Leaders, get to know your people!

It never ceases to amaze me when people in leadership roles tell me how unimportant it is to get to know their team members on a personal level. The usual comment is something like, “This is work, they’re getting paid to do a job — why should I care about their personal lives?” To answer this question, I will start with an example and then outline an effective way to connect with each person on your team, one by one.

This example actually came from one of our leadership training programs from a few years ago. The participant was a customer service director from a fairly large organization. Here’s what happened:

One of his very seasoned and very good senior customer service reps, a 15-year veteran of the company, seemed to be deteriorating before his eyes. In the previous six months, numerous complaints had come from customers about the behavior, level of follow-through, and general lack of responsiveness of this former star. Things had become so bad that the director actually gave the customer service rep a formal written warning and included it in her personnel file. After repeated attempts to get to the source of the problem (all focused on business and her poor work performance), he had actually made the problem worse.

One of the exercises he did in our training program involved conducting an “innerview” with people in order to get to know them on a deeper level. His assignment was to do an “innerview” with someone on his team. He chose this customer service rep.

When he sat down with her, his only agenda was to get to know her beyond work, and he found out much more than he ever expected. In addition to learning about her family and hobbies, he discovered that she had recently gotten involved in a bad relationship that was driving her crazy. This one thing had had a powerful impact, not only on her personal life but also on her ability to function at work. Once he found out about this, he immediately recommended that she get in touch with their organization’s employee assistance plan staff.

After that intervention, she gradually returned to her former self. Had he not had that discussion, this senior team member, with 15 years of experience and a great track record, would have likely been let go.



The innerview

The purpose of the innerview is to get to know your people on a deeper level — find common ground, determine common needs, and ultimately discover the values that drive them. It’s best to conduct it in an informal setting, not across a desk.

The kinds of questions you should ask fall into three categories:

  1. Factual questions: These are conversational and focused only on factual information. Examples include: Where did you grow up? Tell me about your first job. What kinds of classes really held your interest when you were in school?
  2. Causative questions: These are aimed at determining the motives and causative factors behind some of the factual questions. They are typically “why” and “what” questions. Examples are: Why did you choose that university? How did you find yourself in that profession? What caused you to make that decision?
  3. Value-based questions: These are designed to give leaders a better view of the inner person. Examples include: Tell me about a person who had a major impact on your life. What would be the most important advice you would give to a son or daughter starting on a career path? Tell me about a meaningful turning point in your life.

The example that I started out with helps illustrate the benefits of doing an innerview. To get the most out of your innerviews, you need to set aside the time to meet with your team, one on one, and go through this process. Ideally, you would conduct your innerviews informally over a cup of coffee, a breakfast, lunch, etc. Get to know what makes them tick. Share your own background.

With this knowledge, you’ll see your employees in a new light and find new opportunities to help them grow in their careers.

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