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I brought food to meetings, but people still aren’t productive. What gives?

Tips on how genuinely caring makes or breaks your leadership.

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Leadership tips tend to have a few favored points. Trust your gut and bring food to meetings. These can be fine ideas. But they only hint at a small slice of how leadership actually works.

“A lot of people think ‘If I just do a good job with my work, everything will fall into place,’” says associate professor Minette Drumwright of the Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations.

Also on the faculty of the Business, Government & Society department at the McCombs School of Business, Drumwright says leadership is never that simple. She says leadership requires actively building genuine connections. “Some people see networking as a subversive way of getting ahead,” she says. “But if you’re not intentional about how you build relationships and how you give information, things are not likely to happen in the way that they need to.”

Drumwright is the director of The University of Texas’ interdisciplinary Communication and Leadership degree, and she is a winner of the 2019 President’s Associates Teaching Excellence Award. She teaches that good leadership is too large a task for a strong personality or good snacks. It is something we have to practice. Here are some tips to help set ourselves up to put genuine care into the ways we lead.

1. Leadership requires active learning and effort.

“One myth is that if you just put yourself in an organization, you’ll learn to be a good leader.” — Drumwright

People have to learn vocational skills — architecture, electrical work, journalism. But Drumwright says often people forget to apply the same logic to leadership. Drumwright rejects the idea that leadership is something you are born with. Everyone can be a leader and likely is a leader in some context. However, it takes an active effort to develop that skill set. Books, podcasts, videos — she says exploring the latest conversations about leadership is essential. She also suggests enrolling in classes and workshops about leadership if you have the means to. If you count on only what you have passively learned about leadership, you may end up repeating harmful patterns. Recognizing that leadership is an ever-evolving art and science helps us know that there is always more to learn.

2. To lead, first you must serve. (Leading without ego)

“You can accomplish most anything you set your mind to if you don’t insist upon taking credit for it.” — Drumwright

Old ways of thinking tell us that the people you lead exist to either serve you or the final product. However, Drumwright says that credit-hungry, ego-driven leadership often gets in the way of all involved. In her classes, Drumwright teaches about servant leaders — people who do not think of themselves as the big boss. Instead, they actively look for ways they can benefit the people they lead.

A lot of folks think that it is OK to discount the feelings of the people we lead in the name of getting the best results. But servant leadership research tells us something different. Treating people well is not only a moral imperative; it also gets the best results. People perform better when treated with respect. While Drumwright agrees that leadership doesn’t mean making everybody happy, prioritizing human dignity and the spirit of the collaboration brings us closer to our shared goals.

3. Let the environment you create help people motivate themselves.

Servant leadership tells us to invest in people. Standing desks, company T-shirts and food at meetings are all nice bonuses. But they have minimal effect on the culture of a group when they are the only substance offered. They can feel like Band-Aids trying to obscure much larger wounds. You can’t fake caring about people. But you can learn to respect those you work with.

Putting in the effort to connect with the people who surround you and ensuring they are treated fairly can sound like a lot of work. Leaders can think that they do not have the time to do so. But work of genuine care often inspires people to motivate themselves to do better, more robust work. There are fewer fires to put out when people feel fulfilled and are empowered to do the work they need to do.

4. Asking questions gets us farther than making assumptions.

Assumption: They just don’t care. X Question: How can I engage people more?
Assumption: My staff is so lazy. X Question: How can I support them?

In an organization, if the people you lead are struggling to accomplish something, it is probably not due to some innate flaw, but the fact they have not been given the proper support to accomplish what they need. Sometimes people will end up not being the right fit for a certain role, but generally leaders need to develop the cultural and emotional savvy to meet people where they are.

An aspect of recognizing people’s dignity is understanding that everyone has different access to time, resources and ability. Leaders cannot ignore the sociopolitical environment that is the reality for the people they lead. We all have memories of a boss or teacher who only gave the benefit of the doubt to themselves. It can be frustrating to be told that your work indicates that you must not care about your job, when there could be a dozen reasons why performing a certain task is a challenge for you.

5. Allowing people to give candid criticism makes us better leaders.

“Give people permission to be completely candid with you and give you their unedited opinion when you go to them seeking advice.” — Drumwright

Drumwright says leadership should be an act of self-reflection. “Leaders need to understand their own capabilities and strengths and weaknesses.” Find people who can be helpful and blunt. With both peers and people you lead, make people feel safe providing you feedback on how your actions have affected them. At the core of providing genuine care is the requirement to stop assuming our infallibility and everyone else’s inherent flaws. There are always ways for us to do better by the people we are serving. After we can ensure that people feel genuinely cared for, then we can look at what snacks we should put in the break room.