If you ask today’s leaders the secret of their success, they’ll probably credit trusted managers who motivated them along the way. One of the greatest impacts you can have on your career is a caring boss, but those same leaders aren’t always paying it forward, says retired U.S. Navy captain Mark Brouker, author of Lessons from the Navy: How to Earn Trust, Lead Teams, and Achieve Organizational Excellence.
“On the one hand, leaders understand through firsthand experience what motivated them as they climbed the corporate ladder: caring leaders whom they trusted,” he says. “On the other hand, and quite paradoxically, these same leaders are not practicing the relationship-building behaviors required to build that trust.”
As commanding officer of a large naval hospital in Bremerton, Washington, Brouker observed good leadership skills, as well as practices that damaged teams. To be effective, Brouker says leaders need to demonstrate these six critical behaviors.
1. KNOW YOUR STAFF
After the hiring process, conversations with the boss often revolve around the job and expectations. That won’t do.
“Game-changing behavior requires going beyond that,” says Brouker. “You don’t get to know a person if you only talk about work. Get to know their hobbies and goals. Where they traveled and how they spent their childhood. Listen, and don’t check your cell phone. And this type of conversation can’t be a one-off.”
Brouker says there is no better way to build a solid foundation of trust than getting to know your staff. “Most organizations do not do this,” he says. “But if you’re running a company, it could be a huge competitive advantage.”
2. BE VISIBLE
When leaders proactively schedule time to interact and connect with employees, employees often feel empowered to speak up. This step can optimize decision-making because it provides insights that may not be obtained otherwise.
“People want to see the leader; they want to know they’re there,” says Brouker, who learned this behavior firsthand during a government shutdown, when hundreds of his employees were going to be furloughed. Even though he knew he wouldn’t be able to answer all their questions, he scheduled a town hall meeting with his team anyway. Six weeks later, the government sent a command client survey, the military equivalent of an employee engagement survey.
“What was amazing was that my trust level with my group of cohorts was much higher than other groups,” says Brouker. “Many comments said, ‘The captain took time to answer our questions.’ I didn’t have the answers, but leaders who get in front [during] a crisis, even when they don’t think they have the answers, read as being honest and transparent.”
3. SHOW RESPECT
Respect can impact employee engagement more than any other leadership behavior, says Brouker, citing a study from Harvard Business Review that asked 20,000 employees, “What behavior gets you excited to come to work?”
“The possible answers were ‘a boss who has an inspiring vision,’ ‘being paid well,’ ‘opportunity for growth,’ ‘being praised,’ or ‘having a boss that treats me with respect,’” he says. “All five are important, but being treated with respect blew the others away and was ranked highest. As a leader, it’s imperative.”
It’s easy to treat people with respect when things are going well; it’s not when bad news comes in, says Brouker, but showing respect means treating employees with respect.
“Bad news is coming, there’s no getting around it,” he says. “You’re getting paid to take the bad news and figure out what to do with it. You can’t control what’s coming, but you can control how you react. Anger and disrespect change the dynamics in a room.”
4. RECOGNIZE GOOD AND POOR PERFORMANCE
Recognizing employees can deliver a disproportionate return on investment, says Brouker. When you acknowledge good work, employees will be more engaged, productive, and trustful. But you have to take the good and the bad. Ignoring poor performance puts leaders at risk of losing respect, confidence, and trust.
“If we are on the same team, and you are working hard and I’m not and the boss never brings me to their side to address it, you will think less of the boss,” says Brouker. “Performance then becomes measured by what the boss tolerates. If they tolerate subpar, that eventually becomes the new norm, with everyone dropping to that standard.”
Part of the reason poor performance isn’t addressed is because it’s stressful. “Seek first to understand when someone isn’t performing,” suggests Brouker. “Not accusing and taking the position of trying to figure out what’s going on is a powerful way to address performance.”
5. BE OPTIMISTIC
A leader’s attitude can give employees hope that goals are within reach and good things are possible. An optimistic leader creates confidence in the greater cause, which can inspire trust in the leader even in uncertain times.
“It can be difficult to maintain optimism when things aren’t going well,” says Brouker. “You can’t always be optimistic and upbeat; there are times when you must grieve. Great leaders maintain optimism but don’t minimize danger. Don’t be dishonest, but be a source of hope. People will have a great deal of concern when they don’t know what is happening.”
6. KEEP LEARNING
Being a good leader means being a lifelong learner, continuously working on leadership skills, says Brouker. “Reeducate and recommit to understanding leadership development,” he says. “Be willing to change the way you lead. If you don’t relearn or reintroduce new methods, you could slip into bad habits.”
Brouker recommends reading, listening to podcasts, talking to other leaders, and seeking out new information at all times. “By examining the impact of their behaviors, leaders are more likely to act in a caring way, especially when challenges arise,” he says. “They will proactively find opportunities to capitalize on the hundreds of interactions with their team members each day. Leading with care and compassion can be powerful.”