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We talk about culture a lot, in books, talks, meetings, it’s a major focus area for companies. We start initiatives to build our culture but, at the same time, we want to let the culture grow organically through the people. For this to happen there has to be a solid foundation for the people to feed on. Trustful teams are the common requisite, but there is another ingredient that has to be considered.

As important as culture is, it can be difficult to describe. I like the description – “Culture is every decision you make” – I wish I could remember who said this but it’s true. It’s a scary reality that everything we do has an effect on the culture! This applies even more to leaders as we are being watched whether we like it or not and the culture changes around us based on what people see leaders do.

Trustful relationships

The importance of building trustful relationships is nothing new, it’s near the top of every leadership 101. As we know, trust doesn’t come for free, it has to be earned and maintained. Unfortunately, what can take a year to build can be lost in a matter of seconds! This means leaders need to keep high standards otherwise why should others? Leading by example is a key part of this, what message are we sending if we say one thing but do another?

Trust can be built and broken in a number ways but at its root, a trustful relationship has to be one that both parties agree to otherwise it will be superficial and likely crack when the pressure is on. This is why I believe there is another core element that leaders cannot ignore.

Trust is a base for culture but there is a deeper foundation that trust and culture will build from. That is one based on caring.

Care is the cornerstone

Some think that being open about caring is a sign of weakness but I believe to show you care for someone is the cornerstone to every healthy relationship. The definition of the verb “care” is:

“feel concern or interest; attach importance to something”

Each person in the team is important and there should be an interest in who they are. They each bring something to the team and offer value…

  • Do you show how much you value them?
  • Do you want them to succeed more than you?
  • How does your team know you care for them?

Have you seen the basketball coach who has a different handshake with each person in the team:

Or a school teacher doing the same thing with each member of her class:

And another one – Teacher Has Incredible Handshakes With Each Student.

Or the principle of a primary school in China doing the shuffle dance with the students during break time:

How do you think each person involved here feels? By looking at some of their faces they feel happy, you could also say they feel valued as an individual as part of their team or class.

So, how does this translate to the tech workplace? I’m not saying you need to do a special handshake with each person before the scrum or do a dance in the cafeteria (please share a video if you do though!) but we can show we care in different ways.

Know that each person in the team has value

Everyone in each team is important, they are unique and have a life. First thing is to find out a bit about them (family, hobbies, favourite snack, etc.), then show an interest in what they like. Ask if they’ve been keeping up there hobbies in 1:1’s or how their partner/family is, especially if they’ve been unwell recently. Remember their birthdays, buy them something and celebrate with the team. Basically, show you care about their life, it’s the simple things that make a difference to people.

Empathy plays an important part in understanding someone’s value. This is a big subject but leaders cannot assume to know someone as more often than not they turn out to be wrong. Being empathetic directly relates to caring in showing an interest in the other person’s feelings, then a person’s true value can be used in the right way.

Also, help them work on their future. Understand what direction they want to head and guide them along the path giving them the opportunities and experience along the way. This shows you not only care about the current work but enjoy seeing each person achieve their ambitions.

Actively listen

We so often how our own agenda on our mind when talking with others, it distracts our focus and ultimately affects the conversation. By actively listening to others and giving them the attention of our mind we are focusing on what they are saying. We show we care by asking questions and aiming for a better understanding of the issue at hand to help the situation.

Listening is not a passive activity and it’s clear to the other person when someone is not engaged in the conversation, particularly if they don’t ask questions or suddenly change the subject. Actively listening means being engaged in the conversation, it shows the other person has your attention and that you value what they have to say.

Show an interest in their work

It is possible to show an interest in someone’s work without being overbearing. Show a healthy curiosity in the work they’re are doing or ask how they solved a particular challenge. Engineers enjoy talking about code so capitalize on it. This gives the opportunity to ask if they would like your help or even the chance to pair program with them. The closer you are to their work the more you can praise them when they’ve achieved something. Choose your time carefully though when showing an interest so as not to interrupt them!

Leaders with an IC background have to think carefully about still coding, the mindset should be what is best for the team. Or, what can be worse is coding a solution to pass on to others to finish! Taking work or problems that the team should have solved and learnt from isn’t showing an interest in their work, it’s doing it for them and restricts their freedom. Care for them by putting their development first.

