Here’s a secret to manager success

July 21, 2008

I care a lot about employees. I’m not a manager, I don’t have a team of people reporting to me. But as a professional communicator, I am always thinking about the employees who will read our messages. What will they think? How will they feel? What will they do? Will what I’m about to say help them feel connected to the organization… or not?

This thought process naturally means that employee engagement is looming large on my radar screen these days. Corporate America could accomplish so much, employees could be so happy / satisfied / passionate about what they’re doing… if only we could engage them.

So here’s an idea, courtesy of Tim Wright at Culture to Engage. His recent post, To Ask Is To Answer Is To Ask, shares the secret of one of his best managers. You should read his whole post, but here’s the punchline. Just add this one question to your repertoire:

What questions do you have for me?

Genius! Notice how it assumes employees have questions, because they do. If you start asking this enough, people will start to answer. They’ll save up their questions because they’ll know their opportunity is coming soon. Then, provided you Shut up and listen, you will have started a conversation. And that, folks, is employee engagement. It’s fast, it’s easy, it will cost you nothing — and yet there’s so much to gain.


Ask a different question.

July 14, 2008

Another lightbulb moment to report, courtesy of the Heath brothers. I’m reading their chapter in Made to Stick about making your ideas unexpected. And then they go and shift my paradigm with this:

“To make our communications more effective, we need to shift our thinking from “What information do I need to convey?” to “What questions do I want my audience to ask?” [p. 88]

The main differences in these questions, of course, are that:

  • the first focuses on the monologue, the blah-blah-blah.
  • and the second seeks dialogue. Conversation, that is — interaction.

Everyone’s asking why employees aren’t engaged — isn’t it possible they’re not engaged because we’re not engaging them? We’re not giving them the chance to ask the questions they want to ask, directly and free from unnecessary filters. Everyone’s asking how to fight the grapevine — isn’t it possible the best way to fight rumors and gossip is with facts? Why aren’t we talking with employees? Why aren’t we being more serious about this?

As a communicator it’s often frustrating that I can’t personally do more to affect employee engagement. But this new question to ask myself may be the way I can contribute: What questions do I want my audience to ask? I might have to approach my writing and communications planning in a whole different way.

Stick out.

July 2, 2008

I’m reading Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Bet you’d learn something from it if you haven’t already read it. An early passage already has me thinking about how we’re communicating [big corporate initiative, henceforth known as “the thing”] to employees. The Heath boys present six principles that make ideas “sticky” (or “memorable” if you prefer):

“Let’s take the CEO who announces to her staff that they must strive to ‘maximize shareholder value.’
“Is this idea simple? Yes, in the sense that it’s short, but it lacks the useful simplicity of a proverb. Is it unexpected? No. Concrete? Not at all. Credible? Only in the sense that it’s coming from the mouth of the CEO. Emotional? Um, no. A story? No.
“Contrast the “maximize shareholder value” idea with John F. Kennedy’s famous 1961 call to “put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade.” Simple? Yes. Unexpected? Yes. Concrete? Amazingly so. Credible? The goal seemed like science fiction, but the source was credible. Emotional? Yes. Story? In miniature.
“Had John F. Kennedy been a CEO, he would have said, “Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centered innovation and strategically targeted aerospace initiatives.” Fortunately, JFK was more intuitive than a modern-day CEO; he knew that opaque, abstract missions don’t captivate and inspire people*… It was a brilliant and beautiful idea — a single idea that motivated the actions of millions of people for a decade.” (*emphasis added by soulmagnet75 for dramatic effect)

Here’s soulmagnet75 again to editorialize: It seems to me what we’re trying to do anywhere in corporate America is “captivate and inspire people.” That’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about “employee engagement.” So far, what I’ve heard about “the thing” at my company isn’t sticking with me. If we were to apply more of these Heath principles of sticky ideas, could we be more successful? We’re getting into the story, we’re attempting to get at the emotional, I think, with a new idea that will spotlight individual employees. What I’m missing is that simple, concrete expression: From the earth to the moon and back. Where are we going? We’ll have to be careful about avoiding overused analogies about “getting on the bus” and “reaching for the stars,” but isn’t there something? Isn’t there some way to say this more effectively so employees actually care?