The Dollar Value of People

At the beginning of the coronavirus-driven economic shutdown, Wil Reynolds, VP and founder of Seer Interactive in Philadelphia, announced that the company would set aside a $150,000 relief fund. The money is available not to Seer employees, since their earning had not been interrupted, but to their family members who may not be in such resilient industries.

According to Wil, he was complimented by other leaders on his tactical skill in purchasing employee loyalty. However, he says that his intent was far more personal. “Doing this was about wanting to feel good about myself when I put my head on the pillow at night. I knew I had it to give, so I gave. It was never about expecting a reaction outside of a simple thank you,” he shares in a video released on LinkedIn.

He also says that, in general, he expects to be disappointed by people and implies he’d be setting himself up for failure if he looked at the fund in a transactional way. In other words, he didn’t offer the fund expecting a quid pro quo payback. He did it for reasons related to personal integrity and human connection.

While some may see his explanation as disingenuous — and masking hidden motives — I’m inclined to take him at face value. And I can’t help but have two contradictory thoughts when examining his actions.

The first thought is that Wil is accurate in his assessment — that his action will not purchase loyalty. The second thought is that the move will definitely help the company perform better.

To unpack and explain this seeming paradox, let’s turn to the work of some Harvard researchers who did an interesting study a few years ago. In the study, the researchers showed a group of workers a list of classes they might take to improve their careers and asked them to select the ones they were interested in. The researchers then also asked the workers to select courses from the same list that their bosses might take to improve their performance.

Unknown to the study subjects, the courses on the list represented two different kinds of qualities. On the one hand, there were classes on hard skills like learning a new computer program or how to read a balance sheet. These were practical skills that related directly to their capability to do a job. The other set of courses were what are sometimes called soft skills — coaching, active listening, and the like.

The interesting thing is that the workers overwhelmingly chose hard skills for themselves and soft skills for their bosses. In other words, they were missing a feeling of warmth and care from their managers, not nuts and bolts capability.

This emphasis on soft skills points to the nature of something essential in the running of any efficient workplace: trust.

When people in a workplace trust each other — teammates trust teammates and employees trust leadership — things just tend to work better. I could cite studies that show this, but you can likely confirm this for yourself by looking back over the teams you’ve been on during your career.

In my experience, confirmed by data, great teams have leaders that don’t micromanage, but instead trust their people to get the job done.

What the study above, and Wil’s behavior, demonstrates is that when we decide whether or not to trust someone, we are making two different assessments:

  1. Is the person capable

  2. Does the person care

It’s common to assume that the capability part of the equation is the most important one. After all, being able to do your job and deliver on the promises you make is at the heart of effective work. But trust is a more subtle, and largely unconscious, process.

According to the researchers in the study, our brains unconsciously ask if someone cares before we ask if they are capable. The reason is that, historically, trusting someone who is capable but not caring could be an existential threat. Capability is power, and power wielded without care can be dangerous.

A lack of ability (even incompetence) in a coworker or boss is easier to forgive and repair than indifference or malice. I’d much rather have a boss who cares about me as a person than one who knows everything there is to know but sees me as expendable.

The best leaders and workers are in a state of continual learning and growth in capability. And exceptional players continuously lean into the edge of their abilities, so a (temporary) lack of capability is just part of achieving excellence.

What this tells me is that what Wil, and the team at Seer did was demonstrate care in a real, tangible, and specific way. They showed that they understood the situation by extending support to the people their team cares the most about — their families — and did so without strings or expectations.

This clear and tangible demonstration of care will, down the road, generate trust and therefore improve team performance. The paradox is that had it been done with strings attached, it would not have worked.

And of course, not everyone will feel more loyalty or more trust and some who receive this largesse may still disappoint their team by slacking off or jumping ship. However, in the long run, many others will feel an increased sense of trust in the leadership team. And trust, in my experience, is how you create the most valuable team.

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