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An Unconventional Gift


I think it’s fair to say that most managers like to do good things for the people who work for them, to make them feel more appreciated, productive and fulfilled. Unfortunately, many of them don’t seem to know what their employees really want or need, and so they end up relying on the same traditional things: training classes, monetary bonuses, small office perks.

Now, employees aren’t going to turn down a bonus or a perk, and in many cases, they’ll be glad to attend a training class, but those things don’t have the transformational effect on people that managers would like. And because they cost real money, they’re not always available for managers to use, especially during difficult times.

I have an idea about how a manager can meaningfully impact an employee’s sense of esteem, enthusiasm and importance. It is completely free, and turns out to be almost as beneficial for managers as it is for the people who work for them. But it’s a little counter-intuitive. Let me explain.

Instead of doing something for the people who work for you, find a way to let them do something for you. I told you it was counter-intuitive. But it actually makes sense, and isn’t at all selfish.

See, when I was in college I took a course in social psychology and learned that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the best way to endear yourself to someone is not to offer to do something for them, but rather to ask them to do something for you. The underlying logic is that people actually feel better about themselves and about someone else when they are in the position of being a helper, rather than a helpee. That’s because helpers receive a sense of contribution and confidence, while helpees often feel dependent and in debt to someone. As my professor explained to me, if you want a girl to like you, don’t ask her if she wants help with her homework, ask her to help you with yours. Who would have thought?

I realize that this might sound manipulative, and indeed, if used insincerely, it can be. But with the right intentions, with a genuine interest in helping employees grow in confidence and self-esteem, it can be transformational.

Here’s how it might work. Sit down and think about each of the people who work for you. Identify something about them that you admire, that you genuinely believe they do better than you. That shouldn’t be hard, because every employee has skills or talents that exceed those of their bosses.

Once you’ve identified those skills or talents, take a moment to tell each employee why you admire them. If you mean it–and that is absolutely essential–it will blow them away. Be sure to be specific about what you admire about them and state the fact you would like to learn from them. It doesn’t have to be right then, and it doesn’t have to come in one fell swoop. Over time, you’d like them to coach you in that area.

Here is my own example, using three of the people who work for me. One of my staff members is much more gracious and empathic than I am. She doesn’t jump to conclusions about others as quickly as most people do–including me–and she tends to understand where people are coming from. I love that, and really wish I were more that way. I’ve told her that, and I let her know that I’m trying to be more like her in that way.

Another of my staff members is very steady and disciplined about how he plans for the future and manages money for his family. I want to learn from him. I’ve asked him to help me, sometimes in very tangible ways, do the same for my family.

Finally, another staff member who is quite a bit younger than me, is very involved in charitable activities in a way that I greatly admire. In addition to expressing our admiration for her, my wife and I have taken an interest in her missionary activities and asked her to help us get involved and teach our children about what she’s doing.

I am convinced that I have built much stronger relationships with each of these people, and contributed to their sense of confidence and importance, by genuinely expressing my admiration for them and asking for their assistance. All that I have done is acknowledged–and rightly so–their superiority to me in various, important areas, and made myself vulnerable to them. This has not diminished my authority as their leader at work, but rather made it abundantly clear that they have as much to offer me as I do them, in spite of the hierarchy at work.

Now, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this is sometimes difficult for me, and probably for any manager, to do this. There are times when I don’t want to acknowledge another person’s superiority, and I know that, in my weaker moments, I’ve downplayed the talents of others out of pride. But overcoming that pride, and allowing my staff members to shine, is something that is good and right and liberating, and it will probably have a more lasting impact than any bonus, perk or training class ever could.

During this Christmas season, as you remember Jesus’ teaching that “it is better to give than to receive,” think about letting your people give you something. What you’ll be giving them is the gift of admiration and importance. Of course, you might want to buy them something too so they don’t just think you’re being cheap.