What is an optimal strategy to engage employees, and create better connections? 1000 leaders have a unanimous response – their presence. There is more research to support it. In a survey of 2,000 employees, Bain & Company found that among 33 leadership traits, the ability to be mindfully present is the most essential of all.

What is presence?

It can be a hard practice to define. But, we know what the opposite of presence is. It is making your to-do lists for the day, while having breakfast with family. It is listening to music, while walking to work, while eating a fruit. It is wishing your colleague would stop talking, while they are sharing a personal struggle. It is telling your team members what they should be doing, without first finding out why they did something.

Given the above examples, presence can be understood as giving your full attention and focus to one thing or experience at a time. Studies show that present leaders have better-performing employees.

How do we build it?

According to Dominic Barton, Director of McKinsey, “When I’m with people during the day, I’m doing my best to be focused with them. If not, then it’s discouraging to others. They lose motivation. You may as well not have the meeting.” For him, it’s about not letting himself be affected by nagging challenges or distracted by mental chatter.

Here’s how others do it:

  • Be interested. The CEO of Campbell Soup, Doug Conant, refers to presence as respect. In his decade-long stint, every morning he walked around greeting and getting to know people – memorizing their names, family’s names, asking questions about their lives. He handwrote letters of gratitude to recognize efforts. He even wrote messages of encouragement to employees going through tough times. A researcher who studied Campbell’s culture found that such respect led to 56% better well-being in employees, 89% greater satisfaction, 92% higher focus, and 55% more engagement.
  • Don’t worry about a solution. When present in a conversation, your role can just be to create a safe space for people to air their frustrations and work through their problems. Without you stepping in to solve or control the situation. Gabrielle Thompson, Senior VP at Cisco, says, “Many situations simply need an ear, not action. Oftentimes, problems don’t need solutions — they need presence and time.”
  • Find out what presence feels like in the body. Sometimes it is three deep breaths that do the trick. Or a 5-min meditation that helps you feel more focused. People also speak of how helpful power poses are – sitting up straight with your arms wide open. Loren Shuster, Chief of People at Lego, believes, “When you’re not grounded, when you’re not connected to your body and surrounding environment, you don’t have a sense of direction. The smallest thing can distract you.”

Have you experienced someone’s presence? It seems to be the new leadership currency. Let us know how you practice it!

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