In the duty assignment that I recently changed out of, there were five echelons of leaders between the most junior members of the organization and me, which is the greatest disconnect I have experienced in my career to this point. Over the year of that job, I unfortunately found how easy it was for me hardly see or interact with those junior members on a routine basis. Days of not interacting with them easily turned to weeks and sometimes months. Through this experience, I learned that as we move higher in the organizational chart or chain of command, the higher the power and relational distance becomes between the most junior members of our organization and us. Leaders can easily become disconnected from our junior members.
This is an issue because we can be seen as losing touch by those echelons down the organizational chart, which leads to lost trust in “senior leadership.” I relate this to John Maxwell’s idea where he states that, “People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.” Increased disconnection and decreased trust lead to severe negative impacts on organizational effectiveness. Leaders must deliberately find and practice routine ways to remain engaged with and connected to the most junior members in our organizations.
As former Secretary Mattis wrote in his book, Call Sign Chaos,
“If you can’t talk freely with the most junior members of your organization, then you’ve lost touch.”
Two Categories of Disconnection: Can’t & Won’t
Leaders who are disconnected from their junior members fall into two categories – they can’t or won’t try to connect. Those that can’t connect struggle to relate to others due to the difference in age, experience, and organizational perspective. They feel uncomfortable, estranged, and unable to relate. Leaders who won’t, however, are generally unempathetic to junior perspectives. They see these junior members’ viewpoints as invalid and illegitimate. This category of disconnection is more problematic as there are likely issues with those leaders’ assumptions. It is easy to judge, discredit, and ignore what we don’t understand…or care to understand.
It’s important to address these two categories of disconnection to determine if we fall into one of them. Through some honest introspection and reflection, we should ask what feeds our fear or disinterest in connecting with our junior members and why. This may be a first essential step in identifying some counterproductive biases and blind spots.
3 Habits to Connect
There are three simple habits that leaders can easily begin to practice today to better connect with their most junior members.
- Meet Them Where They Are At. Good leaders go where their people are; they are present. Create deliberate touchpoints with your people. These can be formal in meetings or sensing sessions, or can be informal by spending some time in leadership by wandering around (LBWA). If you’re in the can’t or won’t categories from above, schedule these windows on your calendar to improve accountability in spending this time appropriately. Meeting your junior members where they are at can also mean showing up in the spaces relevant to them like social media.
- Listen (to Understand). Connecting with your junior members is less about talking to/at them or even doing more things and more about listening. Simply spending time with them, asking questions, and actually listening can often do much more than anything else you say or do. Never walk by a junior member without acknowledging them and talking to them if feasible. Ask them about themselves, their family, their life and up brining. Ask them about their views on the organization, what’s important to them, and their most relevant challenges in their work. Asking and listening not only makes your junior members feel heard and valued, but also sheds a new and important perspective on your organization’s pulse. I recently observed a senior military (general officer) interact with a small group of 20- to 21-year-old Cadets. He emphasized a question-and-answer session with them, encouraging the Cadets to ask anything that is on their minds. What stood out to me from this session, however, was that he wrote down every question the Cadets asked because he cared to understand the themes and topics on the Cadets’ minds. He reasoned that these Cadets are the next generation of leaders in his military and he valued what was relevant to them.
- Communicate Perspective…with Care. Finally, in connecting with your junior members, you can help them to better see and understand the “bigger picture” of what’s going on within your organization, outside of it, and the world. Your junior members don’t easily have awareness of things echelons above them. By optimistically and emphatically communicating those higher-level perspectives, you help your junior members better understand the reasoning behind decisions and circumstances. I caution leaders who implement this habit of leader connection to ensure you don’t speak arrogantly, talk down to your junior members, or belittle them. Use language, references, and examples that they can relate to. Recall Jim Mattis’s quote above. Your goal in communicating perspective is to help fill gaps in their understanding to encourage your junior members to be more informed and thus committed to being successful in their piece of the organizational puzzle.
At the end of the day, we are all humans who have unconditional worth regardless of rank, position, or performance. No matter the difference in echelon between leader and the organization’s most junior members, one human is not ultimately better than another. As leaders, we care about, pour into, and lead people. Treat everyone with dignity and respect, period. Remain connected with your junior members and you’ll be surprised by the energy, fresh perspective, and value they bring you and your organization.
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