What Baggage Will Your People Leave With?

Let’s get one thing straight right at the beginning – we ALL have baggage. Whether it’s emotional, family, parenting, education, relationship, religious, political or employment baggage. If  you’ve lived, then you have baggage. I often hear or read of people saying that they don’t have any baggage, but unless you haven’t lived (and we know that’s not true) or you believe that you’re somehow fully actualized, you do. The question is not whether you have baggage, but whether you choose to be aware of it and whether you allow your life to be led by it.

The same is true for our work and careers, as it is for everyone on your team. We all have employment baggage, even if it’s your first job. You might want to believe that a new team member who’s never worked anywhere else before has no employment baggage, but they do. Whether it’s from part-time summer jobs, from observing parents, from friends and family, or from television and movies, even a new hire has beliefs about work, career, management and leadership. These beliefs (aka baggage) will form and frame their experience unless and until their perspectives shift.

Many times leaders will tell me that they can’t understand why team members won’t speak up, won’t be open and share or won’t take risks. They say (and believe) that their culture is one of openness and risk-taking, but there are at least two possible disconnects. One, the leader has a blind spot about their culture and leadership, and they’re not walking their own talk. While this is often true, a second disconnect is often present instead (or in addition). It’s also possible that they’ve failed to allow for their team members’ employment baggage.

If someone comes to your team with a belief that it’s unsafe to speak up, to share or to take risks, it will take more intentional efforts and communication to shift their baggage perspective. If you act as if they’re coming to you as a blank slate, that’s naïve and a mistake. Instead, assume (accurately) that they have employment baggage and seek to understand it, and then lead or manage them based upon that baggage (not in ignorance of it).

Here’s the real leadership opportunity and challenge, which comes in the form of the opening question: What baggage will your people leave with? In other words, will they leave your team with the same baggage they arrived with, which means that you missed the opportunity to transform their baggage and their work experience? And perhaps even worse, will they leave with even more or worse employment baggage than before? If they were hesitant to trust when they arrived, will they trust more (or even less) when they leave? This is one of the great responsibilities and opportunities for leaders.

It’s easy for us to blame people for their baggage, and while it’s true that they are ultimately responsible for it, one of the foundational roles of leaders is to understand people’s employment baggage (each person, individually) and to commit to proactively shifting that baggage or minimizing it. This is one of the critical ways that you, as a leader, have the opportunity to grow your people – growing them beyond their employment baggage. Isn’t that an incredible opportunity for people impact? Always keep this question top of mind – what baggage will people leave with from their experience with your organization  and with you?

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