Thinking back on life in a dormitory can prompt a wide variety of memories for most of us. Norwich University sophomore Derek Furtado had an unsettling experience that he’ll never forget.
When he was shaving after a shower and wrapped in a towel, Furtado looked to his left. The man standing next to him was in uniform—and was a colonel, no less. If that wasn’t enough formality, Furtado’s new hallmate turned out to be the university president.
Colonel Mark Anarumo is the president of this private military college, and he became concerned when he learned that quarantining his students during the coronavirus pandemic was having an adverse effect on them.
What’s a university president to do? Move into the dormitory, naturally.
While vaccines roll out and a waning pandemic is in sight, other trends are surfacing in their places. One is the effect the last year has had on our well-being. While some college students went home, others were confined to their rooms, which cut them off from healthy distractions like friends and exercise. These students suffered from isolation, and some responded in self-destructive ways.
Working adults are experiencing similar mental strain to the extent that leaders must front-burner employee mental health alongside performance objectives they traditionally emphasized. Learn to Live CEO Dale Cook says providing mental health resources is quickly becoming a must-have versus a nice-to-have service. “Coming out of COVID-19, employer-sponsored mental programs will be the new norm,” adds Cook.
Anarumo’s decisive move into the dorms and his efforts to actively listen to his student experiences are precisely what’s called for in today’s organizational climate. Assumptions won’t do the trick. Leaders need to perk their ears to what’s going on in the field. And with the prevalence of remote working, the field takes on a whole new meaning.
What can you do to put the act in active listening?
Make a Move
Not all of us have the opportunity that president Anarumo does, but his example makes a powerful point. Think about ways you can meet your employees or clients where they are so you can observe them in their element and experience what they encounter every day. I’m reminded of a helpful practice that I’ve appreciated while serving on a board this year. The night before each board meeting began, we used to have dinner with various frontline employees to assess both challenges and opportunities throughout the organization.
This was a unique chance to hear an unvarnished rather than a removed perspective on the inner workings of the company. Now we hold these “dinners” or evening chats via Zoom with a glass of wine in hand. This virtual environment enables us to reach more people worldwide than we could have at a formal dinner.
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Involve human resources
If you don’t already, make sure human resources (HR) has a voice in all of your top-level meetings—especially now. Ask them to report regularly on the tenor of employee morale and other relevant insights. They know what kinds of claims are accumulating, what benefits are requested, and what services may be lacking. HR professionals also can make suggestions about new online benefits that have surfaced as a result of the pandemic.
Take a dive
What can you implement in your schedule that allows you to dive deeper into the work lives of your employees? In our remote-working world, what can replace walking the halls and stirring up impromptu conversations with employees? Connection Culture author Michael Lee Stallard encourages leaders to take the first step on getting to know one other better. When you’ve created a connection with your team, it’s easier to address the more sensitive work issues.
For instance, Stallard highlights the “Share One Good Thing” exercise the team at Institute for Health Improvement started. In their all-hands meeting on Monday mornings, everyone shares one good thing, which typically turns into something positive that happened over the weekend—from trivial to significant, everything counts. This has had a positive effect on employee well-being, rapport, and meeting energy, so people are more likely to share when it really matters.
Each one of these strategies revolves around actively listening. We can’t wait for important conversations to happen in our presence. If we’re to have a positive influence on others, we need to seek people out where they are and build trustworthy relationships by lending our ears and closing our mouths. Let’s all take a page out of Colonel Anarumo’s book. Don’t worry, you can still sleep in your own bed tonight.