Be a voice not the voice

Many important discussions happen within teams but don’t let your voice dominate those discussions. Allowing viewpoints from each person to be aired, even those who are quieter promotes more inclusive and healthier discussions. It shows you care what each person thinks and value their input.

This can also relate to decision making. Sometimes teams are told by the manager how to implement something which is controlling and not giving anyone a chance to input. Giving a voice in how we do things and the decisions that impact them builds inclusiveness and ultimately makes IC’s be more committed to the outcome as they had a voice in the process.

Be open

Be open with feedback. Feedback is essential for individuals, providing honest constructive feedback shows you care. The delivery of the feedback should be in line with supporting the person so you’re partnering together for their growth.

Be open with self-improvements. No one is perfect, a leader must be open in receiving feedback from others, at any level. Accepting the feedback in a gracious way and honestly evaluating it shows you care and respect the giver.

Be open with information. Obviously, not every detail can be shared but transparency plays an important part in keeping teams updated. Caring here means sharing information with the team as soon as possible so they do not find out through rumours or the office grapevine.

Be open with praise. Recognition of good work should not go unnoticed, it increases morale and encourages people to continue. Celebrating the team and individual performance is all about caring.

Help people feel part of a team

For people to be themselves at work they need to feel safe, it’s the leader’s responsibility to create this safe environment. It doesn’t mean we all will be best friends but each person needs to feel they can voice their opinion without being frowned upon. This includes avoiding people being siloed or working in isolation unnecessarily. Encouraging people to work together on a problem or feature can help build relationships.

As a leader, be authentic (i.e. be yourself) allowing the team to know you as a person. This means being part of the team by attending meetings and being available in the office. I also believe smiling more around the office can help with relationships, it makes you more approachable and friendly which in turn helps others feel more comfortable to speak with you if something is on their mind.

Also, have fun! A team doesn’t have to be Comedy Central but having fun and joking (at no one’s expenses) is important to feel part of the team. Animated GIFs in chats (or team meeting slides!) are a simple way to make people smile. A caring leader will encourage these types of behaviour to build and maintain a healthy team.

Caring leaders

There is the popular mantra that works against a caring leader:

Leave your egos at home, they’re not welcome here

As much as this is true, leaders need to further than no ego. It’s about actively putting effort into caring for the people in your teams, like ‘Personally Caring’ in Radical Candor. Making it a priority of yours not only because of how it makes people feel but also because it’s the right thing to do.

It’s about treating people as individuals and respecting them for who they are. We’re all unique, that’s that makes us special, but leaders are no more special than the rest! The same rules apply to leaders as they do for ICs. Show you care by working for them, helping them and making their work lives easier. Don’t take advantage of your position.

We hear the expression “Do unto others as you have them do unto you” which many stand by but for leaders I prefer:

Do more for others than you would expect for yourself.

It’s being selfless and putting each person in your team before yourself. Although it seems hard, the only real stumbling block to this is our own pride.

Culture of caring

We should see and believe that caring is a strength, because it is!

Being caring doesn’t mean you let important things slide. Bad behaviour or poor performance must be tackled, hard decisions and difficult conversations need to happen, this is because you care. Caring doesn’t mean everything goes in favour of the other person, caring is about being open with people even if it hurts. One key part of this is not caring what others think of you. As Dick Costello says:

As a leader, you need to care deeply, deeply about your people, while not worrying or even caring what they think about you. Managing by trying to be liked is the path to ruin.

When we care more about people than we do results we find we get the results we’re looking for! It’s the people that drive the results and having a people-focused culture is the foundation to getting the results we desire. The fact that the word ‘culture’ comes from the Latin cultus which means ‘care’ should convince us enough. Culture means to care!

When a caring culture starts to grow you will see people being more open and speaking the truth because they are in a safe environment. Teams will pull together when the pressure is on and even enjoy working with each other (miracles can happen!) Then we see the culture develop through every decision we make.

A caring foundation provides a strong structure for trust to build. The relationships with your team build from this foundation. The culture will then feed on this. Your team culture, or even the company culture, is everything you make it. It starts with the leaders showing they care.

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