We Look but We Don’t See

Years ago, when I was unhappy at a job, I thought I was doing a good job of keeping it hidden from others. Then one night at work, one of my team members walked over to my cubicle (everyone was in a cubicle, even the executives) and asked me what was wrong. It caught me off guard, so I said ‘nothing was wrong’ and smiled. She paused and looked at me right in the eyes and told me, “You are not happy. Do what is good for you and don’t worry about us. We will be fine.” This message came from one of my employees who was a grandmother type. She was the kind-hearted grandmother of our team. She was the kind of loyal, tenured employee that kept her head down and worked hard, never complained about anything and got along with everyone…and she also was a phenomenal cook! We all look forward to her food when we had potlucks at work and it was typically the first to be gone.
Her words and observation were so impactful to me. Here is someone, who rarely looked up from her desk, observed how unhappy I was with work. She took the time to tell me, and her words provide me with so much relief and comfort. It was a period in my life where I saw my stoic, emotionless parents grieve for the first time at the death of their son, my brother who was only 29. Never had I seen my parents break down with such emotions, heart-broken and shattered, that I was not prepared or knew how to deal with it. It was also a time where I encountered difficulties with the team of directors; experiencing intimidation for the first time in the workplace. I loved my teams that I managed and have always enjoyed people. Yet for the first time, I had events in my life that overshadowed my love for working with people. Apparently, I didn’t hide it very well, or maybe this team member was just more observant than others. Regardless of what it was, for the first time in my career, the roles were flipped, and I had an employee that was teaching me some of her wisdom and guidance. It was the most humane, thoughtful, and touching experiences that I have ever had in leadership.
What this experience taught me was the value of being observant. Yes, being observant is one of the many skills that make a person a good leader. Jon Mertz (2016) article on “Why Being a Good Observer Matters,” states that being a good observer enables us to take a step back and peer into ourselves and others. Just looking produces nothing. Observing produces insights when we assess for patterns, styles, and results. So what does this mean for leaders? Kevin Eikenberry wrote in his blog, “The Power of Observation” that as a leader, we need to be aware of how individual team members are doing and their level of energy and engagement. We must also monitor the dynamics of the team and more. Just one simple example is to observe how people behave and communicate – if we make those consistent observations and have a model to compare to, we can communicate and build greater trust with the wide variety of individuals we lead. We can’t do all of this with a dashboard or numbers, we must be looking, noticing, asking, and being aware to spot trends, learn more, and lead more effectively. To expand this concept even further, observation can be extended to your colleagues and management above you.
Think about it. What is one of the biggest resources in companies – it’s people. People are complex and sometimes, messy. People aren’t as black and white as numbers on a spreadsheet. Yet as so many organizations and research have touted the value of company culture, it becomes apparent of our need to take a human-centric approach to the way we work and interact with one another. Many workplaces still suffer from the legacy of outdated command-and-control leadership styles and hierarchy and chain-of-command which only served to be more divisive between people. This mentality rarely speaks to specific outcomes beyond tasks and key performance indicators (KPIs). Andy Birchall of Rackspace Technology (2021) wrote that generations of leaders rarely exposed how tasks fit together to create a differentiating service or product. It removes an individual’s own creativity and sometime intelligence to contribute to the overall outcome. In our line of work in contact center and operations, we are consumed by ad hoc requests, emergencies, meetings, conflict, projects, administrative work, coaching, development, hiring, training, quality assurance monitoring, etc. It is easy to get consumed by so many tasks that we adapt by rolling up our sleeves and doing the work so we can check it off and move on to the next thing or else we will miss the deadlines. We soon lose sight of the people and our surroundings. We become nothing more than task masters. Everything becomes a priority and a must-do, your delegation turns into step-by-step instructions and you are not seeing the signs around you. Not seeing how you are impacting people, not seeing how you are creating a poor culture despite your best intentions, not seeing the incredible hidden talent amongst your team(s), and not seeing the answers that lie in front of you.

