As a nurse, Elaine was a patient’s dream: Compassionate, funny, resourceful and tough, she had no trouble forging emotional connections with those under her care.
It wasn’t that she didn’t know her protocols; to the contrary, she could easily rattle off the names and recommended dosages of a wide range of medicines. It’s just that she had a heart that set her apart—for better and for worse.
You see, Elaine was an “R.”
Any framework for teaching individualized leadership was still under scaffolding in my mind during the years I worked with Elaine. But our hospice agency, a mid-sized operation situated in a rural outpost of Kansas City, was an ideal perch from which to observe professionals under stress.
I knew a lot about Elaine’s behavior—that she tended to cry easily and vent often, that she complained of feeling misunderstood by her supervisors, that she seemed to hit a wall of fatigue in the afternoon each day.
I knew that Elaine’s leaders judged her a “handful,” but that in fact, after receiving just a little validation and support in response to her venting, she appeared to function just fine. I suspected there could be a connecting strand between Elaine’s profound rapport with her patients and her displays of emotionality in the office. But I hadn’t quite connected those data points yet.
Our administrator had hired me to be a chaplain but knew that I was eager to explore the psychological dimensions of burnout in our line of work. My proposition was that our company’s failure to recognize employees’ emotional needs might be one reason we struggled to keep employees despite the company’s good name.
Over time, I concluded that Elaine wasn’t high-maintenance, emotionally unstable or weak. She was simply relationship-fueled.
Outside of salary and benefits, people come to work for one of four reasons: Relationship, Story, Value or Purpose. (RSVP, should you need the memory tool).
If you, as a leader, are serious about retaining staff, increasing employee satisfaction and being perceived as “the boss who understands,” you’ll learn which of these drives every single one of your employees. But be prepared to put a little work in to get there.
So what was the connection between Elaine’s empathic, genuine care for her patients and her emotional fragility at the office? It had to do with her emotional account.
As an “R,” she was pouring her heart into her work — But that left her with an emotional deficit. She came to the office in tears, after caring for her patients, because spending her emotional capital had left her empty. Instinctively, she sought out coworkers who could bring her account out of the red and back into the black.
Relationship-Fueled employees may feel like a handful for some leaders. But the strengths they bring—emotional accessibility, compassion, and empathy—are almost impossible to teach. Human connection is just the nature of an “R,” and that’s why the communities they serve tend to love them.
Want to bring the best out in these kinds of employees? Don’t isolate them. Keep them engaged in team-oriented activities. Check in with them often, even if just for a two-minute chat.
Perhaps as their leader, you don’t feel comfortable being completely vulnerable with them, but you can at least be personable and real. You might also sign them up for a local course in emotional self-care, as relationship-motivated workers tend to rely a little too much on coworkers to balance their accounts.
But don’t ignore them. Lead them the way they need to be led, not the way you would want to be led. You’ll see your “R” come to work a little happier each day … and you’ll begin to see those “problems” you had with him or her in a whole different light.
Story-Fueled employees are more of a conundrum. The “S” doesn’t come to work out of a sense of calling or destiny, or obligation to coworkers, or even to please the boss. For the “S,” the job is simply the next story in life—the current chapter in a narrative that will, over time, probably include a lot of other employers after you.
Now, that doesn’t mean the “S” isn’t a valuable contributor. Just the opposite: When what is needed is someone to take on a special task, to break from the routine and assume a new mission, to tackle a project outside the typical comfort zone, or to give you the energy and creativity needed to expand that satellite office that just opened, it’s the “S” you’ll want to keep on speed-dial.
Imaginative, bold, restless, easily bored—call them whatever you like, but they fill a space no one else can. And if you aim to keep them satisfied, start by keeping things fresh for them. Shake up the work model from time to time. Encourage them to pursue new certifications, or to become the resident experts in a specific area—the “S” loves a challenge and will rise to it.
Just don’t think you’ll keep this kind of employee forever. Instead, focus on extending his or her limited shelf life. You may not get six years, but if you can get even two, you might get two of the most dynamic years any employee can give.
Ah, the Value-Fueled employee. Dr. Dan Diamond, a crisis management specialist who has attended to thousands of victims of natural disasters, has a favorite question: What is it that keeps you up at night? For the “V,” the answer is easy: it’s the fear of letting down everyone else.
The “V” ruminates constantly on the idea of place—Where do I fit in here? What is it my team needs that only I can bring? What will please my boss the most? Long periods of silence from a supervisor are distressing, and ambivalence from teammates is depressing for this type.
A crisis-oriented leader, who floats from problem to problem and tends to only show up when someone has screwed up, is an abysmal fit for the “V”—this employee wants to feel as if he or she is valued and appreciated, and will absolutely take notice when hard work is being consistently ignored.
The good news? Such a need to be recognized can easily be leveraged. Take your “V” aside, at least once every couple of weeks, to affirm how much you’ve appreciated the hard work you’ve been seeing. When your employee does something truly noteworthy, acknowledge it publicly. Sure, everyone loves the atta-boy, but the “V” needs it.
Don’t be afraid to reward with special titles, even if they have no salary raises attached to them initially. A new title is a win-win when it comes to a “V,” affirming value while also motivating the employee to work up to this elevated standard. Give your value-fueled employee what he or she needs, and you’ll be rewarded with loyalty, with dedication to the brand, and with, potentially, the formation of someone who can help lead others to greatness.
Individualizing leadership to fit a Purpose-Fueled employee is probably something you’ve never considered. Why? Because the “P,” in the workforce as in the alphabet, is often silent.
Being motivated by a sense of purpose—higher calling, destiny, gifting-from-birth-for-this—makes the “P” unlikely to get caught up in the hamster-wheel strivings of other employees. The “P” seldom gripes to others about salary disparities, or the injustice of assignments, or even the bad coffee at the office.
This kind of employee didn’t get into the job for the money, or for fairness, or for perks, but rather to make a difference for others. (If you do hear a “P” complain, chances are, it’s been a long time coming).
It sounds noble enough. But how does the “P” like to be led? For starters, purpose-fueled employees need to know their work matters in a global, missional sense—that the company exists for more than just profit. That lives are being affected in positive ways by the company’s existence. If you’ll let the “P” be your resident Yoda, sharing motivational, focusing words with the team at staff meetings, you’ll reveal a depth there that brings everyone’s focus up a notch.
Talk with the “P” often about the company’s direction, no matter his or her rank—sometimes, the most intuitive and perceptive leaders in the company are actually those who are toiling in quiet obscurity. But one way or the other, listen to the “P” on your team—and save your financial spreadsheets and your lectures about productivity for someone else. This employee will be productive enough without them, as long as you affirm and celebrate that unique perspective that sets him or her apart.
Listen to lead well
In the end, RSVP isn’t a complicated science. It is a way of crystallizing countless hours of behavioral observation so that anyone, including you, can translate that research into success as a leader. The question is, are you willing to put the time in to understand what makes your team members tick? Or are you content to keep replacing them?
At the next job interview, listen well. And at some point, ask the prospective candidate the million-dollar question: “Other than salary or benefits, what about your last job did you look forward to most each day?” Then sit back, mentally categorize the answer using the RSVP model, and consider the individualized way you might lead this candidate as an employee of your company.
Congratulations. It’s a small step—but you are well on your way to being the “boss who understands.”