It’s often said but less frequently done: “No one cares how much you know until they first know how much you care.”

Being a technical expert can help you be an influential leader or manager—people like to follow people who know their stuff.

But if you want to motivate people for the longer term, if you want people to follow you because they truly want to do so, you need to dig deeper. People need to know that you’re looking out for them and that you care about them.

“Know your people and look out for their welfare” is the third leadership principle in the U.S. Navy’s list of such axioms. 

And it’s one that has substantial connections with the science on how people behave in organizations. It has to do with something called “perceived organizational support,” a topic I’ve examined quite a bit.

Here’s how it works.

First, regardless of whether we actively think about it or not, we tend to develop beliefs about how much our organizations value what we do and care about our well-being.

Take a moment and consider this with regard to where you work. My guess is that it doesn’t take too long for you to have at least some sort of estimation of how much you think the organization values your contributions—your actual work—and cares about you as a person.

Second, based upon these perceptions, we tend to be more or less willing to trade our effort and dedication to the organization.

If you think your work organization really cares about your well-being and truly values your contributions, you’re likely to reciprocate. That means you’re likely to return the favor by performing at a higher level and being more committed to remaining a member of the organization than if you perceived a low level of support from the organization.

So what does this have to do with how you act as a manager or leader?

Here’s the key.

One of the main ways in which employees decide whether their organization supports them is by evaluating whether their supervisors support them. 

In other words, if my supervisor values what I do and cares about my well-being, I’m more likely to think that my organization values what I do and cares about my well-being. As a manager, never forget that you’re an agent of the organization—in many ways, you are the organization to your employees. 

Research on thousands of people during the past several decades provides clear evidence for these processes. 

Therefore, it makes great sense to incorporate the principle “Know your people and look out for their welfare” into your leadership philosophy. 

What might this look like in practice? Here are a few tips:

Make it a point to know who your people are: the basics about their background, their previous jobs and experiences, what they find exciting, adversity they’ve overcome.

You don’t need to get personal and creepy—you’re not trying to make them your best friend—but you need know the basics so they can see you as someone who appreciates them for more than just their employee identification number.

Pay attention to what your people actually do on the job.

If you’re going to demonstrate that you value what they do, you must know what they do on a regular basis. This may sound like common sense, but in my experience, it’s not common. As a manager, you often have your own tasks aside from people management to complete, and so it takes extra effort to get down “in the weeds” enough to understand what your people do, what obstacles they face and how they contribute to the success of the team.

Recognize performance.

Either formally, informally or both, find a way to make sure that people understand that you value what they do. And don’t just give a general “good job” shout out. Although that’s probably better than nothing, it’s even more powerful to approach recognition and feedback for good performance in the same way that you should for bad performance. That is, be specific. Describe: (1) the situation, (2) what the person actually did, and (3) how it had a positive influence on the team’s objectives or goals.

Talk to your people about their mid- and long-term goals.

That way, you can find ways to look out for what might be in their best interest such as training opportunities or stretch assignments.

Be flexible and realize that although being consistent is important for managers, it’s also a reality that people are different.

Looking out for people’s welfare requires that you know at least at a basic level what concerns your people have. Some people might be extraordinarily motivated by the opportunity to work nontraditional hours so they can pick up their kids from school; others might value the opportunity to work some overtime and make more money. You won’t know these details unless you know your people.

I encourage all of us who manage other people to think about the degree to which we really know our people and are looking out for their welfare. Leadership is a journey, so we all have room for continual improvement.

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References and for further reading

For all posts regarding the 11 U.S. Navy Leadership principles, click here.

The 11 principles:

  1. Know yourself and seek self-improvement

  2. Be technically and tactically proficient

  3. Know your people and look out for their welfare

  4. Keep your people informed

  5. Set the example

  6. Make sure the task is understood, supervised, and accomplished

  7. Train your unit as a team

  8. Make sound and timely decisions

  9. Develop a sense of responsibility among your people

  10. Employ your command in accordance with its capabilities

  11. Seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions