Learning & Development

3 Ways to Create a Place Where People Want to Work

My definition of leader is broad. A leader is any person in the position to influence others—bosses, teachers, coaches, parents, pastors, and more. In my book Breadcrumb Legacy: How Great Leaders Live a Life Worth Remembering, I concluded that leadership is not a title—not a position—but a relationship. I also concluded that leadership development is actually personal development. Learning how to develop strong and authentic personal relationships is the key to being an HR leader others want to follow.


Be the Leader Others Want to Follow

As organizational behavioral architects, leaders need to focus on facilitating the process of people getting to know one another because it is difficult to trust someone you don’t know. And it starts with letting people know the leader: What do you stand for and believe in? As Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner state in A Leader’s Legacy, “People always want to know something about the person doing the leading before they’re going to become the people doing the following.”

What kind of leader are you? Who are your role models?

For thirty years, I taught business management and leadership at a small, private liberal arts college. During this time, Jack Welch was the CEO of General Electric (1981-2001) and a role model for leaders–lauded on the covers of business magazines. “Command and control” was his dominate style.

But times have changed and the pandemic accelerated change. The pandemic was the perfect storm for a shift in how we need to lead. One significant silver lining is how employees have been empowered to voice how they want to be treated in order to be most productive and satisfied. Leaders have had a wake-up call about how to behave which is an anti-Jack Welch style.

Employees have been empowered and are often in the “driver’s seat” which was reflected in the “Great Resignation.” Skills that were considered “soft skills” were called feminine leadership skills during the Welch era. Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence reinforced the value of relationship or emotional quotient (EQ) skills and how these were the essential skills to be an effective leader. His work stressed how EQ could be learned and improved while IQ was innate.

It is important to take the mystery out of the leader. It is easy to think leaders need to have the answers and that vulnerability is a weakness. But being vulnerable is really a strength. Leaders don’t have to have all of the answers. Sometimes saying, “I don’t know, but I will find the answer,” is the best answer possible. If you want people to learn from mistakes, they need to know the leader is not always perfect.

Compassion and empathy. Listening and forgiveness. There is nothing soft about these skills and these are the skills needed to build community.

Build Community

A healthy corporate culture is the “glue” that holds the organization together. In its absence, the organization can fall apart. Culture can also be viewed as the “invisible tapestry” that weaves people together. When “threads” are broken, employees feel disconnected.

While it is easy to talk about building community, it takes an investment of time, energy, and an allocation of some dollars to make it happen. Here are some ideas to get started:

·       Community activities: Plan events that bring people together in a community. Examples could be bowling or square dancing—any activity that does not require talent. Everyone can participate and join in the fun. These events bring people together and facilitate getting to know different sides of people.

·       Storytelling: Start and end meetings with stories. Start each meeting with a story “check-in.” Ask people to spend one to two minutes sharing a personal story. Leave it open and flexible so people feel comfortable sharing. At the end of the meeting, close with a “check-out” such as: What did you learn? What are you personally taking out of this meeting?

·       One-on-one meetings: Identify someone you want to get to know better. If you know the person, you might want to get to know him or her on a deeper level. Invite this person out for coffee. Explain there is no agenda other than to get to know each other better. Then start asking questions about topics that are nonthreatening— interests, hobbies, activities.

·       Ask questions: Relationships form when we know each other. A great way to get to know people and to start conversations is to ask questions. A good place to start is with someone’s office space. People decorate their space with artifacts, photographs, and mementos that are important to them. Each item can cue up a question and conversation. Be interested in others—and asking questions is a good way to show interest.

·       Listen: Stop talking and start listening. Paying attention is a way to show respect for others, a sense of curiosity, and even humility. Sometimes we don’t have to have the answers or to offer advice. We just need to listen.

It is easy for leaders to forget the power of culture, relationships, and community. Leaders need to create spaces where people want to work and creating trust is the foundation.

Create Trust

Similar to how a house needs to sit on a strong foundation, community is built on creating trust. In his HBR article (May-June 2022), Marcus Buckingham states: Participants were asked “…if they trusted their teammates, their team leader, and their senior leaders. Those who strongly agreed that they trusted people in two of the three categories were three times as likely as others to be fully engaged and highly resilient. Those who strongly agreed that they trusted all three were 15 times as likely to be fully engaged and 42 times as likely to be highly resilient.”

How do you build teams of trust? Since leadership is a relationship, trust is reciprocal. If you trust, then you are more likely to be trusted. We also tend to trust people we know. This underscores why it’s important for HR leaders to take the time to get to know people.

To many Type A leaders, spending time to help your team members get to know each other can often seem like a waste of time. But it is the investment of time that pays dividends. For most adults, it is hard to get out of our comfort zones.

One way this can be done is through “ice breakers” at the start of each meeting. This helps set a positive tone while sharing some personal, yet innocuous information. It can be as simple as asking a question and limiting the response to only one word or one sentence such as:

·      Where do you want to travel next?

·      What is your favorite day of the week?

·      How was your weekend? Great, Good, OK, Bad.

Buckingham feels leaders should “check-in” with teammates rather than “check-on” them. He says the point of the relationship is “to make the person bigger, not better by fixing them.” Checking-in is not about giving feedback, advice, or evaluating the person. It is about paying attention and making them feel “seen.”

The best way to do this is by asking open-ended questions:

·      What’s working?

·      What’s not working?

·      How can I support you?

·      How can I best help?


To create a place where people want to work, start by examining yourself. Do you clear obstacles or could you be an obstacle? How effective are your soft skills? Do you allocate time to get to know your employees well enough so that you trust them and they trust you? Is building community a high priority?

I often have leaders ask themselves: “Would you follow yourself?”

Jann E. Freed, Ph.D., is a leadership development coach and speaker, as well as the author of “Breadcrumb Legacy: How Great Leaders Live a Life Worth Remembering” (Routledge). You can learn more about Jann at https://jannfreed.com and more about Breadcrumb Legacy at https://amz.run/6Bbz.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *