I have been working with a client lately to help them understand their engagement survey results. The numbers are easy to read and see where scores increased or decreased, but numbers don’t tell the whole story. To get the stories behind the number, I have been hosting employee focus groups to hear what is on employees’ minds that is impacting their engagement and work satisfaction.
And boy, have they told me what is on their minds! It is amazing how much employees will share once they are asked. I have a 1” binder full of notes from these discussions – much more than I can fit into the 1-hour debrief scheduled with the leadership team.
It doesn’t take a lot of energy or time to talk to employees for a few hours about the things that are important to them. So why don’t managers do this more often? What gets in the way of having a conversation about what at work is working, and what is not working and needs to be changed? Here is my guess:
Knowing the right questions to ask.
Let’s face it – managers ask questions all day long. What is the status of X? Why did you propose Y in that situation? When will we see results for Z? Part of being a great manager is asking the right questions to understand the work being done and to help it progress. It is harder, however, to come up with the right questions about the people doing the work. Why? Because the people are not the same thing as the work; each person is different and each person has a history, style, persona and lens that is unique to them and their experiences. How do you shape all that into a quality question?
The key to good people-related questions is to ask something that stimulates discussion and prompt further questions. One of my favorite questions to ask is “What are you most proud of at work?” Answers to this question provide insights into what is important to someone related to their professional accomplishments. The answers also provide comparison context for later discussion where issues come up. For example, if someone is incredibly proud of managing a very heavy workload and executing their job quickly and efficiently, and then later says “the fax system we have is a real pain,” you have background information to then ask what about the fax system makes it hard to work efficiently, or how the fax system undermines their ability to handle the workload effectively.
Being willing to hear the tough stuff
It can be hard to listen to feedback and not take it personally. Some employees are very personal in their feedback, directing it all outward to the person they identify as the one who can (should?) make their jobs magically engaging and interesting. Listening to feedback and agreeing with it are not the same thing, however, and an effective manager will be willing to hear feedback even if he or she is not in a position to affect it.
The benefits of listening to employee feedback – even when you cannot change the conditions that contribute to it – is that listening builds understanding, and understanding increases empathy. For example, when you understand that an ineffective fax system affects your employees’ ability to work in a way that they can be proud of, you can be more specific when you acknowledge employees and their work: “You met this month’s goal and exceeded what you did last year at this time – and with a crummy fax system to boot!”
Not knowing what to DO with all the feedback
I have a binder full of feedback that will be synthesized into approximately 20 slides, which will in no way capture every piece of feedback I heard from my client’s employees. Capturing everything would be overwhelming – to me and to my client – and would make it incredibly difficult for the client to prioritize any actions they will take.
Companies, organizations and leaders are all works in progress, and there will rarely come the time when ALL the improvement possible has been done. I always recommend to clients that they focus on 2-3 improvement areas at a time, and once they have made progress on those, move down their list to the next topics. Focused attention that yields results is much better than attention spread thinly across the organization.
Managers don’t have to have an action plan for EVERY piece of feedback they ever receive. They do need to address the top issues affecting their teams and people, and those issues will evolve as the team grows and changes.
Asking questions of your employees about what is important to them and what motivates or engages them, and then listening – really listening – to what they say demonstrates how much you care about them and their work. By asking a few appropriate questions, designed to stimulate dialogue, and then being willing to listen to difficult feedback, you can help employees feel that:
- You are interested in them, their experiences and motivations
- You want to improve the work environment for them, in those areas where you have influence and ability to make changes
- You care about them and what they experience every day at work
There is a saying attributed to Maya Angelou that goes something like: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Heather Nelson is a partner with PeopleResults. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @HeatherGNelson1. Sign up to receive the PeopleResults blog at Current.