Leaders: Your Team Is Your Customer

Three steps for ensuring that your team members are engaged and fully effective 'meaningful partners' at work.

Wegmans Food Markets, headquartered in Rochester, New York, has lived by its slogan for decades: Employees first, customers second. This value statement, expressed often by the late founder, is on most employee business cards and company materials. Many stores even have it as a plaque inside the main door.

What makes this inside-out value statement so important? Because Wegmans is almost always in the top 10 list of “Best Companies to Work For.” The company knows that if it treats its employees with respect and value the work they do, the employees will treat the customers well.

Team leaders actually are most responsible for enforcing this culture. Based on decades of research, it turns out that the team leader-team member relationship significantly impacts almost everything essential to being a high success organization. When leaders, at any level, put their team first, team members stay longer, put in extra effort, and take better care of their own customers. To put it succinctly: Your team is your primary customer.

This concept isn’t groundbreaking. In fact, many early 20th Century theorists and practitioners, including classics like Mary Parker Follett and Kurt Lewin, discussed the importance of creating and maintaining positive reciprocal relationships at work. What this means is that you value your team’s effort. You respect their contributions. And, you appreciate their good work.

But we still see too many organizations ignoring this sage advice. Instead of treating their people with respect, some team leaders bully them. Instead of empowering team members to make decisions that are relevant to their job, they micromanage them. Instead of developing their team members, they work to keep them stifled. And the absolute worst team leader offense: Instead of giving their team credit for their successes and taking personal blame for any failure, they take the team’s credit for any successes and blame team members for failures.

How many employees have worked for a boss who behaved this way? Possibly everyone who has put in any time at a workplace.

If you want your team members to be meaningful partners at work, and make sure they’re engaged and fully effective, then you, as a manager or team leader, have to make sure you’re treating your team like it’s your primary customer. But it helps if leaders and team members have a process that treats them as equal partners in creating, maintaining and continuously improving their professional relationship.

Here are three tips for creating a process to accomplish this on your team:

1. Solicit and accept feedback regularly. “If you’re unwilling to solicit and accept feedback from others, then you don’t have the right to give it,” according to Seth Silver, my co-author on Meaningful Partnership at Work. As a leader, you must be open to and willing to accept comments about your leadership from those who are most affected by it—your team. Prepare yourself to not only give feedback, but also to receive it. The only way you can improve as a team leader is to listen to the feedback you’re getting and make improvements based on it.

2. Consider conducting a Workplace Covenant. This is a process that enables team leaders and teams to discuss their expectations of one another and obligations to one another in a structured and psychologically safe way. In brief, a leader lists their obligations to their team as well as their expectations of their team. The team separately lists their obligations to and expectations of their leader. Then, a facilitator works to merge the team’s expectations of the leader onto the leader’s list of obligations. Similarly, the facilitator works to merge the leader’s expectations of the team onto the team’s list of obligations. Following the merger, the leader and team sign their lists of obligations and then revisit those lists, formally and informally, on an ongoing and regular basis. For more detail about creating a Workplace Covenant, click here.

3. Work towards a culture of ongoing positive recognition. Make sure that your team members know that you appreciate them by making sure that positive feedback is ongoing and not just annually or even monthly. Each time you recognize good work, you put deposits in the “trust bank account.” And, this helps to improve empathy, respect, trust, alignment and partnership between you and your team. For example, if I’m working to build trust with a member of my team, I might point out several times in a week what that team member is doing well on a project. Each time I recognize an achievement, it makes a small deposit into the trust bank account with that member. On the other hand, imagine that I’m at a meeting with the team. In the meeting, I unintentionally (yet publicly) belittle that team member for not getting one thing done. That unfortunate mistake would likely remove all of the deposits that I made—and then some.

CEOs, the time is now to show how you value, respect and appreciate your team, because your team is your primary customer.