Culture is a top-down phenomenon: team members watch leaders closely – every action, decision, gesture and comment are taken as cues for “what the boss wants / expects / values / prefers.” Anyone can say the right thing when they’re making a speech or do the right thing when they’re on-stage, but daily behaviors – the things we do automatically – send a stronger message. At Humanus Solutions, we coach leaders to develop habits that engage people, open lines of communication, and promote the desired mindset.  Here are five leadership habits you can use today to engage your team:
  • Learn (and use) people’s names. This may be obvious, but time-and-time again, when we interview members of high-performing organizations, people at all levels report feeling they know and are known by folks at the top.  When you greet the receptionist or security guard by name, not only does it make them feel good, other people notice – and it makes them feel good too. Pro-tip: can’t remember someone’s name? Ask them! (And ask again, If necessary.) It may feel awkward, but people will cut you slack if you’re making an effort.
  • Be visible at the ‘gemba’.Gemba’ is a Japanese word meaning ‘the actual place’ – in this case, the actual place where your organization’s work happens: the job-site, the call center, the control room, etc. When the people ‘turning wrenches’ in your organization see you regularly, they feel respected and connected to the organization. Pro-tip: show up on off-shifts and overtime too!  A boss who turns up in the break room at 11pm to chat with the night shift will be legend… especially if they bring doughnuts!
  • Ask open-ended questions. Many managers talk more than they listen, but questions are an effective tool to get people talking and thinking about topics that are important to the organization.  The trick is designing questions that require people to express themselves: “What do you think about…”, “Tell me about a time when…”, “How would you handle…”.  We have a few lists of questions to get you started. Pro-tip: Don’t be afraid to push back or challenge people look at other sides of the issue: “What about this…”, “What would you say to folks who think…”, “If we did that, what would happen when…”  This shows that you’re listening and respect their opinion.
  • Give work back to people. When leaders start learning names, going to the gemba and asking questions, they often hear complaints and requests – fix this, buy that, and straighten out so-and-so.  It’s tempting to leap into action in response to this feedback.  Don’t do it.  Listen to what people have to say, but leave the responsibility for the issue with them  “I hear you: what’s your next step?”, “I get it: who’s the right person to handle this?”, “I see.  What’s your part in this – what can you do about it?” Pro-tip: if you do agree to look into something or address an issue, you must follow-up, even if the answer is, “Sorry. Not going to happen.”
  • Build relationships with front-line leaders. Culture happens from the top-down, but culture change lives (and dies) in conversations between workers and their supervisors.  If you’re interested in changing the performance of your organization, it is vital to have open lines of communication, and ready access to foremen, shift-leads, crew chiefs, duty nurses, etc. – the folks who communicate your directions to the troops. Pro-tip:  Everything we’ve said so far applies doubly for your relationship with front-line leaders: learn and use their names, visit them at the gemba, ask them open-ended questions, and don’t let them put you on the hook for work they should do.
Employee engagement isn’t complicated, but it’s not easy.  The behaviors we’ve listed here may seem too simple and obvious to make a difference – and if you only do them once, or once-in-a-while, they won’t make a difference! But leaders who take simple, visible actions to engage people each and every day will reap the rewards of switched-on employees, open-lines of communication, and greater willingness to take on the organization’s challenges. Interested in learning more?  Ready to develop your leadership habits?  We’re ready to help.  About the author: Andy Erickson is a founder and principal consultant at Humanus Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in people-centric leadership. He can be reached at