Connecting with Your Most Junior Members

By: Josh

How many levels of management exist between you and the most junior members at the baseline of your organizational chart? For me, it’s five right now. That’s five echelons of subordinate leaders between me and the people who ultimately carry out our organization’s mission every day. That’s five echelons that information, guidance, and perspective need to flow through to get from me to them. That’s five echelons that problems or concerns need to pass to get up to me. With so many gates that things need to move through in this structure, it’s easy to see that many likely die on the vine before they make it all the way up or down.

Information flow is not the only challenge here, though. Connection is too. I’ve unfortunately found how easy it can be to get disconnected with the most junior members of my organization when serving in echelons removed from them. In a normal day of going about my standard work routine and duties, it’s easy to hardly see or interact with junior people. Unconsciously, days of not engaging with them can turn into weeks. If left unattended, this absence can turn into disconnect. The disconnect into a lack of engagement. A lack of engagement into estrangement. Estrangement then ultimately becomes a lack of trust and care.

Without even noticing it, leaders in the upper end of an organizational chart can become disconnected from and even estranged to the ones that carry out the mission – the ones that really form the heart of the organization. Leaders up the food chain become seen as “them,” mistrust flows down, invisible barriers begin to grow between hierarchies, and resentment festers.

Of course, it’s a problem, and one that leaders need to be conscious of and attend to. I really align to author John Maxwell’s idea that people buy into the leader before they buy into the vision. People need to trust their leaders before they are willing to commit their time, energy, resources, and care into an organizational mission. Former US Marine General and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis stated in his book, Call Sign Chaos, “If you can’t talk freely with the most junior members of your organization, then you’ve lost touch.”

Bottom line, as leaders we must intentionally find routine ways to remain engaged with and connected to the most junior members in our organization.

But there are some mental barriers we must overcome first.

Two Forms of Leader Disconnect: Can’t and Won’t

I find that leaders who become disconnected with their junior members tend to fall into one of two categories – they can’t or won’t connect with others. Those that can’t connect struggle to relate to others due to perceived differences, might it be age, race, gender, experience level, position, separated department, or simply just organizational perspective. They feel uncomfortable, estranged, and unable to relate to this other group in the organization that is merely different from them. It’s not that they are unwilling to, they feel paralyzed to.

Leaders who won’t, on the other hand, are generally unempathetic to junior perspectives. They see these junior members’ viewpoints as invalid, maybe even illegitimate. This type of disconnection is more problematic, growing from problems with the leader’s assumptions and socialization. It’s easy to judge, discredit, and ignore what we don’t understand…and what don’t care to try to understand. This type of disconnection is founded in a lack of respect.

So, do we fall into one of these categories of disconnection, even if unintentionally? It’s important to recognize and acknowledge this first. Through some honest introspection and feedback from others, we should determine what feeds our fear or disinterest in connecting with our junior members and why. This may be a first necessary step in identifying some counterproductive biases and blind spots that reside in us.

But say we do acknowledge a disconnect from the most junior members in our organization, a group that may be very different from us. Say we do want to do something about it too. What can we do?

3 Habits to Connect

How can we make an authentic but manageable effort to connect with our junior people? How can we do so without making it overly burdensome or pulling us too far out of our comfort zone? Here are three simple habits that leaders can easily begin today to better connect with our most junior members.

First, meet them where they are at. Good leaders go where their people are; they are present. We should create deliberate touchpoints with our people. The key word here is create; we are not victims of our schedules nor do we leave leader presence to chance. Be intentional in creating opportunities to interact with others. These can occur in formally scheduled setting like meetings, sit-downs, or collaboration sessions. It can also be during informal opportunities like spending some time to wander around the floor of the office or down in a warehouse with no real agenda.

If you’re in the can’t or won’t categories discussed above, schedule these windows on your calendar to improve predictability and accountability. It’s more likely to occur if it’s on the calendar.

Meeting our junior members where they are at can also mean showing up in the spaces relevant to them. This can include digital spaces like social media, which is a great opportunity to not only be present but use as a messaging platform as well.

Bottom line, go to them. Don’t wait for them to come to us or wait for some opportunity to appear out of thin air. Create opportunities to meet them where they are at.

