With every interaction, you have the opportunity to change a relationship. How you handle each interaction determines whether you make it better or worse. Often, we enter these exchanges as equals. Our partner in the encounter is just that—a partner— equally responsible for whether the interaction is positive or negative. Sometimes, the responsibility we bear is disproportionate, though and the obligation to nurture the relationship weighs more heavily on us.
A friend once described his relationships with his children as an unequal playing field, recognizing that he as a parent carried a bigger responsibility to bring empathy and understanding to these exchanges. I have heard leaders share that they feel the weight of their employees’ well-being as part of their role as a leader.
While I strongly discourage treating employees like children, there is a common theme in our role as parents and our role as leaders. In both cases, we bear the responsibility of creating a safe space for communication that allows for growth, expansion, and improved relationships.
If you have made a commitment to being an inclusive leader and building an organization where employees are engaged and motivated, you must be cognizant of the impact you make in every interaction. Did you connect in a way that drew the other in, or did you leave them feeling distance? How can you design each interaction to maximize the positive impact?
In my Foundations of DEI workshop, I share the Platinum Rule—a lesson I first became familiar with in a college communication course. This concept is that rather than doing unto others as we wish to have done to ourselves (as states the more well-known Golden Rule), we should do unto others as they wish to have done unto them. In other words: Treat me how I want to be treated, not how you want to be treated.
It is simple in theory, but difficult in execution. How can I know how you want to be treated?
David Rock, a researcher who coined the term Neuroleadership, provides one of the most helpful models for engaging others in the way that matters to them. The SCARF Model considers behaviors that motivate or threaten employee well-being, recognizing that when all five elements are present, people are more likely to feel safe to engage. Behaviors that threaten the five elements will cause employees to withdraw (either in a specific exchange or from the organization altogether if it is too persistent).
SCARF is an acronym that stands for:
- Status—Importance relative to others.
- Certainty—Ability to confidently anticipate the future.
- Autonomy—Individual control over events or environment
- Relatedness—Connection to others
- Fairness—Perceiving just treatment and exchanges
While individuals may be more sensitive to the impacts of some elements than others, there is no situation where the perceived presence of one factor would do damage. The absence of a factor can cause significant harm, though. As an example, my strongest motivators are Relatedness (I love connecting with others and hate isolation) and Fairness (I want rules to make sense for all the players, and I am happiest when I get to help design those rules). While I appreciate someone making me feel important (status), I am more likely to pursue belonging in a collaborative organization where I sense that all people have opportunities to advance over one where people compete for recognition. Recently, I was coaching someone whose company had surprised him with news of a merger that would take place within 60 days. Prior to the announcement, there had been no indication it was coming and there was no opportunity for staff to provide feedback about how they could best contribute to the future organization. This created a sense that a lot was happening to him (rather than him making things happen) and left him feeling like he would be safer to leave the organization, putting himself back in the driver’s seat of his career. While some individuals might have been comforted by statements of future stability and messages of exactly what they could expect post-merger, those messages of certainty were not meaningful to my client. He prioritized the ability to exert control over his own environment.
As a leader you have numerous opportunities every day that increase or decrease engagement in your organization. Whether it is a one-on-one exchange, a company-wide email, or a Town Hall meeting, you must be mindful of the message you are sending—and more importantly, how it will be received. When you frame this message in a way that provides status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness, you increase the likelihood that message will be what the recipient needs, impacting your relationship for the better.