The How To Guide on becoming a more inspiring and compassionate leader in technology.
There’s an obvious lack of communication skills and the ability to show appreciation in tech leadership today. Not on purpose, but there are a lot of managers who are incredible at what they do – code, build, fix, manage projects, analyze problems, etc. – and they just haven’t been trained to be great leaders.
I believe a great leader is a servant leader, one who listens to others, communicates effectively and with empathy, acknowledges their people, and praises the people around him. Servant leaders are there to serve those they are leading.
What tends to happen is that skilled IT workers get promoted and they are just expected to apply what they did with technology to the people they now manage. Well, I know it’s a shocker, but people are NOT computers.
Ineffective leadership is a substantial contributing factor to high turnover and toxic work environments. I want to help you solve this issue and create awesome work environments. I want your workplace to be one where everyone feels included and inspired to work.
In this article, I will share some ideas and strategies to use to become an inspiring servant leader in tech. If you struggle to work with people or inspire your team to do what you want, have high turnover, and want to be more confident in your career, then this article is for you.
Here are a few facts before we dig into solving these issues.
A recent study from LinkedIn of 10,000 people shows that the tech industry has a 13.2% turnover rate.
A different study, from DDI’s leadership project, reveals that 57% of employees quit because of their bosses. When you don’t have a supportive or understanding boss, it’s harder to get your job done, let alone enjoy your work.
A recent Forbes article states the average stay at Google is 1.1 years. For Amazon, it’s just 12 months, and Apple is a little ahead with 24 months. Why is that? Such great companies! What’s going on here?
Turnover itself is not wrong or bad, but it does have an impact on an organization if left unchecked. It’s natural, but like anything, too much of anything can cause issues.
So, I did some research to wrap my head around what’s going on. I reached out to directors, engineers, analysts, managers, and architects in tech today. The people I interviewed were black, white, female, male, but most importantly, human beings with valid points of view from their career experiences in tech.
I asked them two questions:
• What’s the most significant issue you see in tech leadership today?
• If that issue was resolved, what would that solve in today’s work environments?
What I found correlated well with the study that found that most people leave because of their bosses. The bulk of the issues can be boiled down to two main problems or “bugs:” Lack of appreciation and lack of listening and overall communication skills. Add in high demand and higher-than-average salaries in tech, and it’s a recipe for high turnover and toxic work environments.
Let’s get down to business. I know you’re a geek and want some tips on becoming a better servant leader and improving your work environment. This article is NOT intended to prove my strategies as THE way to inspire or lead. It is meant to give you some ideas to try on for yourself. Then you can play with them with your teams. There isn’t ONE right way to lead.
In this article, I will use the terms “team member” and “employee” interchangeably. I prefer to use “team member.” It’s inclusive, while the word employee feels singular. That’s actually one way I suggest you start thinking when working with your team: How can I include people instead of excluding them?
Take what you like here and leave what you don’t. If you DO like the ideas, share them. We’ll start with the basics.
What Is Communication and What Isn’t Communication?
Communication is what you say and what you don’t say. It’s how you say it. It’s the words you use. It’s your body language. It’s how you react. It’s how you respond. It’s who you’re being or who you’re not being.
Communication is also how you communicate with yourself. Are you walking around beating yourself up, or are you empowering yourself?
All communication matters. It makes a difference with how you view yourself and others, and it helps dictate how others perceive you.
Communication comes from the point of view we hold about something. We then interpret and communicate from there. We understand concepts, situations, people, relationships, and then create meaning based on those interpretations. That becomes the point of view from which we operate.
Communication is being filtered through our viewpoint automatically. We react or respond based upon it. But we can learn to understand it and then choose a new point of view. This awareness and control take time and practice to cultivate, though.
If you can be present and deeply understand your point of view, you can understand things in a new way. You can listen or speak to someone differently. In those new ways, you will find hidden gems that make the difference when leading.
Another way to think of this is that we all have certain types of glasses (views) we wear in life. We listen and communicate based on how things look through those glasses.
