How Often Do You Follow?

Last week I heard one of those statements that made me think: “Yes! So true! I need to write that down!” You know those statements?

The comment was: “It’s not about following the music; it’s about following each other.”

This came during a presentation on creativity given by Linda Jamison, Vice President for Global Talent Development at the United States Institute of Peace. She was speaking about the 1959 piece of jazz called “Take Five” from the Dave Brubeck Quartet. For its time, it was wildly innovative. As Linda described its uniqueness, she spoke about how the unusual rhythms of jazz make it so hard to learn. To succeed, musicians need to stay in tune with each other rather than trying to find the pattern of the music.

It’s the latter part of the statement – “it’s about following each other” – that resonated so much. Initially, it reminded me of the first rule I learned when taking improv classes! I then quickly thought about what that statement means in context to the ever-elusive organizational goal of real collaboration. And finally, my brain went to what that statement could mean relative to leadership. Let’s go there.

Staying In Tune

Most of our conversations with our teams focus on the “music”: the projects, the clients, the goals, the problems to solve. Certainly, these are valid and necessary topics; they are the reasons work exists.

Yet, if the “music” is the only thing we’re following, we’re missing key conversations and realities.

So many things happen to team members across the duration of a week or a month, let alone a quarter or a project. How much attention do we pay to how people are doing after we lose a client, shift direction, cancel a project, move the office, have a disagreement, lose an employee? Or win a project, score that new hire, cross a key milestone, gain a new skill?

In other words, how carefully are you following your team?

In some cases, we make announcements and communicate information about things in the above lists once, perhaps twice. (Although let’s be honest – a lot of times, even that doesn’t happen.) After communicating what happened, however, we need to follow up to see how people are doing.

Checking in on how people are doing is where the juicy stuff is. Therein lies the chance to increase or disrupt productivity, raise or lower morale, strengthen or weaken relationships.

“The simple act of paying attention to people has a great deal to do with productivity.” – Tom Peters

Following your team needs to be more than a once a year event, such as during performance reviews or a team off-site. Here are some day-to-day ways you can check in with folks to ensure you’re tracking:

  1. Make it normal to include personal conversations into usual conversations: one client team I know incorporates personal conversation into their weekly “Round Robin.” Each team member shares a personal update before diving into updates on their work. It’s short and simple, and keeps the team in tune with each other.
  2. Lead the way: be the first to speak up about how you’re processing something that has happened in the workplace. Acknowledge that “x” event had an impact on you, and share what that impact is. Make space for others to do the same. (Let it also be ok for people not to share too. Although it’s a good idea to check in later 1:1 with those who didn’t share in the group.)
  3. Celebrate successes: I can’t tell you how often I hear leaders and employees alike comment on how infrequently this happens. Paying attention to employees’ accomplishments and contributions – both big and small – is huge. Not everything needs a cake. A simple “well done” or “congratulations” or “you’ve worked really hard on that” goes such a long way.
  4. Go “off script”: I read that phrase in a blog by Glennon Melton Doyle and it was another one that hit home. Ask a different question to open your team or 1:1 meetings. Run the meeting differently altogether. Answer a question differently when someone asks what you’re up to or how you are.
  5. Lather, rinse, repeat: after particularly significant events or notable conversations, make a note to follow up with your team or that team member again – and then perhaps again.
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