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Why “I love you” and “I need help” Are the Two Most Important Phrases for Leaders

I love you on wooden tiles
Many businesses today are getting by financially, but when employees or teams are asked about their company culture—and whether or not people are excited to come to work and eager to help the business grow—just “getting by” won’t cut it. Recent engagement scores show that only 33% of employees feel engaged in their work and with their company. Unfortunately, and evidently, not all companies or leaders prioritize culture-building and employee engagement, which can come at a cost. What many leaders and managers fail to realize is that organizational success isn’t just in the revenue; it’s in the people.  I’ve seen that when you ignite people inside, when you show them that you care about their success just as much as your own, their innovative thinking and willingness to go the extra mile jump tenfold. But what does it take to move an employee from compliant to committed? Until people feel heard, valued, and accepted, they will not bring their full selves to work. This requires safety, and safety in the workplace requires trust and vulnerability. When people aren’t afraid to speak up or share what’s on their minds, there’s more room for increased communication, creativity, and innovation. Your company has the potential to be even more successful when your teams are engaged and excited. The two of the most powerful phrases I’ve found to help with fostering greater communication and engagement? “I love you,” and “I need help.”

The importance of belonging, shared values, and commitment

All important relationships, professional or personal, must begin first with belonging. Whether it’s being part of a culture, organization, or relationship where we feel accepted for who we really are, having a sense of belonging is the foundation, the roots we need to become our best selves. Early on in my career, the company I worked for asked if I would move halfway across the country for a job. At the time, I was dating my then-girlfriend, who became my fiancée shortly after discussing the job offer I’d received. Despite being nervous about my new job, and not knowing a single person there, I knew that I had the most solid “rock” I could ask for in her. She was, and still is, my biggest supporter. Having my wife’s support gave me the confidence I needed to move across the country, enter my new workplace with the courage to seek out mentors and colleagues who would support me, and start cultivating my personal trust community—although I didn’t call it that at the time. It taught me that having a base of love, safety, trust, and belonging can give us the confidence needed to make big decisions that will allow us to grow. Marrying my wife, who’s totally different than I am in some ways, also showed me that we don’t need to have identical personalities or interests to build strong relationships. Rather, our values—in our case, commitment, trust, and respect—are what sustain us. We’re both willing to embrace discomfort and lean on each other during tough times because we know we share the same values. This alignment of values that applies to love can apply easily to workplace settings, too. As leaders, it’s important to ask ourselves: What are my most important values? Do the people in my life, personal or work-related, share these values, too? Are the choices I make for my company and its employees supporting the values that I care about? Finally, loving people, and building a successful company culture, requires both commitment and compromise. When I asked my wife to move with me, I realized that decision would have a big impact on her, so I needed to show her I was willing to prioritize our family and commit to her. Business relationships also require this kind of thought and effort. Companies often demand that their employees remain loyal and committed to the business, sometimes asking employees to put business needs before personal matters. But first, we as leaders need to demonstrate to our employees and teams that we appreciate their efforts. We have to show the people we work with that we value the compromises and commitments they’ve made—and also follow through on the promises we’ve made to them.

“I love you” is more powerful than anything else

Even after achieving “success” in their work, some leaders I’ve met have told me that it’s their relationshipsnot their businessesthat are the true markers of success they measure themselves against.  In April 2021, I spent five days with around 50 former CEOs as a Vistage Chair. When we finished our retreat, everyone shared a gift they walked away with. One CEO, who I’ll call Alex, achieved great success in his career, having launched and sold two businesses. But deep down, he felt unsuccessful. His biggest failure was not prioritizing his children who are now grown up. At the end of the week, Alex shared with us that he finally reached out to his kids, and they were so happy he wanted to connect on an emotional level with them. Ultimately, being able to tell his kids that he loved him was the final frontier he needed to cross in order to look back on his life with pride.

Vulnerability and asking for help

Love can show us that we belong, what we value, and who we want to be as people. But love also requires vulnerability and a willingness to ask for help. Asking for help is a sign of vulnerability and a willingness to be seen in our strengths and our flaws. Another CEO I recently worked with, who I’ll call Sally, shared that she has no problem expressing love, but she’s never asked for help in her life—at least not out loud—because, in her words, it would be “risky” to do. As an ultra-successful leader at her company, Sally always felt like she needed to be the best—to be perfect—and couldn’t let others down. Her identity had often been centered on being able to “just get things done.” Sound familiar? Leaders equate asking for help as a sign of weakness when, in fact, asking for help is a sign of strong leadership capabilities and good judgement. Leaders aren’t leaders because they have all the answers; they’re leaders because they’re willing to look honestly at their strengths and the areas in which they could improve—while doing the work it takes to fill in the gaps between the two.

Great leadership is defined by having the safety to “fail”

Think about the people in your life who you aren’t afraid to ask for help from. Who are they? Often, those people are our closest friends and confidantes, people who we know love us and want to see us grow. But in the workplace, it can be hard to find those people. When I first joined a new organization a few years ago, an incredible colleague of mine shared an insight that I’ll never forget. He admitted he didn’t push himself further at the company because he was afraid to ask for help. Even after over 10 years of working for the company, he never quite felt safe enough “to fail.” What I realized was that he was missing a fundamental component in his workplace relationships: trust. So, I asked him to experiment with executing a direct business channel strategy. I challenged him to rise up to meet the demands of the business, while simultaneously letting him know that it’s okay to make mistakes. I wanted him to ask for help—and even fail—because that’s how we can learn and envision a better future for the company. I connected him with leaders of other channels and business divisions in the company so that he could hear their viewpoints and perspectives, and discuss trends taking place in the marketplace as a whole. I wanted him to know that he wasn’t alone and that we could lean on each other as colleagues, rather than competitors. Because of this, he was empowered to push the business unit leaders for products that would move the needle and looked for outside-of-the-box opportunities to secure additional revenue—and it worked. As a result, he went on to have the most successful sales year of his career! Years later, he said to me, “Mike, you were the first executive who made me think not about where the business is today, but where it could be if I had the tools necessary to build as I wanted. I finally felt I had a voice in the organization.” His story is an example that we simply don’t grow alone. We grow with others.  By creating a container for trust and safety in my relationship with him, and giving him the space to make mistakes, he didn’t fail at all—he actually helped the business to succeed. 

Don’t underperform your potential as a business

Your people are your greatest strength as an organization. Without them, there would be no company at all. When we don’t prioritize making our employees feel respected, trusted, and heard in the workplace, the business will underperform its potential. Just as in our personal relationships, having a secure foundation of belonging and trust in the workplace gives us the courage, confidence, and energy we need to be successful. Remembering our values as organizations and leaders helps us make decisions that are best for both our organizations and the people that make up our teams. And as we create workplace cultures where people aren’t afraid to fail—where they’re encouraged to make mistakes—we build strong companies that can withstand challenges and change, as we build upon our successes together.  Creating environments where our employees feel supported takes time and commitment, but it’s possible. If you’d like to learn more about how we can work together, you can reach out to me here.

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