(Photo by Franckreporter/iStock by Getty Images)

The No. 1  reason that people left their job between 2020 and 2021? Uncaring leaders, according to a McKinsey & Company study.

More than two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, more and more companies are acknowledging that successfully leading a team doesn’t just mean streamlining productivity and keeping people on task. Knowing what your team members are going through, what they’re distracted by, and what makes them tick is all part of being a caring—and effective—leader.

“Managers are the key to growth in companies. They’re the linchpin,” said Steve Arntz, the co-founder and CEO of Campfire, a company that trains managers. “And if you look at the research around manager effectiveness and its role to company growth, they are a linchpin to company growth.”

Arntz’s talk, “The Connection Gap: Redefining Leadership Post-pandemic,” was part of From Day One’s May conference in Washington, D.C. During his talk, Arntz stressed the importance of getting to know the people you’re working with and offering them the same grace you might extend to yourself.

He began by asking the members of the audience to close their eyes and think about three things: What are you feeling? What are you thinking? Who are you? 

He then asked the audience to think about their teams and specifically focus on one person. Then, he instructed them to ask the same questions about them: What are they feeling? What are they thinking? Who are they?

“What are the types of things that might be distracting them? And who are they?” asked Arntz. “Do you know their strengths, their motivators, their drivers, their personalities, their interests, their dreams, their passions, their family situation?”

Steve Arntz, co-founder and CEO of Campfire (Photo by Justin Feltman for From Day One)

Arntz showed the audience a range of 27 emotions that their employees might be feeling, but observed that researchers have identified more than 34,000 distinct emotions they could be feeling. It’s easy to assume that your coworkers and team members are enjoying their work and focusing on only that. But there are plenty of things that they could be feeling in addition to their enjoyment or focus.

Everybody gets distracted at work, whether checking the score of a sports game or getting texts from family members. But there are many distractions that your team members cannot control or expect, which can affect their mental health and work. Examples include the pandemic, war, money, loss, and political conflict. Arntz shared that some of his colleagues with ties to Ukraine found it hard to work in the first days of the Russian invasion and decided to take time off work.

Regarding the question of identity, Arntz shared that it’s important not to lump everyone into the same box. For example, he might naturally assume that every sales team member is extroverted, sociable, and motivated by closing deals. But when he researched the matter, he found surprising results. Of 200 salespeople he spoke with, only 20% said money and rewards were in their top five motivators.

“They were driven by impact, mission, vision, problem-solving, all of these different things,” Arntz said. “And yet we build these pictures of the people we work with. We frame their identity in certain ways. We have stereotypes and all sorts of things we use as crutches to identify who they are.”

Working with different people and acknowledging their strengths can help break the mold and change how your team operates. By working with one of his introverted colleagues, Marinne, to develop Campfire’s brand, Arntz was able to find a new way of doing things in which every voice was heard. Instead of discussing ideas with his colleagues in a meeting room, everyone answered questions in a Google doc regarding their ideas for the brand. After everyone wrote their answers, they typed “=” signs next to the ideas they liked.

“And at the end of this experience, this beautiful brand emerged called Campfire, about connection and community and collaboration and all these things. And this brand emerged from very little speaking,” Arntz shared. “There weren’t stickies. There weren’t whiteboard markers. There weren’t loud extroverts in loud rooms. There was an introverted dialogue between people who were able to all share their voice and opinion in the exact same amount of space and time. And we were able to create something magical and beautiful.”

Hearing every voice is one of the critical parts of being a caring and effective leader. Manager effectiveness can help a company reach its other goals, such as diversity and inclusion and mental health, because an effective leader will prioritize these issues.

“What does the post-pandemic leader look like? Someone who’s inclusive and collaborative, someone who’s connected and caring. It’s a little bit different than the pre-pandemic leader,” said Arntz. “And maybe it should have always been this way, but the pandemic has given us an opportunity to rethink our definition of leadership.”

Prioritizing connection and collaboration can mean using a Google doc like Marinne’s to evaluate everyone's ideas, having one-on-one meetings on walks outside, or finding an online game for the team to play together on a Wednesday afternoon.

Most importantly, effective managers help their team members feel seen. They acknowledge what they’re thinking and feeling and who they are. It can be as simple as reaching out and asking, “How are you?,” a gesture Arntz said brought him closer with a friend 2,000 miles away and helped him work through his feelings at the time. On the spectrum between “quitting” and “winning,” Arntz said, he sat more toward the former than the latter. After the call, he felt like he had moved in the other direction.

“Everyone we work with is somewhere on this continuum,” Arntz said, “and there’s no way we can know where they sit unless we reach out and connect.”

Editor’s note: From Day One thanks Campfire, the sponsor of this Thought Leadership Spotlight.

Erika Riley is a Maryland-based freelance writer.