How to Practice Sawubona to Increase Employee Engagement at Work

Smart Managers Recognize, Praise, Care for and Consult their People

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A few years back Chris Brogan taught me a fabulous new word: “Sawubona”. It’s the Zulu way of saying “Hi!” and its literal translation is, “I see you”. Now tell me, is there a more beautiful way of communicating one of the central yearnings of every human being on this planet—to be acknowledged, to be appreciated, to be taken into consideration?

To be seen?

And is this not at the core of what we want from the higher-ups at work? Would truly “seeing” people at work not help in defusing much of the unnecessary conflict, negative feelings and lack of engagement that we encounter in so many workplaces?

After all, the conventional wisdom says that people don’t leave their job—they leave their manager.

We can fix this and to help, here are 3 ways that leaders, or anyone on any team, can practice Sawubona at work, everyday:

1. Recognize and Praise Your People Often

As leaders in organizations, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the myriad of demands that are placed upon us. It’s all too common to get consumed in the strategic and tactical complexities of our organizations while giving short-shrift to (or ignoring altogether) the little human details that mean so much.

And what’s worse, when we do notice our people, we tend to focus on the negative aspects of their work—all the things both big and small that we think they’re doing incorrectly.

That’s why we need to make it a point to notice the good things our people do and all the value they bring to the team. When you see their effort, it’s important to recognize it and tell them that you saw it and that you appreciate it. Catch your people doing things right and praise them for it! This helps them understand exactly what you value and expect from them as their leader. This helps them understand how they can continue to contribute maximum value to their team.

2. Care About Them as People

We all know how easy it is to label people, or to put them in tidy little boxes that make sense at work but obstruct a fuller understanding and appreciation of that co-worker as a human being with many interests, gifts and talents.

I’ll never forget the title of a chapter in Max De Pree’s great book, “Leadership is an Art.” The chapter title simply read, “The Millwright Died.” Max goes on to tell the story of how his dad, the founder of the Herman Miller company, went to visit the family of the deceased millwright. His widow invited him in and asked if it was alright if she read aloud some poetry. He said yes and she proceeded to read some absolutely beautiful lines. Astounded, D.J. De Pree asked who had written such enchanting verses. It had been the Millwright. No one at work knew he was a gifted poet until it was too late.

As Max writes, “In addition to all of the ratios and goals and parameters and bottom lines, it is fundamental that leaders endorse a concept of persons. This begins with an understanding of the diversity of people’s gifts and talents and skills.”

Perhaps the greatest gift you can bestow upon your people is the ability to use those gifts at work and to allow outlets for their expression so that they might bring their whole being to the work place.

3. Ask for and consider their opinion

All people have a powerful desire to be taken into account and to be consulted, but how often do managers engage their people in this way, earnestly? My experience tells me that many don’t even bother because they don’t see the need; others may ask for opinions, but only in a Machiavellian ploy to mask the fact that they’ve already made a decision, regardless of what employees say; still others view asking for employees’ opinions as a sign of weakness or indecision; many may even fear the conflict that may erupt within a team from too many strongly-held and contrasting points of view.

But not only does asking for their opinion and sincerely taking their views into account earn you great respect, while helping your people feel like they were heard on an issue, managers who remain indifferent to the opinions, insights and contrasting ideas of their people will find that the execution of their mandates is less than effective (if not counter-productive). Practicing Sawubona creates trust and buy-in from the very people on whom you depend to execute your decisions and implement your ideas. Fail to do this and you will, at best, find yourself on a team that is severely misaligned and falling far short of what it could or should be accomplishing.

Practicing Sawubona at work is not only desirable, it is essential. People are now seeking meaning and a deep human connection to their work. They would love the opportunity to use all their gifts and they crave recognition of their contribution. They don’t want to be mere cogs in the corporate machinery either—they want a real say at work. This is the foundation of higher engagement and it starts one person at a time.


Image courtesy of  Danielle MacInness, via Unsplash