The True Meaning of Care in Business Leadership

Effective business leadership has two essential elements. The first is Care and the second is Growth. Great leaders in business care for their people and give them an opportunity to grow. This is how great business leaders earn commitment and loyalty and keep their people on board.

Of the two however, care is the foundation. It is because you care that you earn the license to push a person to uncomfortable places to facilitate their growth.

What does caring about someone actually mean, particularly in a work context?

The Preconditions of Care in Business Leadership

It is sometimes hard to know how much you care, or how much someone cares for you. We very often interact with leaders who sincerely believe that they care about their people, but are not experienced as caring by their people. At this point it is appropriate to inquire into whether the leader really does care.

Care Starts with Knowing the Person

When answering this question, it is useful to bear in mind that there is a pre-condition for care. Care does not happen in a vacuum. In the first instance, for you to care about someone, genuinely, you have to get to know who that person is. The deeper your understanding of the person, the deeper your care can and will become.

Secondly, those we care the most about are those we know most intimately because we are interested in those we care about. You can tell that a leader cares in the way that they talk about their people. When you care about something, you will be animated and passionate about it.

This gives you a little test you can use. We call it the care test. The care test is a dipstick measure of how much you know about each of your subordinates. You should be sceptical about your own claims to care if you have little to no knowledge of the people you claim to care about.

Care Means Respecting the Person

Of course, just knowing someone well does not imply that you will necessarily care about the person. No matter how well you know a person, you cannot care about them whilst holding a host of negative opinions of the person.

This is not at all uncommon in organisational contexts today. We work with many leadership teams who have damning views of their subordinates. We have heard employees being classified as “lazy”, “inert”, “uncreative”, “unwilling to make a contribution” and many others besides.

These dismissive judgements about employees will undermine the possibility of care. You cannot care for someone if you do not fundamentally recognise and appreciate their value. Put simply, you cannot care for your people as a leader if you do not respect them. This does not mean that you believe them to be perfect. It just means that you are fundamentally affirming of their value and significance, even though they will have their flaws.

Care is About Intent

It is clear that care is concerned with how you treat people. On one level then, care is clearly about your behaviour. It is not just about your behaviour however because care is actually concerned with your fundamental disposition towards people. In this sense care is deeper than your behaviour, it sits in your intent or your deeper motive.

Intent in Business Leadership

We use a hypothetical scenario to demonstrate the point. Assume you have two subordinates, Joe and Fred. Imagine you are very experienced in what you have asked them to do because you did that in 2015. In Joe’s case you say to him “Joe, in 2015 I did what you have to do now and what I did worked. Don’t argue with me, do what I did.” In Fred’s case you say to him “Fred, in 2015 I did what you have to do and what I did worked, it may be helpful to you, take look.”

When asked about the difference between the 2 interactions there are numerous things we could point out. It is true that you are being more democratic and participative with Fred than you are with Joe. It is also true that you have given Fred more freedom.

The heart of the difference however is not behavioural, it is in your intent. Looking at the two interactions, we see that your intent in the Joe case is to get the job done; and Joe is your means to do so. The Fred case is the opposite. If you meant what you said to Fred, you could have a completely different outcome to the one that happened in 2015. In fact, it could also be a worse outcome.

Care and the Intent to Give

Your intent in the Fred interaction is to teach Fred something, and the task is your means to do so. You are willing to take a risk on Fred, for his benefit. Crucially, in the Fred case you are not using the person as the means to get the job done, you are using the job as the means to enable the person.

It is clear then that Joe will experience you as the intended beneficiary of the interaction. Joe will experience you as being there to take something from him. Fred on the other hand will experience himself as the beneficiary. He will experience you as trying to give him something.

Clearly, Joe will feel that you do not care and Fred will feel that you care. We see then that to truly care means to be in the relationship to make a contribution. You will discover this in your own experience. When you consider all those people in your life that you believe care about you, you will find that, in your perception, all of them are willing to suspend their agenda for yours. This is what it means to care. It is also what it means to give and it is the foundation of success in business leadership.

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