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I love Maya Angelou and her work, and these words of hers have become the way I live my life: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
This quote underpins the way all of us, especially those in leadership positions and most certainly anyone working in human resources, should aspire to live.
Get real and be real
“People will forget what you said…” so be genuine, be kind, and people will trust in who you really are.
It’s all about building trust, and while clear communication lets people feel safe to work at their best, actions speak louder than words. People in the corporate world can often resort to a more indirect way of speaking, which oftentimes can come off as passive-aggressive, where they say one thing but mean another. To me, it feels dishonest to deal with a problem by calculating my response. I am much more direct.
Sometimes, direct communication can feel like criticism, so ask questions with sincere interest and no ulterior motives. Assure people that you only want clarity and are just trying to understand from their shoes. Your job is simply to listen — actually listen, show empathy and provide actionable feedback to help them perhaps think about it from another point of view so they can learn and ultimately improve. When this becomes your standard practice, people will learn to trust your intentions. Of course, building that trust takes time and effort, but if you always speak openly and honestly with people so they too can see you as a person, they will soon grow to see you as a reliable resource — because you are.
Take off the veil
“People will easily forget what you did…” if you hide your true self behind imagined expectations.
We all know what it can be like to date the wrong person. You don’t realize how bad it is until you date someone better, look back and see how bad things had been all along. If all you ever know is unhealthy, your guard stays up to prepare for such an environment. You present yourself from behind a protective veil, which keeps the real you away from the world. In the end, no one ever gets to know or understand you because they never truly made a connection.
In the same way, when people bring past experiences into a new workplace and anticipate negative behaviors, they stay very guarded. This happens a lot in HR, where people think they need to put on a face to represent the corporate voice for the company. However, my role is to gain employees’ trust and show them my authentic self so they can slowly show theirs and we can grow together.
Lead with empathy
“People will never forget how you made them feel…” so make them feel heard and last in their memory.
Maya Angelou’s words have inspired how I live my life, but others have certainly inspired the person I’ve become. My mother was a partner in a solicitor’s office in London for 30 years — the first woman to make partner. They didn’t necessarily have HR at that time, but all of the partners took on different roles, and she was the one people came to for their concerns. I used to “play office” on the end of her desk during school holidays and watch her work and listen to the way she made people feel.
Her example taught me the importance of leading with empathy. If I can connect with someone — the kind that results from honest compassion — that’s a good feeling, even if I can’t always solve their problems. Whatever their frustration, anxiety or disappointment, all anyone ever truly wants is to feel heard first. When you actively listen with empathy, not just to respond, but to genuinely be there for someone and help them truly understand that they matter, they will feel your sincerity and won’t soon forget it.
At the end of the day, communication breakdowns are at the heart of most HR issues, but you can put out some real fires just by treating people right. This behavior comes from the top and threads through everything else.
Show your team that you’ve got their back without any hidden agenda, and people will stop trying to cover their mistakes and look over their shoulders. Instead, they can start to relax and focus on being their best. Lead by example through empathy, understanding and above all, authenticity.