your brain tells itself, “hey, I’ve seen this movie before, and I know how it ends”).

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

To create a culture where people trust you, trust each other, and trust the company, the first step is to start truly caring about people. This can be achieved by adopting these three leadership behaviors:

1. Listen to people with a main goal of understanding them, don’t just prepare your reply ahead of time. Many leaders feel they are expected to have the answers or to have the last word, thus they quickly take any opportunity to give their opinion. Create time and space for others to talk to you. Don’t interrupt when employees speak, keep your thoughts until the very end, when everyone else has had a chance to talk.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” – Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

2. Hold people accountable for telling you the truth and vice versa. Hard truths need to be told with honesty and sensitivity. If you care, you can tell people everything. If you have established a relationship based on care and trust, it is easier to tell someone something unpleasant when it is delivered in an honest yet caring way.

“Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth” – William Faulkner

3. Give people control and autonomy. Most companies are not even aware of the amount of control and restriction that pull down each person’s autonomy. Most of us are familiar with inherited work cultures of processes that tell people what to do and even what words to say in every possible situation. As customers, we have all experienced this when talking to a representative at a call center which is such a frustrating common situation of a horrible customer experience – so common that it was used as the premise for a popular iRabbit ad.

“Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement” – Daniel H. Pink

Whether your company starts by removing excessive control or by adopting radical new ways of working such as holacracy, there is always a sweet spot between your needs and the needs of your employees.

Read part 2 here!

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