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Why the personal touch goes a long way in the workplace

by Ana Lopez
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If your entrepreneurial journey has led to the creation of a real company with real employees, it’s important that you can connect with them on a personal and professional level. From entry-level employees to the most senior team members, there is a way to do this that maximizes the benefit for everyone.

Professional (sometimes “business”) intimacy describes the process by which the people you work closely with get to know “the real you” and vice versa. It can be applied to all your work relationships, whether it’s your team members, their direct reports or your colleagues – no one is left out. It can also be the key to a host of benefits: better team performance, more effective senior leadership, increased individual and team productivity, a more trusted work environment with less defensiveness, enhanced creativity, and improved communication.

I’ve been personally involved with many companies trying to make that transformation. I knew a senior leader who was very good at his job but was not allowed to share anything about himself. This came to light in team building work and retreats and then in ongoing meetings with tangential team members. The CEO also experienced behavioral “withdrawal” from this leader during emotionally intensive work, such as incidents involving significant financial interests.

I noticed it as a coach working with other members of the senior leadership team and wondered why this leader went about this way. I begged the CEO and other senior leadership team members to ask this leader questions that would lead to openness. It was necessary to look below the surface of the behavior (withdrawal) to understand how they learned to act in this way, uproot it and eventually change it.

Related: Make your team building fun — and productive — with a corporate take on “speed dating”

What made this possible was leaning on this particular leader with the safe research. One of the senior leader’s questions was, “I found myself pulling back when XYZ happened. Where did that come from?”

It turns out that after 30 years of service, one of this leader’s parents was shown the door to a company where they felt they always gave their best and opened up to colleagues. This leader saw his father struggling emotionally and financially, causing instability and uncertainty, equating in his mind that staying “closed” meant safety and financial security.

Knowing what matters to team members and what drives them on a personal level makes it possible to explain behaviors and help them transform. It’s like knowing their core values, but on a comprehensive basis. Conversely, what are some things that, if not provided, will cause team members to quit, withdraw, or withdraw – or even cause them to consider leaving the company?

When all team members feel safe to open up and show their true selves, they subconsciously realize that they can count on each other no matter what work situation the team is in.

How far can professional intimacy go? Can a line be crossed in trying to establish this intimacy? It is certainly possible that a team member experiences the personal approach as a bit too intrusive. The ideal method is to use the doorway of how they appear on and through their work. While sharing, they should be invited to share family facts, aspirations, dreams, hopes, fears, triggers, and beliefs. Most people are comfortable with this level of sharing and will not interpret it as off limits.

Related: 10 Ways to Make Your Employees 10x More Productive

We’re doing an exercise with senior leadership teams called “four questions, four minutes.” It’s life-changing because whenever we put a team through it, every leader says it allowed them to learn things about their peers they never knew while encouraging them to do the same. Here are the questions (we encourage team members to ask additional questions as everyone shares):

  1. Where are you from and where did you grow up?
  2. Where are you in your family’s birth order?
  3. What were you good at or what did you enjoy growing up?
  4. What is the biggest challenge you faced growing up that made you show up for work?

It’s amazing how these simple four questions get leaders to open up and reveal who they are beneath their professional appearance. In one leadership team, we found cases where 60% of leaders came from families with four siblings and all held the same place in birth order. Two of them never felt accepted for who they were; they put on a “work persona” and hide their true selves from team members.

When asking these questions or using the exercise, don’t let a leader dismiss the question by giving a superficial answer. Since these questions are asked, it is also vital to include what is known as Level three listening. This form of listening is completely focused on the other person, but has a broader focus.

You hear more than just words. You pay attention to what the speaker is saying, but also pick up on emotions as you notice cues from the speaker’s body language. You pay attention to what they really mean, along with the underlying feelings or thoughts behind their words. You listen to understand and accept, not to judge or ridicule.

Finally, ask deeper and deeper questions. When a leader shares their challenge that defines how they show up at work, ask, “What is contributing to or fueling this?” or, “What softens or relieves this?” Also ask, “What can I/we do to show you our acceptance and support?”

Keep their answers in mind as you meet and interact with them in both professional and casual situations. This reminds you of the person they are, almost in a pictorial context, using the mind to remember important things. It will also help you give them what they need and help them do the same for you.

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