Let’s say a team member’s emails use bad grammar and punctuation. The information she provides is valid, but her writing skills undermine her credibility.
You create a perception of that person. They ARE bad at writing. You interact with that person from that viewpoint. You silently pass judgment, as if they were less capable than others.
Then, you find out through a conversation that she has dyslexia and has had a hard time reading and writing so her communication skills suffer. She persevered, though, and became a brilliant engineer and technician.
What’s your view of her now?
Here’s the kicker. Every single person believes that their viewpoint is the TRUTH. Our egos will fight, and defend to the death, to prove themselves right. Even right now, as you read this, if you don’t believe what I am sharing, your mind is probably throwing up objections, pulling out evidence to prove this wrong, or pulling in evidence to prove your existing opinion right. The ego always wants to be correct.
Our egos can really get in the way.
First, though, let me share what the ego is designed to do. Our egos are driven by fear and believe that we are all separate, alone, and on our own. Its primary mode is to attack, both ourselves and others. The ego wants to be right all the time, and it’s continually making subconscious judgments.
The ego “thinks” in terms of me versus you. There is no “we” in the ego. The ego thinks something is wrong and needs to be fixed; it’s always trying to solve problems. The ego feels lonely and unsure of itself. This is the default viewpoint in life – it runs us. It runs how we listen, how we react, and how we view others. It shapes our opinions.
Then, and very importantly, we communicate FROM that point of view. We communicate from that viewpoint as if our thoughts and judgments were the truth. It’s all automatic and causes so many issues in business and life.
Our communication skills reflect how much control we have of our egos. You know that feeling after you react to something and then think, That’s not what I meant or That’s not who I am. You begin having that feeling of regret. That was your ego running the show and now your conscious mind is second guessing things.
For example, let’s say you have an employee who’s chronically late for work. Our egos generally default to this line of thinking: Why can’t he get here on time? What’s wrong with him? Doesn’t he know he is hurting MY performance? Now I will have to make up for him!
This way of thinking is all from the ego and you can see how self-centered it is. It happens automatically. If you don’t ever notice that you’re thinking this way, you’ll treat that person as if all that is true. It will become a vicious cycle in that relationship. What’s even worse is that people may then have a belief about themselves reinforced or created. They may start thinking that they are bad, wrong, always late, and hurting others. Then they act on those beliefs, and that just keeps the cycle going. Eventually, they get tired of working there and quit.
All of that could have been prevented if you could do one thing better: Listen. If you leave this writing with nothing else and can take on being a curious listener of other people and where they might be coming from, you’ll transform a lot of relationships. You’ll be a more more effective leader.
Your Communications Toolbox
So how do you become more curious in your communication? Here’s a tool I like to use that helps frame the way I am thinking. It’s called “above the line” and “below the line” communication. It’s simple yet very powerful.
Above and Below the Line Communication
Where are you communicating from? Above the line (service-based) or below the line (ego-based)?
Use the above diagram as a reference to help you and your team communicate from above the line. Communications from above the line are created with intention. They generally don’t happen automatically. It can take some time to cultivate the habit of doing it regularly.
Communicating from below the line happens mostly automatically as we discussed earlier, and this is the norm, even in the workplace, unfortunately.
Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to in order to increase the awareness necessary to move from below the line to above the line:
• Where am I communicating from right now with this conversation?
• Am I making this person out to be wrong in what I am communicating?
• If I did what she or he is doing, why would I be doing that?
• Has he or she told me why they are doing what they’re doing?
• How can I be supportive of this person?
• Am I assuming the worst about her right now?
• How can I be understanding of this person’s situation?
• How can I see this as a win for him?
• If I didn’t know everything I know now, how would I interpret what I am communicating?
These questions can help you identify what you are thinking as well as where they might be coming from so as to help you empathize with what they are communicating. This should ultimately lead to better understanding.
Expectations Versus Agreements
The second tool involves a conversation you should have with your team, and really anyone who is essential in your life: What are your expectations, and what did we agree on?
