When Your Employees Want You to Really “See” Them

“How do we boost employee engagement?” That’s the simple version.

Then there’s the longer version: “We have an employee engagement committee, a fun committee, we do town halls with the president, we respond to employee complaints and requests, and still we don’t have the kind of commitment and motivation we would like, and turnover is higher than acceptable. What else can we do?”

If these laments sound familiar, one simple, no-cost “program” is for all managers to put the following on their daily “To Do List”:

Practice paying attention, noticing, appreciating, and acknowledging each employee’s individuality, preferences, talents, challenges, contributions, and potential.

The gift of ‘being seen’

What prompted me to write this post was a passage from one of Maria Popova’s many beautiful pieces of writing, A Partnership Larger Than Marriage: The Stunning Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell:

In one of his first letters to Haskell from Paris, Gibran captures what is perhaps the greatest gift of love, whatever its nature — the gift of being seen by the other for who one really is…

This quote reminds me of probably my favorite lines from James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling:

Perception bestows blessing… To be is first of all to be visible. Passively allowing yourself to be seen opens the possibility of blessing. So we seek lovers and mentors that we may be seen, and blessed.

While Hillman focuses on the act of allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough and transparent enough to be seen so that you may experience the amazing gift of feeling like someone “gets you,” I’d like to focus on the other side of the interaction.

When we have enough interest, when we care enough to pay attention and apprehend who the other person truly is — with all of their foibles, their gifts, and their idiosyncratic sources of delight — we give them a gift that very few will ever give them throughout their whole lives.

We give them the gift of “being seen.”

Think about your experience of this rare gift. If you feel truly seen by a partner, family member, or friend, you know how blessed you feel. It’s a kind of coming home, a place of refuge and comfort. It’s a peaceful counterbalance to the confusion, misunderstandings, and seemingly unbridgeable chasms that often accompany daily interactions with other humans.

Being seen, being engaged

So what does “being seen” have to do with employee engagement and being a great manager who knows how to get the best out of employees?

Think about your experiences throughout your career. Haven’t you cared the most about managers and jobs when you felt your manager cared about you? Weren’t you far more passionate about doing your absolute best; weren’t you far more loyal, and far more determined when facing challenges when you felt seen, valued, and appreciated by your manager?

Gallup’s 12 measures of engagement

If you want some data to back up the importance of seeing, valuing, appreciating, and caring about employees as individual human beings rather than apps that perform a function, consider Gallup’s classic engagement research.

Think about Gallup’s Q12— the 12 most powerful drivers of employee engagement, according to its research. Four of the 12 relate to feeling valued, appreciated, cared about, and respected:

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  1. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  2. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
  3. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  4. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?

Employees do not experience these four from managers who don’t care enough to see them as individuals with unique desires, aspirations, personal challenges, and talents.

Active and constructing responding

One more data point. Fascinating research on “Active and Constructive Responding,” a model created by Dr. Shelly Gable,  showed that this one communication pattern was the single greatest predictor of relationship health and longevity.

Active and Constructive Responding, or ACR, refers to a particular way of responding to good news by another person. Gable’s research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology article “Will You Be There When Things Go Right? Supportive Responses to Positive Life Event Disclosures,” showed that how one responded to their partner’s sharing of something positive that happened to them was the largest predictor of how happy and enduring the relationship would prove to be.

Showing interest when things go right

Gable’s research revealed three relationship-damaging responses and one relationship-enhancing response, which she called Active and Constructive Responding, or ACR. When we actively respond in a constructive manner by acknowledging we hear and “get” the importance of what they’re sharing, we show we care about the person and what happened. We embody ACR when we show enthusiasm, ask questions that come from genuine interest, and celebrate with them their good fortune.

Surprisingly to me, an ex-therapist, was the fact that Gable’s research showed that how people respond to positive life events of their partner was a stronger predictor of the relationship’s quality and permanence than being “there” for the other person when they were facing difficulties.

What it means for managers

So what does this all have to do with managers letting their employees know they “see them”? There’s no way we can engage in the relationship-strengthening act of ACR if we are not fully present, if we don’t care enough to really “see” and take in what the other person is sharing. There’s no way we will feel genuinely excited for the other person and appreciate the meaningfulness of the situation to them if we are lost in our own thoughts and “To Do List.”

Thus, being present and attentive provides the foundation upon which you build the most powerful relationship-building skill: Active and Constructive Responding.

What to do

  1. Put “Pay attention, notice, appreciate, and acknowledge” — or whatever wording works for you — someplace where you will see it every day.
  2. When you are with someone, notice if you are truly listening or only pretending to listen. If it’s the latter, focus on what they are saying.
  3. Be more conscious of showing you are interested in what someone is saying through encouraging facial expressions, words, and follow-up questions.
  4. Look for opportunities to let others know you see their positive qualities, talents, contributions, and idiosyncratic preferences and interests. You don’t have to make a big production out of it. In fact, I believe the more understated and “drive by” these comments are, the more powerful they are.
  5. Refer back to things others share with you. I’ve had people tell me over the years how much it meant to them to have a person — especially a manager — show they listened and valued something they shared by saying something like: “I was thinking about what you said a while back…” or “Like you said last week…”

So remember that if you would like employees to care more about what you want as a manager, if you want them to be more inspired and motivated and engaged, practice paying attention, noticing, appreciating, and acknowledging each employee’s individuality, preferences, talents, challenges, contributions, and potential.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," and Dealing with a Difficult Co-Worker, volume one of the Courageous Conversations at Work series, as well over 100 articles and book chapters.

You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.

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