7 Ways to Do the Hard Work of Really Loving Your Employees on Valentine’s Day (and Beyond)

WRITTEN BY DAVID DEACON

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Illustration by Pedro Nakazato Andrade
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Valentine’s Day is around the corner. If you’re thinking of taking your team to lunch or bringing in heart-shaped cupcakes, go for it: It’s a nice gesture. But don’t think your work is done… far from it. Loving your employees is an all-year-long endeavor and it involves a lot more than saying, “Thanks” or “I care about you.” It means pushing them to grow, thrive and reach their full potential.

Most managers try to show “love” to their team in superficial ways, but few are truly committed to doing the hard work. Real love is tough, tiring work that you can never give up on. You must relentlessly be looking for ways to help them grow, thrive, and reach their full potential.

Self-determined managers intentionally create environments that allow, enable, and empower people to do great work. This is incredibly tough, which is why such managers are rare gems. And a big part of the job is knowing your employees.

Once you understand your people’s strengths, dreams, flaws and other defining aspects, you can begin the deliberate work of bringing out their best performance. This really is love, and like all love, it can be a mix of joy, frustration, exhaustion, and yes, ultimately, pride at their growth and progress.

Every self-determined manager should be doing the following:

Get very clear on what your employees are good at. Make it your job to have a good sense of each person’s skills and be sure you can articulate them. This requires lots of awareness, watching, reviewing and considering. It’s not enough to say that someone is “a good salesperson.” Instead, they are great at getting inside customers’ heads or building a rapport for lasting relationships or have a natural charisma that creates goodwill.

Make up your own mind and use your own words to figure out what your people do well. Rehearse these thoughts in your head and be able to say them out loud, to each employee and to others.

Learn what drives them. Everyone hopes to get certain things from their work. It could be recognition, regard for their expertise, affirmation for their opinions, respect, friendships, perceived success or something else. Your job is to get a good grasp on where each employee’s motivation comes from, what gets them out of bed in the morning, what gets them to perform, and what excites them to make the extra effort. When you spend time observing and talking to your people, you can usually ascertain what drives them (and if not, you can always ask them).

Find out their ambitions and career goals. One team member may aspire to become a trusted lieutenant, while another is committed to rising up in an organization’s leadership. Another person might want to gain a senior title, but only within his area of expertise. Most talented and ambitious people want to advance. But also keep in mind that while others are content in their roles and don’t seek advancement or seniority, they don’t want to stagnate. Pay attention to the ambitions of this hardworking group as well, and make sure they too have a sense of progress.

Again, if you talk to your employees regularly, both in formal situations like performance reviews and also informally, you should know what drives them.

Help them shore up their shortcomings. Pointing out when your employees have done poorly is rarely effective and, anyway, it’s nearly impossible to articulate the details in a way that empowers an individual; these discussions usually just lead to defensiveness or defeat. Instead, create the environment where their weaknesses (most people have several) can be discussed in a spirit of joint problem-solving. Help them get the overall picture in their heads, to know how best to focus their efforts to be successful, and to recognize when they may need to ask for help.

Make it clear that you’re on their side. Most of us have had managers who are over-critical, who take achievement for granted, who take credit for others’ work. Self-determined managers decide not to be like this. They start from the premise of being on the side of employees. This isn’t about turning a blind eye to poor performance. Great managers will be critical, or push, or cajole when needed. They also make their team feel valued and appreciated. When you believe in your people and support them to be the best they can be, a little magic occurs. They will do better work than they knew they could, and better than you hoped.

Have a plan in mind for your people. The best managers have a good sense of where they believe each of their people should be headed. For each employee, look forward and ponder three thoughts:

  1. Where might they be in a few years’ time: perhaps a bigger job, a different role, or a larger team?
  2. Do you have a clear view of what they need to learn now and what they need to learn next that will support their future growth?
  3. Do you have a sense of responsibility and accountability for helping them make that progress?

With great managers, the plan is mainly in their heads and they can tell you instantly what it is. Not in the language of career frameworks and competency models, but in words that show what they see and appreciate and hope for and worry about for each of their people.

Hold them to high standards and hold them accountable for their success. Self-determined managers can be difficult to work for because they expect a lot from their people. Any employee who is less than engaged, hardworking and committed will struggle. If your employee needs direction or mediation and has a good attitude, by all means give them the support and counseling they need to improve. But if you detect someone who doesn’t care or lacks consciousness, make your expectations clear and firmly accept nothing less.

It’s not easy to truly know your team, but it’s a crucial part of being a self-determined manager. When you do this, you’ll have a better understanding of how to cultivate outstanding performances, foster harmony, and unearth each team member’s true potential.

This Valentine’s Day, commit to helping your team members discover their greatness, harness their talents, and achieve more than they—or you—thought possible. There’s no better way to show them some love.

David Deacon is the author of The Self-Determined Manager: A Manifesto for Exceptional People Managers. He has been a human resources professional for over 30 years and passionate about how managers manage for almost as long. He has worked for a variety of the world’s leading companies, including Credit Suisse and MasterCard, and has lived and worked in the U.S., the U.K., and Asia. A thought leader in the fields of learning and development, talent management, and leadership development, Deacon has influenced leaders and teams around the world and created better-managed companies as a result. Recognized by the Best Practice Institute as a “Best Organizational Practitioner” in 2014, he continues to drive impact through leading world-class talent management approaches in the companies where he works.
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