Making It Personal

Building relationships with team members is the key to keeping morale high and sustaining productivity

With many municipal departments facing budget cuts and layoffs, low morale and reduced productivity might be serious issues. So what’s a manager or supervisor to do?

Management consultant Drew Stevens says there’s a simple solution, and it won’t cost a dime: Put on some comfortable shoes, take a stroll around your office and field work sites and start to get personal. Get out of your comfort zone and out from behind your desk and meet your team members. Get to know them and what makes them tick.

“The key thing is getting to know staff — being visible,” says Stevens, who has provided management and employee development advice for more than 20 years. “We call it management by walking around.

“With all the craziness in today’s crazy world, managers and supervisors are so busy that they’re often not visible. But you’re with people for 8 or 10 hours a day, so get off your carcass and start walking around.

“Go out on their routes or inspections. Get to know what’s going on in their lives. Get to understand what motivates them and what their strengths and weaknesses are. In the long run, this also will help you determine if they’re promotable and in line to help you and the organization in years to come.”

Productivity studies back Stevens up. In particular, he cites a Gallup survey showing that poor supervisor/employee relationships led to higher levels of insubordination, tardiness and absenteeism.


Overcoming suspicion

Stevens concedes that supervisors who have been office hermits for a long time may at first find employees resistant to their sudden change in approach. To get over that hump, he suggests being honest and telling them you’re trying to right a wrong.

“Being candid is not a bad thing,” Stevens says. “But walk before you run. Do something simple, like have coffee with folks. Or go out and buy them breakfast. People may be a little suspicious, but it’s okay to let them know you realize morale is down and you want to put your best foot forward to help make things better.”

Overworked managers may feel they just don’t have time to make the effort and may fear taking up employees’ time and causing them more stress. To avoid those issues, Stevens suggests having quick conversations at the start of a day, or at the end of a shift, when encounters won’t be seen as interruptions. “Even a simple, ‘How you doing?’ is better than nothing at all,” he says.

Rewarding and recognizing employees can also get results. No matter how long people have been with an employer, everyone wants to be recognized. “Research supports that when people feel they’re part of a collaborative team, they will perform better and work better as a team,” he says.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as telling them they did a good job. Or giving them something small but personal, like a birthday card. If their hobby is gardening, give them a gift certificate to a garden center, or give movie tickets to a cinema buff. The more personal the reward, the better. Then they know it’s coming from the heart.”


Benefits abound

Getting to know employees better offers long-term benefits. It often makes it easier for supervisors and employees to have what Stevens calls “crucial conversations” about work issues. When good relationships are in place, it’s easier to soothe anxious employees who just lost long-time colleagues to budget cuts.

“In the wake of layoffs, communication is where the rubber meets the road,” Stevens says. “You have to tell people that it’s unfortunate what happened, but this is what we need to do to function and move forward. That’s a much more difficult conversation if you have no relationship with your employees. You must take ownership of the situation — let them know what’s happening and why and move forward from there.”

The same holds true for confronting people about performance issues. For example, a supervisor who has good relationships with direct reports will have an easier time dealing with situations such as an employee who’s chronically tardy. Managers with poor staff relationships may shy away from dealing with the situation, which then spirals downward as staff resentment builds.


Snowball effect

“Employees start to complain that the supervisor or manager doesn’t do anything about it, so everyone starts coming in late,” Stevens says. “They now have a morale problem that has created a domino effect of productivity issues.”

In addition, managers who know their staffs well can better handle employees who bring personal problems to work. In those situations, having that crucial conversation is a must. Sometimes it is easier to have the conversation away from the office, as that shows a personal interest in what’s going on.

“Take the employee out for lunch and have the conversation there,” Stevens suggests. “Let them know you have concerns about some things you’ve observed. Maybe they’re coming in late or lashing out at fellow employees, and you need to understand what’s going on and why.

“It all goes back to building good relationships with employees. If there’s no relationship built, things can spiral out of control.”

The bottom line: Good relationships can help weather a lot of storms, and that helps minimize turnover. When the chips are down, employees who feel connected and valued are more likely to stick around. As Stevens notes, employees don’t leave organizations, they leave bad managers.


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