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Most leaders tend to start by building their castle, surrounding it with water, and forcing everyone else to shout to them from the other side. But the simple act of building a drawbridge can be the single most important step you ever take to forming long-lasting trust and cohesiveness in your ranks.
I’ve met and seen far too many leaders who struggle with relationship-building. They wonder why their employees don’t talk to them. They wonder why conversations never go deeper than surface-level. And they wonder why their people don’t seem to trust them. It’s because these leaders have simply taken physical, intellectual, and emotional separation too far.
It’s well-established that space between you and your subordinates is critical to the health and welfare of the organization. You have to draw a clear line that determines what is and isn’t acceptable interaction. You don’t want your employees helping you with payroll or telling you about their relationship problems, in the same way that you shouldn’t come to your employees for medical advice or to hang out after work. There are boundaries you must set to ensure that everyone knows their role, their responsibilities, and their proper place within your organization.
But you must also realize that sometimes, the space between you and your people inevitably becomes a canyon. Physical separation, pay gaps, rank structure, and social differences can result in an unhealthy detachment, lowered accountability, and surface-level relationships with the very people you must rely on every single day. What’s sad is that there are leaders who never work to close these unintended gaps. They allow their moat fill higher and higher with water, further isolating the castle they’ve built, and making it virtually impossible to ever see eye to eye with their team. While this blatant disregard may not always have day-to-day consequences, it’s the accumulation of weeks, months, and years of such separation that can have damaging, irreparable effects on the organization and the leader’s reputation. So, in order to avoid that fate, I’ve always relied on a useful and simple way to fix this problem in my own experiences: build a drawbridge.
The drawbridge is a way to bridge the gap between you and your subordinates, while keeping a healthy distance. It’s having your door open at all times. It’s lending your ear to someone who needs to be heard. It’s spending time with your people in their work environment. It’s making the effort to get to know them on a deeper level. It’s a way to provide those critical opportunities for two-way communication.
At the restaurant, I didn’t have an office. I did all my administrative “office” work out in the open during down time. The owner wanted to build an office for me, and I told him no. Because I’ve seen managers and leaders who have used their offices to hide and become distant from their employees, and it never ended well. I’d learned the importance of always being seen and accessible to my employees, and it would turn out to be hugely important to the development of a young organization full of young, inexperienced people. I gave my employees lots of leeway. I wasn’t a micromanager, and they appreciated that. I trusted them to do their jobs the right way, and in turn they trusted me. But that wasn’t enough. I always made it a point to be available to them, physically, emotionally, and intellectually. They always knew the clear line of separation. But they also knew that the drawbridge was always available to cross whenever they needed it.
It’s okay if you want to build your castle. You are the leader. You need to signal your authority in some tangible way. But give your people a drawbridge so you can build that critical trust you’ll need in difficult times. Cross the bridge yourself. Talk to them. Listen to them. Find out more about their life, their family, and their ambitions. Seek to understand their character. The more you understand your team, the better you will be in anticipating their needs. The job of a leader is to keep the saltshaker at the center of the table. But you can’t do that in a productive and effective way if you haven’t taken the time to build relationships properly.
When you seek to understand the causes, you’ll never have to wonder about the effects. And you can only do that if you lower the drawbridge to your castle.
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