Small things make the biggest difference

Gary Bradt

Samuel was ready to pull his hair out. Transferred from corporate to a struggling out-of-state plant, he had done everything he knew to establish trust and build credibility, but nothing had seemed to work. Nine months in, he still sensed suspicion and guardedness whenever he walked the shop floor, and business results were lagging. Finally, he turned to a trusted member of his team for advice and was dumbfounded by the response:

“Change your license plates. Every day the employees come to work and see your car in the lot with license plates from your previous state. They assume you’re just like all the rest: another short-timer who will be returning to corporate soon enough, so why should they buy-in to you? If you want to prove you’re here to stay, change your plates!”

Samuel had learned a very small but valuable lesson when leading people: Often it is the smallest things that make the biggest difference. It’s called little Leadership. It is simple in concept and easy to do and can be especially helpful when times are tough and resources are scarce. So, always be on the lookout for the next “small idea.” With a little forethought and a little effort, you can reap big results. Below are some tips and ideas to get you started in making little Leadership work for you.

  1. A sweet idea for keeping your ear to the ground. Placing a snack or vending machine nearby makes visiting your workspace a treat. Even a candy dish on your desk will do. Dropping by for their favorite morsel, people will associate you with those small breaks that help them get through the day, and you’ll be amazed at the comments you’ll overhear that will help you keep your finger on the pulse of morale and office politics. 

  2. Face time: A low-cost investment that pays off big. Sticking your head in someone’s office or dropping by their cubicle to say thanks in person is a very small investment of time that pays big dividends as long as you are sincere and don’t overplay your hand. When someone does a particularly good job, don’t just make a mental note of it; tell him or her in person. The recipient of your goodwill will feel valued and appreciated for what they do and will be more motivated to keep it up.

  3. Remove subtle signs that put people down. Audit your workplace for any subtle practices that divide people based on rank and privilege for no good reason. For example, in the majority of cases, I can’t think of any good reason for preferred parking for executives. All it does is serve to reinforce the gulf between employees and management and unnecessarily contribute to a sense of us vs. them. If such perks really matter to your executives, you’ve got the wrong people in positions of power.

  4. Hand-written notes can be powerful tools for building relationships. In this electronic age, hand-written correspondence has gone by the boards in favor of e-mail, voicemail and the like. And, for convenience sake, that’s mostly a good thing. But if you want to stand out from the crowd, take the time to write a short, hand-written note to express gratitude or appreciation toward your best customers, clients or prospects. This small gesture will go a long way toward saying “you matter to me” and leaves a very strong impression.

  5. Ask “How are you doing?” and mean it. When times are tough and people are stressed, taking the time to genuinely inquire into how someone is doing sends a powerful message of caring. We’re not talking a spill-your-gut session here or in-depth psychotherapy, but taking a minute or two to inquire after a co-worker’s sick child or parent or to see how the job is progressing, let’s people know you care. As a consequence, they are more likely to care about you and the business.

  6. Plan small celebrations. I’m not a big fan of throwing a birthday party every five minutes, but if your group has been working extra hard lately, plan something small but fun as a reward. Bringing in bagels for breakfast, pizza for lunch, ice cream for a late afternoon break, or maybe a Friday night movie for everyone in the group and their dates are just a few easy and low-cost ways to celebrate success and the hard work it takes to make it happen.

  7. Nothing is too small: If it matters to them, it should matter to you. Let’s go back to the birthday party situation. If you have a group that likes to celebrate small things like birthdays but you could care less, find a way to support them with these seemingly small issues. Remember the essence and premise of little Leadership: with people, the little things are the big things. Rather than discounting other’s wishes because they do not matter to you, ask people for suggestions on how to accomplish their wishes so work still gets done and everyone wins. Taking little steps like these helps to sustain morale and build your leadership brand and power.

  8. Don’t assume you know what matters to them. These days, it’s not unusual for several generations to be working side by side, and it’s common for the leader to be significantly older than the youngest cohort. Don’t assume that what matters to you matters to them. Find out what seemingly small things are important to all your colleagues and try to provide for them as much as possible. This does not mean you need to compromise your values or lower performance expectations. Is does mean you need to work extra hard to make sure you understand what seemingly small things drive the behavior of everyone, especially those different from you.

  9. To maximize the benefit of listening to a speech or attending a seminar, think “short and small” to hit it big. When attending educational events, make it your goal to walk away with a short list of just one or two main ideas to focus on going forward. Then, at the beginning of each week, choose one small thing you can do that will make a difference in that area. Over time, those small weekly shifts in behavior will make a big difference in getting the results you seek.

A Final Word
If little Leadership sounds like common sense, that’s because it is. But all too often, it’s not common practice. Leaders spend so much time in pursuit of the next “Big Idea” that they miss the scores of little ones right in front of them that can have an immediate and lasting impact. So the next time you start thinking about how to improve things at work, think small. The results you’ll get may be huge.

About the author:
Dr. Gary Bradt is a keynote speaker, leadership consultant and the author of The Ring in the Rubble: Dig Through Change and Find Your Next Golden Opportunity (McGraw-Hill, 2007). Go to www.GaryBradt.com for more information. 

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