This YouTube video from Steve Chandler and explains in more detail, but to summarize, we communicate mostly from our unshared expectations of others – the things we think about but keep to ourselves. We act and respond as if the other person or group has agreed to those expectations.
This causes all sorts of issues. The other party can feel confused, attacked, hurt, etc. But when we take the time to create a conversation where we can reach an understanding and an agreement on a topic, it creates a whole new level of communication in the relationship.
Here are a few questions to help you:
• Was there an actual conversation where we agreed and understood each other?
• Is this just MY expectation of them?
• Is this a societal expectation?
Creating a Leadership Vision
Do you have a vision of yourself as a leader? Do your team members have a vision for themselves? Instead of thinking of your employees as just employees, start seeing them as future leaders and team members and aim to empower them in that way.
Suppose you don’t have a vision for yourself as a leader; here’s what you can do. Write out the answer to this question: What do you see if you envision yourself as a leader and what values would you exhibit?
After you write out your answer, go back and pull out the fundamental values that excite you the most and the ones that bring out the best in you when it comes to your ability to lead. You can also have a conversation with a colleague or friend and have them answer these questions about you for some additional insight. Clients I’ve worked with in the past have shared some of the following values they want to further develop: servant leader, trustworthy, understanding, successful, empowering, speaks up for the team, caring, listens, engages, and delivers.
Another way to come up with what values you want to develop is to think about a leader you admire; it can be someone dead or alive. What values does that person have that you want to exhibit?
Once you have the values, put them into this framework:
I am a leader who ________________ .
I am a servant leader who is trusted, engaged, collaborative, speaks up for my team, empowers them, and delivers success.
How’s that feeling after you read it? Do you feel good about your vision as a leader? If so, then that’s a great place to start. If not, play with it until it feels good.
Share your vision with your team and ask them to come up with their own. Share this process and create an ongoing conversation at work about it. You could create a “lunch and learn” to kick it off.
Share your vision with your boss and have a conversation around it. The more you let others know this is who you’re becoming, the more you’ll start becoming that leader.
What’s magical about this process is that when each person on your team shares his vision, others start to see him as that leader. You start doing the same as well.
I did this with a client, and he created a vision where he was more collaborative. The very next week, he came to his coaching session and shared that he listened to another leader in a completely different way – it wasn’t a physical change but a mindset change. And, during that meeting, he offered to lend his team to help the other team. He said that was a breakthrough for him because he usually wouldn’t have provided help to another organization.
A great coach I know, Mike Kitko, shared this advice with me: Decide who you want to BE and go BE it. If you’d like to take a leadership assessment, you can set up a time to chat directly.
Being Vulnerable As a Leader
One of the fastest and most effective ways to create trust as a servant leader is to be vulnerable. It wasn’t easy for me to be vulnerable, but I found that once I did, others opened up to me and trusted me more. With new levels of trust, people will share what’s really going on for them, and with that information, you’ll be able to lead them more effectively.
Being vulnerable with others has become more comfortable for me now. I discovered almost everything I thought was weird, different, or “wrong” about me was very similar to what others felt about themselves. Once you figure that out, it creates a connection between people.
For you to try this, it helps to understand why. We are humans first before we are leaders. Humans have emotions, needs, and desires, and many are scared to share their true feelings and opinions. If they do, most tend to think they might get rejected, feel hurt, or hurt others in the process. So, instead, they hide their feelings and thus, they hide what they really want.
Think about some of your closest friends or relationships. I am willing to bet those relationships aren’t built upon surface level conversations. Those close relationships are made of moments in life where you went through a struggle or some kind of event where you got to understand someone much better. Some of my close friends are close because we’ve gotten in trouble together. By going through those struggles, we created new levels of trust because we saw each other in a new way – a more human way. Some of my other friends and I are close because we’ve had more in-depth conversations where we shared and were vulnerable with each other.
The outcome is that I trust those people and they trust me. They know more about me, and I feel heard and understood. I do the same with my clients. When appropriate, I share my screw-ups or follies with them. It builds trust. Then, when I ask them to do something, they are more excited to try on the idea.
