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Winning Hearts and Minds at Work: The Best Ways for Success

Winning Hearts and Minds at Work: The Best Ways for Success

team meetingOriginally published  on June 7, 2013 in the Philadelphia Business Journal.

Fifteen employees sit around a conference table, fearful of why they have been invited for lunch with the new plant manager. For many of them, it is the first time they have ever been on “executive row.” There is a combination of nervous laughter and cautious silence around the room. The plant manager, new to her role, greets everyone with a smile and says, “Well, folks, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your coming in for this lunch. Every month, I am going to invite 15 people from the plant to join me and talk about what is working and what could be better in our factory. No one knows better than you how things are really going, and I am interested to learn from you. So tell me, what’s going on?”

Tina, the new plant manager, is not surprised by the initial skeptical silence of this first lunch, which will become jokingly referred to as “Talks with Tina.” She has long used such monthly meetings as one strategy to give employees permission to speak up, make their voices heard, and take ownership of their work. Even with 3,000 employees in this facility, Tina is confident she can win the hearts and minds of her new team.

People speak haltingly at first. Tina listens, engages in the conversation — and then acts on what she hears. Every month she holds these meetings and has her assistant randomly invite a new group of 15 employees to join her each time. Over time, people get more comfortable. Tina finds out that people had been afraid of the previous plant manager. He had run the plant like a benevolent dictator. He took care of his employees as long as they did what he said. It took them some time to believe that this new plant manager wanted to talk with employees and figure out what needed to be done. She did not think that she had all the answers. The word got out — Tina actually cares what we think, she listens to what we say, and she acts on what she hears. These lunch meetings become both a great exchange of information and a tangible demonstration of a new approach to managing the plant.

Whether you lead a multinational corporation, a 3,000-employee factory like Tina, or your own business, if you want your team to take ownership at work, you have to give them permission to do so. While a few people will exhibit this ownership attitude from the beginning, many more will do so if you actively encourage them to do so. Often, people are conditioned from an early age to believe that authority figures are not really interested in what they have to say. Combined with a fear of being seen as a bad team player, many people choose to keep their mouths shut and their opinions to themselves. People who keep their opinions to themselves almost never act like owners.

For Tina, getting people to share their opinions is just the beginning. She takes other steps as well, including putting safety first. She knows that if employees believe that management is overlooking their safety, they will never be convinced that management is committed to their well being. She knows that listening to employees and acting on their concerns will result in a safer plant. Just as importantly, she gets people to buy into the idea that it’s their job to help one another be safe. As employees get used to making their voices heard on safety issues, Tina is laying the foundation for similar engagement on other issues.

While she is quick to ask for people’s opinions, Tina is not so quick to jump in and try to solve every problem for them. Tina trusts people’s ability to solve their own problems. She believes that people on the front lines often know the problems and are the best people to fix them. She looks for ways that she and her managers can help people to solve their own problems. What questions can she ask to help them diagnose the problems? What resources can her management team give them to support their problem-solving efforts? Tina believes that investing the time and resources in helping people to solve their own problems almost always provides a positive return on investment.

If we believe, like Tina, that people are resourceful and capable and by and large want to do a good job, than our jobs as leaders change. We stop trying to fix every problem, and start encouraging people to believe that we have their backs and will help them to solve their own problems. We invest time in winning people’s hearts and minds, because we know that with mutual trust and respect comes an attitude of ownership. We embrace the reality that we as leaders must first commit ourselves to our people if we want them to be committed and engaged with the business.

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