Second, listen to understand. Connecting with our junior members is less about talking to or at them, and more about listening to them. Simply spending time with them, asking questions about their life and about work, and actually listening to what they have to say will do much more than anything we would actually say or do. Remember what mom said growing up – no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.

When walking through the workplace, never pass by a junior member without acknowledging them. If we have the ability to pause even just for a few seconds to interact with them, do it. It’s an opportunity to add value. Ask them about themselves, their family, their life, hobbies, and upbringing. Ask them about their views on the organization, what’s important to them, and about the most pressing challenges in their work where they need help.

Asking and making the effort to actually listen leads our junior members to feel seen, heard, and valued. Moreover, it brings new and important perspectives of our organization into the light. It helps us gain a fuller, more accurate pulse of our organization.

I once had the opportunity to observe a senior leader, the CEO of a 20,000-person organization, spend some time with the most junior members of that organization. There was a difference of about 30 years in age and work experience between this CEO and the junior people. During this session, the CEO cared most about allocating time for questions from the group. He encouraged them to ask about anything on their minds because he genuinely cared about what mattered to them. What stood out most to me was that the CEO would write down every question asked and the main topics of the discussions initiated by these junior members. He reasoned that these people are the next generation of leaders in the organization and he valued what was relevant to them. I think we can all make a little more effort to be genuinely concerned about the things that matter to our junior people. They are not small, irrelevant issues. What may seem to be molehills from our perspective may very well be mountains to them. We can all likely listen and care more as leaders.

Third, communicate perspective…but do so with care. Think about the map app that you use on your phone; it’s a great way to understand perspective. The most junior members in our organization have a baseline view of things. They can only see the street they operate on, but they know all the details of that street. Their manager, however, has a slightly zoomed out view and can see what’s occurring across the multiple streets that make up the neighborhood. Their manager, then, zooms out more and can see across multiple neighborhoods that make up the suburbs of the city. Their manager sees the whole city and their manager sees the region with several cities within it. You get the point.

This imagery reminds us though, that when connecting with our junior members, we can help them better see, understand, and appreciate the bigger picture of what’s going on around them. We help them know what’s going on in their environment beyond their limited view of the street. Our junior members don’t easily have awareness of what’s going on echelons above them. By optimistically and empathetically communicating those higher-level perspectives, we help our people better understand circumstances, reasons behind decisions, and why things are the way they currently are.

However, we must remember the “…with care” part of communicating perspective with care. I caution leaders to approach this habit to connect with junior members thoughtfully and with grace. We cannot ruin these opportunities to communicate perspective by speaking arrogantly, talking down to our people, or belittling them. We can’t skip the second habit (listening) just to create more time and space to talk more to them. There is a reason I offer the habit of listening before this one. Seek first to understand others by listening. Then seek to be understood by communicating perspective.

Use language, references, and examples they can relate to. Don’t use jargon they likely don’t know. Recall Mattis’s quote above. Our goal in communicating perspective is to help fill gaps in our peoples’ understanding to encourage them to be more informed. By being more informed, they are likely to become more committed to owning their piece of the organizational puzzle. Communicate with care.

A Final Reminder

We are all humans who have unconditional worth regardless of rank, position, or performance. No matter the difference in echelon between our organization’s most junior members and us, one human is not ultimately better than another.

As leaders, we care about, pour into, and lead people. Treat everyone with dignity and respect, period. Commit to habits that keep us connected with our junior members. By doing so, I am always encouraged by the energy, fresh perspective, and value they bring to our organization and me. I’m confident this will be true for you as well.

Are there certain biases or assumptions that serve as obstacles to connecting with your junior people? What are you concerned about in doing so? What’s holding you back?

Can you identify one opportunity this week to step out of your normal routine and workspace to spend some time with the junior people in your organization? Even 10 or 15 minutes can be impactful.

When you do seize an opportunity, consider spending more time asking questions and listening to others than you do speaking. Challenge yourself to delay the desire to transition the conversation to share what’s on your mind. Commit just a few more minutes asking and listening than you normally would before you transition.

Enjoy some time with your junior members this week. I promise it will energize you and fill your cup.

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