I am not saying spill your guts with your team and cross personal boundaries. What I am saying is to start sharing more of yourself with your team. Help them see you as a human being who is there to help and lead them.
Here are a few ways to help you create more trust and be more relatable:
• Tell them, “I want to let you all know that I am working on being a better leader. I know I am not the best leader yet, but I am working at being better. If you have any suggestions that you think will make a difference here, please share them with me. I am here to listen.”
• Own up to your mistakes. Let them see you’re a human, too.
• Ask or say these in your head as you’re working with someone:
- What could I share about me that relates to this person’s situation?
- Did I screw up, too when I first started?
- How good or bad were you when you first started?
• Create a fun team conversation to get more comfortable with one another. For example, ask the team to share a funny story where they got embarrassed. You should go first and keep it light. Share a story that’s funny yet embarrassing. Another one is to share a fun fact most people don’t know about you.
My fun examples, shared solely to get your brain going:
“I’ve personally been attacked by a goose while rollerblading. That thing pecked at the back of my head – I’ll never get that close to a momma goose’s nest again! I still have two baby teeth, and I’ve done a handstand on the equator.”
One of the most powerful tools I’ve come to learn is the tool of listening FOR someone. What do I mean by that? I suggest listening with the intention to hear what they are saying and compare that to what they are committed to or going through. Listening is half the battle when it comes to communication skills and becoming a servant leader.
To break this one down, think of it this way: If a team member struggles to get a project done on time, you could listen to her and not hear any of the progress she’s made already and simply become frustrated that the project isn’t finished. Or, you could listen to the story as the struggle it is for her, but understand that she’s doing her best to get it done. The latter is listening FOR what they are trying to accomplish.
Situation: Project isn’t complete yet and the deadline is close.
Leader: “Hey, Mike! I see it’s getting close to the deadline for this project. How’s it going?”
Team Member: “Yeah, it is getting close. I am not sure how I am going to get it done. I’ve been banging my head trying to resolve this one issue for the last week.”
Leader: “Mike, I can tell you’re committed to getting this done. I’ve noticed you working hard at it and sounds like you are frustrated. Don’t forget all the progress you’ve made already. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and forget everything we’ve already done. I’ve been in similar places close to a deadline, too. I got your back. How can I help? Is there anything I can do to help you move forward?”
What I’ve found when using this strategy is that people feel understood. When people feel understood, they are more likely to let go of stress and ask for help if it’s needed.
Situation: Team member is late for work.
Leader: “Good morning, Mike! How is everything going? Is everything okay?”
Team Member: “Yeah, sorry I am late. My daughter threw up this morning and it threw off my entire schedule. So, I had to take care of her first, and then traffic was worse than normal.”
Leader: “I can certainly understand that. Is your daughter doing better?”
Team Member: “Yeah, she’s doing well, back to throwing Legos at my head while driving again.”
Leader: “Haha, sorry about the Legos. I can tell you’re committed to being a good dad because the puke and Lego injuries probably weren’t part of your plan but you rolled with it anyway. Let me know if there’s any way I can support you, Lego defense aside.”
In these examples, you’re listening FOR what the person is committed to and letting him know that. You’re helping him feel understood and know that someone cares about him.
Ask yourself the following questions when listening to others:
• What are they REALLY committed to in this situation?
• What is this person dealing with that might be a struggle for them right now?
I’ve found acknowledging someone to be one of the best ways to help people believe in themselves and create trust in the relationship. So, what is acknowledgment?
Acknowledgment is communicating to someone that you see them, you understand them, know what they are up to, and that they are not alone. It’s a direct conversation, a short email, a quick text, or a longer look into their eyes.
Acknowledgment is NOT the idea that everyone gets a participation trophy for showing up. Acknowledgment is learning to understand someone; it is powerful and can emotionally move people if it comes from the heart.
Here is a general framework of acknowledging someone. First, think about who the person is and what they are up to at work and in life. Second, acknowledge them with intention and put meaning behind your words.
