Why managers need to care

Written by
Dr Dalton Kehoe

11 Oct 2016

11 Oct 2016 • by Dr Dalton Kehoe


We have two minds - rational and emotional – my rider and elephant - not one to get us through the day. My book Mindful Management reveals the essential interconnections between them for motivating us to work and for making us into effective leaders.

In my Dec. 1, 2015 post I said:

…when our work situation cues up persistently, positive emotional connections with others, our two minds instantly align and the elephant – the energetic core of all our conscious thoughts and actions - moves our rider to speak and act with enthusiasm. We become engaged and productive. When the opposite happens, we hesitate – mentally step back – disengage. Our elephant’s energy is taken up with self-defensive wariness and fear.

Care and engagement

In an editorial railing about the slow movement of active engagement numbers from 26% in 1999 to only 30% of the workforce in 2012, Gallup CEO Jim Clifton argued that most employees are still miserable at work because they have lousy managers who can’t clearly communicate that they care about the employee. His criticism was based on question 5 of the Gallup Q12 questionnaire: “Does my manager/supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?” Positive answers to this question are highly correlated with high engagement scores.

He sticks with his “care” criticism in 2015 when he shifts the blame to CEO’s whom he argues don't care about employees. But he doesn't make clear what care actually means except to say that managers must be honestly interested in developing their employees. That may be true but it misses the point that “care” in its more heartfelt form is the key to engaging employees in their work every day.

It’s the way managers communicate on a daily basis that engages employees. When their elephant minds read regard, liking or concern for them in their managers’ talk, they’re reading care and emotional safety. This automatically engages the employees’ positive emotions and allows them to release their neural energy and power  - their motivation – into the work.

First you need to care

Care represents the presence of persistent, positive connection with another. As current neuroscience research reveals, this is the primary neural drive of human beings. We seek and need connective relationships. They reward us deeply and losing one actually lights the physical pain circuits in our brain.

The research also shows that we are deeply motivated by compliments and consideration from others when making decisions that affect us. Both of these aspects of care fire up the craving circuits in our emotional brain. We seek them. We will work harder for them.

Managers need to take advantage of these deep neural needs to engage employees in their work. They need to follow the simple rule created by Cuddy, Kohut and Neffinger in their research: “Warmth is the conduit of influence.” And as they explain, it isn't hard to do:

Even a few small nonverbal signals - a nod, a smile, an open gesture - can show people that you’re pleased to be in their company and attentive to their concerns. Prioritising warmth helps you connect immediately with those around you, demonstrating that you hear them, understand them, and can be trusted by them.

In other words, managers need to do more of the Connect talk.

So why don't managers simply connect and care?

As I stated in my post of August 2016, the vast majority of organisations in our society are built on the rational belief that to get people to work at all managers need to exercise control. They’re not hired to express care. They’re hired for their willingness and ability to tell people what to do. Moreover, when they engage their rider minds to consciously think about it, managers justify control by telling themselves that:

1.    They don't need to connect because they're in charge.
2.    Connective, caring talk is a waste because it’s not about the work, and
3.    Telling people what to do is simpler than engaging them.

As I also said, the problem with this approach is that our elephant minds read acts of control as low-level threats that push our body’s self-regulation system into a state of flight or fight. Of course, employees don't fight or flee. They automatically manage these reactions by putting their elephant’s energy into wariness, pushing the rational mind into a defense of self and a focus on unfairness rather than the work. They emotionally disengage and do just enough to get by. The result of managerial control is a paradox:

Control may get people to work but it instantly limits how much they’ll do.

Supporting this paradox is an unrecognised process of the elephant mind that I described in my August post. It reads every situation we’re in and pushes the rider mind towards the socially appropriate response. We know how to care by connecting, complimenting and giving others consideration in our decisions when we are social equals but we also know that our organizations are built as legitimate hierarchies of authority. Managers are not the social equals of employees and, as I said in my August post, their elephants stimulate positional Control talk not caring responses.

Wake up and get over it!

To rise above the paradox of control, managers need to:

1.    Become truly mindful about the automatic responses associated with their position. Control talk may be useful when dealing with colleagues competing for resources or the attention of senior management but is counterproductive for employees.

2.    Consciously override the justifications for using control on their employees and focus on this critical statement:

Everybody knows you’re the manager so stop talking
and acting like one!

3.    Mindfully manage themselves in the moment: When they feel the urge to ignore rather than connect; tell without first asking; talk more than listen; scowl more than smile – they need to pay attention. Their staff certainly is. They need to wake up and change from control to connect talk.

4.    Be open to creating “emotional equality” with their employees; allowing themselves to be liked and trusted; and essentially communicating that we’re in this together and “your self is safe with me.”

Managers need to remember that they are still in charge so they can risk using the power of caring connection – which employees’ minds automatically seek – to power up their commitment to the work. This is how to communicate care:

C Create positive emotional connections. Use Connect talk to “manage by talking around.” Get to know your employees – make small talk, be friendly or at least courteous and respectful. 

A Appreciate them for work done well. Compliments matter. Good work appreciated today will lead to better work tomorrow. Consider their ideas in your decision-making.  It shows

R  Respect and it builds

E  Emotional equality and engagement in your process.