Trust and loyalty are built one person at a time, one encounter at a time. I write this essay sitting on the deck of a rented condo watching the remains of Tropical Storm Bonnie send surf onto the North Carolina outer banks.

The other day, when the weather was better, I was walking on the beach and noticed a small boy, about four years old, who stopped playing in the surf and crawled up on his mom’s lap. Mom put her right arm around the boy and turned her complete attention to the smart phone in her left hand.

I described this scene to my wife who related a similar story. She had been in a local store and saw a small boy riding in a shopping cart being pushed by his Mom with her right hand while working her phone with her left. “I want to go home,” the boy said. No response from mom. “I want to go home,” said the boy again, “And you’re still on your phone.”

As I thought about these two encounters, advice about building loyalty and trust came to mind. As a business leader there are four things you can do that will help you have productive and meaningful one-on-one encounters.

1. Be present

Forgive that California-ish “new ageism” but there is an important point here. You may be an executive encountering a subordinate. Close your laptop. Put your phone away. And pay attention to the person in front of you. Remember, regardless of what the other person is saying, like all of us, this person wants to be simply acknowledged as an individual of value.

2. Be polite

I’ve written before that simple courtesy is the foundation for a relationship. As you begin an encounter, use the person’s name, if you know it. If you don’t, introduce yourself and ask for his or her name. As you close an encounter say thank you. It reinforces that you have acknowledged the individual and it will create a bridge to later encounters.

3. Be an active listener

As you listen, be conscious of how you are responding to the other person. Are you looking at the individual or are you looking away? Are you looking down your nose over reading glasses? Are you asking relevant questions? Repeat or re-phrase a point that might be important to the other person.

4. Understand yourself

When we communicate our actual words, tone and body language combine to shape the entire message. Remembering this is especially important for business leaders and executives. If you fall into this category your words, tone and body language will be parsed for meaning. Learn about how your communications impact on others.

The late Stephen Covey wrote one of the most important business books in recent decades: Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey’s fifth “habit” is phrased this way: “Seek first to understand. Then to be understood.” Too often when we appear to be listening we are really just gazing at a mental blue sky formulating a response or some killer point that we hope to score. Think about the ripple effect of a person who, after a one-on-one encounter with you, tells other people “You know, I had one minute with the boss out in the hall and she really listened. I think she really understood me!”

• • • • •

A few years ago I was the human resources consultant to the IT department of a major multi-national. The department management team had a habit of bringing their laptops to leadership committee meetings and working on them when their attention wandered from a topic.

One day, as I was presenting, I noticed that most people were doing exactly that. I felt rotten and undervalued, as I imagine one or both of the four year olds I mentioned might have felt.

I didn’t crawl onto to someone’s lap or call my mom. I stopped talking and sat down. As the silence built,  people turned towards me and I carried on. The senior member of the leadership team, who later became a very good friend, said, “OK. We get the message. Let’s do presenters the courtesy of paying attention and listening.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Martin Birt is the president of HRaskme.comAfter serving seven years in the Canadian Army as a combat arms officer, he has enjoyed a thirty-five year career as a human resources manager, consultant and sought-after adviser to business executives. He can be contacted here.


Do you agree? What else can leaders do to make the most of their conversations? Let us know by commenting below.

Loading comments, please wait.