It looks like this: “(Team member’s name), I want to acknowledge you for (things like dedication, struggles, or personal issues you know impacted their life), AND doing all that while still getting your job done.”
Here are some examples to illustrate how to do this with your team:
“I want to acknowledge you, Mike, for getting the project done, especially with everything we’ve had to deal with. I know the client hasn’t been the easiest – quite the opposite. But you’ve made the team’s job easier with your expertise. Also, I want to thank you for sticking with it while dealing with your mom. I know she’s been sick, and you’ve been helping take care of her.”
“I want to acknowledge you for doing a great job on that milestone. I know you had to deal with some big issues, and you overcame them. I want you to know that I see that and your contribution here.”
“You’re pretty awesome. Our team wouldn’t be in the same place it is today without your contribution.”
Create an Atmosphere of Team Acknowledgment
Try this if you want a team environment where people are giving high fives and encouraging each other without you even being there.
Set up a regular team meeting and give yourself 10-15 minutes of space at the end for this exercise. Have everyone acknowledge at least one person on the team for what they contributed to the team. Ensure that every member is recognized in some way. Go around the room and be conscious that this type of communication isn’t typical for most people. It might be difficult for some. In some cases, an email chain passed around as a group might be a great way to recognize everyone’s efforts too. It’s more impactful if done face-to-face, either in person or virtually over video chat, but emails work, too.
Also, bring the word “acknowledgment” into your team’s vision statements and watch what happens!
Clearing a Team Member
I want to cover how to work with employees who show up to work with issues on their minds. “Clearing” an employee helps them let go of what might be on their mind. It’s a process that gives employees mental space, and in that new space, they let go and can be present to do their work and be their usual selves.
First, ask them if you can talk to them in private for a few minutes. Let them know this meeting is a support meeting, so they don’t think it’s a disciplinary meeting. Once you convene in private, let the person know that you’ve noticed that something might be on their mind, and while it’s none of your business, you want to support them. Ask if there’s anything they want to share that would help them clear their mind.
Note that people often bottle things up and don’t feel comfortable sharing things that might be bothering them. That’s okay. It’s not your job to force anything. It’s your job to provide a space where they feel comfortable to share if they choose to. Your job is NOT to fix the situation if they do share, but to let them be heard. Your job is to listen and acknowledge. That’s it.
Our bodies and minds are like capacitors. They store energy until it’s released. For someone to feel clearer, they usually just need to process verbally or in a journal what’s going on in life. That’s enough for their minds to empty the thoughts that are taking up head space and preventing them from being present.
When it gets to the point where it’s impacting their work and others’, I believe it’s time to step in and support them. It’s pretty magical what happens after someone lets the energy go. They feel energetically lighter and more back to their usual self.
Let’s cover an example:
Situation: An employee comes into work, and he is ordinarily happy and easygoing. However, you can tell something is impacting him, and it’s been affecting his work, too.
Leader: “Bob, hey, do you have a minute to chat?”
Team Member: “Yeah, sure, give me a few to wrap this up.”
Leader: “Great, let’s meet in the conference room, and oh, this meeting isn’t anything negative.”
Fast-forward to once in the meeting:
Leader: “Hey, Bob, thanks for the meeting. I appreciate it. I called this meeting because it looks to me as if there might be something on your mind. I might be wrong, but I wanted to make sure everything is okay on your end.”
Team Member: “Yeah, thanks. I am doing okay, just dealing with some things at home right now.”
Leader: “Ahh! Thanks for sharing that. I am not here to tell you what to do about that. I just want to let you know I am here to support you, and if you want a space to share anything, I am here for you. No judgments. If you need time to figure something out, let me know. I’ve had days like that before and just wanted to let you know I got your back.”
Team Member: “Thanks for that. I feel better after knowing that. My wife’s been sick lately, and we’re dealing with everything that entails.”
Leader: “Wow, sorry to hear that. If there’s anything you need, please do let me know. Time off, rearrange the schedule, just let me know, and we will figure something out to help you.”
Team Member: “Thank you. I appreciate it.”