Before you profess that you are a good leader and do possess the skill of being observant, ask yourself:

⦁ Do I speak more than anyone else in the meeting?
⦁ Do I cut people off when I want to say something?
⦁ Do I forget what the person who is talking, is saying?
⦁ Am I more preoccupied to make sure I get my point across in this meeting?
⦁ Do I find your mind wandering when someone is still speaking to me because I’ve already moved on from the topic?
⦁ Do I find myself giving people short answers or cutting them off because I just don’t have time for this meeting?
⦁ Am I more annoyed at having to be in certain meetings because I have more important things to do?
⦁ Have people jokingly told me that I say things because I like the sound of my own voice?
⦁ Am I dismissive of people’s opinions or ideas because I think it’s wrong or not good?

There are many good articles out there on skills that make a good leader or the value of observing but if you truly want to be good at your craft and learn to be an exceptional leader, start observing people around you, their body language, why they say certain things, what are people NOT telling you, what are you not seeing, and why are you not asking enough questions. I haven’t spent years researching this topic but I have spent years practicing this skill and have found over several decades that I am a far more effective leader (and person) through my observations of people, surroundings, relationships, reactions, emotions, actions and inactions. I take a special interest in people because I find people fascinating! I have also found through the years that it is the people that will make or break your company. So why wouldn’t you want to create a human-centric culture so that you can tap into everyone’s potential? I love it when you take the time to invest in your people, how many times they will surprise you in a good way and even far exceed what you thought they were possible of. Our role as leaders is to bring that out of our people so they can contribute to the company’s evolution and success. On the flip side, what if it doesn’t work out with a person? To me, that situation is also a win because you’ve helped that person realize something about themselves and provide them with other alternatives to think about or do.
Years ago, I worked with a supervisor and he worked hard to become a good supervisor. He was ambitious, had his bachelor’s degree in business and eager to grow. He graciously took feedback and always applied it to better himself. He would read and learn as much as he could about managing people, call center operations, etc. He would reach out to others for help and advice. And over the next few years, he was on of my top supervisors, and he felt that he was ready to be a manager. At the time, I didn’t have any open positions and we were a small and flat company with little upward career opportunities. So, I encouraged him to update his resume and float it out in the market to see how competitive he was given his skill set and experience. Clearly, he caught the attention of many recruiters’ as he had a good number of interviews at varying stages of the hiring process. After a while, he was getting discouraged because he knew people liked him and found his experience to be valuable, but he never got the manager jobs. I sat him down one day and asked him to walk me through his interviews. We role played the interview so I can see how he was responding to questions. At the end of the day, I told this supervisor that it was clear to me that he wanted the manager position for the money. And if that was his ultimate driver, people would see right through that and would not want to hire him. I explained that a big part of the manager role is to care for the people in the department because it is the people that are doing the critical job of serving customers. It is the people who are delivery the outstanding customer experience, not him. He had to develop, motivate, drive and care for his people and ensure that his staff knew that his role was to serve them. In the end, this supervisor realized his gaps and made the brave bold leap to go back to college to pursue another bachelor’s degree and eventually master’s degree in Engineering. He had more of an affinity towards data analysis and reporting than he did with socializing with people. Fast forward to today and he is working for America’s largest military shipbuilding company as their test engineer, shift test engineer, and because he has a management background, they called upon him to manage a team for a special 2+ year project. He is married, happy, successful, and doing something that is much more in alignment with his competencies.
It would have been much easier to let my supervisor figure things out and make mistakes along the way, but it took someone to make certain observations about him that allowed him to see things from a different perspective. And he did what many people don’t do, and that is to first be self-reflective. From there, he changed the course of his career for the better. Observation is not about being judgmental, it is not about good or bad, it is about seeing the world around you, about having situational awareness, and interpreting what it is that others are communicating both verbally and nonverbally (Joe Navarro, writer of ‘Becoming A Great Observer’ on Psychology Today). Next time you’re in a meeting, interacting with others, or conducting a focus group, are you looking but not seeing?