Notice how the leader did not make it out like Bob is in the wrong nor did he accuse him of anything. He took ownership of his observations of how Bob has been acting. Our egos want to blame others automatically. When that happens, the other person becomes defensive. When someone does become defensive, the ego is more concerned about defending and being right instead of being in the conversation and listening. It’s an ego defense mechanism.
Ultimately, your job is just to listen and support them. Rinse and repeat each time.
Reflective listening is a great tool to use to help people feel understood. You’re telling the person what you heard, but in a way that communicates back to reflect that you understand.
There are two ways in which I do this. First, you can repeat what the person said back to them, verbatim. Second, you can share your interpretation of what they said. Both ways are powerful and helpful.
Here’s an example:
Leader: “Diana, can you give me an update on what’s happening with your project?”
Team Member: “Yeah, we are a bit frustrated now, but we are getting back on track this week. The dev team has had some major bugs pop up that they had to respond to, and it’s pushed our release further back than what we wanted. We’re working with them and asking for regular updates, and they haven’t committed to a new release date yet, but they have told us they will in the next week.”
Leader: “Okay, thanks for the update. What I heard and understood is that you are frustrated with the backup from the dev team, but that issue was out of their hands. You’re working in collaboration with them and will have a new commitment for a release date by next week. Do I understand you correctly, and is there anything I can do to help?”
Team Member: “Yep, that’s accurate, and OH, I forgot to add that one of their team members left and moved to a new company last week. So they’re dealing with that as well.”
Leader: “Gotcha, so there’s a little more frustration than normal right now with the dev team.”
Team Member: “Yep, that’s right!”
Leader: “Let me know if you need anything from me to help with that. I am here for you!”
Team Member: “Thank you, and I will!”
Reflective listening is impactful, and if you want to bring this up a notch, implement it in meetings with active participation from the rest of the team. I call it round-robin listening. At the next meeting, ask your team to give their regular updates; however, when they are complete, have them pick the next person to speak at random. The next person will then briefly summarize what the last person shared. This helps the team actively listen to each other instead of being distracted.
When we listen to each other, we connect on a deeper level and collaborate more.
One of the things I noticed in my research is that people didn’t feel like they could relate to their boss. This lack of relationship contributes to preventing employees from asking for help, participating, or just being more social at times.
The best way to get to know someone is by setting up regular times to get to know your team. One strategy I’ve seen that works well is using some time with an already scheduled regular meeting just to share updates about your life with the team.
Fridays are a great time to do this. Set up a “celebrate your wins” Friday meeting. Use the first 10 or 15 minutes of the meeting to share updates about what people are up to in their lives. Keep it light, and if someone wants to share something more in-depth, let them share. You could also do this with a regular team luncheon.
I also suggest creating a regular time on your calendar to meet individually with each team member and check in on them. Keep it light and help them if they need it or let them help you, too.
Another strategy is to set up a mastermind among larger teams. Mastermind groups are teams of people, five or ten at most, where they gather once or twice a month to get to know each other, share goals, and help hold each other accountable.
I know some of this information may not be easy to put into practice, especially for those who haven’t been trained to be a compassionate, empathetic leader. If you haven’t been trained to listen or communicate in these ways, I get that. It’s taken me time and practice to do these. Our egos are constantly on an internal loudspeaker, so give yourself patience with these exercises.
All of these techniques are designed to help bring people together, and our egos are designed to keep us separated. Keep that in mind because it’s the human default. The more you practice including people, listening to them, and acknowledging them, the more effective you will be at leading. More importantly, though, the better your teams will be.
As a bonus, try these out at home, too. These strategies work with all humans.
I am sharing this information with you because I love helping inspire others to do what they love, and the biggest reason people leave jobs is because of their bosses. I hope these help you to become a better servant leader. If you think my ideas are helpful, feel free to share this with others.
Any questions, feel free to contact me directly via email: brad AT bradfinkeldei dot com or connect with my via LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/bradfinkeldei/ I am here to serve and help you develop your communication skills as a member of technology leadership!