Simple conversation-starters for managers and leaders

August 12, 2008

One of the best tools a blogger has is a statistics page that provides the search terms people use to arrive at your blog. Today one of my search terms caught my eye: “simple conversations with tag questions.”

It struck me, I’ve talked about why simple conversations are worth your time, but I didn’t say how to start! Here are a few starters that will get your people talking about the things your business needs them to talk about:

  • What questions do you have for me? (I covered this one before as well, but it’s worth repeating.)
  • What do you know about ______? (whatever it is: latest corporate initiative, big new account, sales targets, etc.)
  • What’s going well for you at work these days?
  • What was frustrating for you at work this week? (Followed by the much-appreciated: Is there anything I can do to help?)
  • How do you think we could improve the way we’re doing this?
  • How would you approach this problem?
  • In a perfect world, what would you like us to do?
  • What do you think?
  • What feedback do you have for me?

Employees have questions. They have concerns. They have ideas. They want to share them, but they want to feel welcome to do so. And that’s why it’s so important for managers and leaders to create a safe, welcoming environment that encourages these exchanges.

No doubt there are many, many more questions you could ask employees to get them talking. What are some of your favorite conversation-starters?


What is your unhappy employee telling you?

August 7, 2008

Recently I had coffee with a friend I’ve worked with for more than five years — long enough to know when something’s up. So we found ourselves some comfy chairs in a quiet corner and I said, simply: “Spill it.”

That’s all she needed and she was off, telling me one sad, disheartening story after another about trying to work with her new manager. I could fill a lot of space trying to explain all the frustrating details that are keeping my friend awake nights. But funny enough, this unhappy employee’s rants organized themselves neatly into three tips that could benefit any manager:

Do you know what kind of work your team does? I am constantly surprised at how often managers aren’t very familiar with their team’s daily work. That may fly for your first 30 days. After that, it’s negligence, pure and simple. You must have a working knowledge of what your team does, if for no other reason than to understand the challenges your team faces every day.

Are you accessible to your team? If you’re a manager, your greatest responsibility is enabling your team to do its work. If you are never around, how can you answer questions, approve decisions, remove obstacles, redirect, etc.? You’re in charge of your calendar, right? Schedule yourself some “butt-in-seat” time and make sure your team knows when it is. They’ll thank you for it.

What are you doing when you DO make an appearance? Maybe this has happened to you: Your boss is unavailable all week, and then when she shows up on the floor, she’s barking orders or making unrealistic promises to her own supervisors. All you can think is: you’re not helping!! When you can spare time with your employees face-to-face, experiment with shifting your priorities. It’s not really about what they can do for you. If you’ve cleared time, if you’ve committed to being accessible, it’s actually about what you can do for them. How can you help? How can you simplify (not complicate)?

My friend’s problems would be solved if her manager gave a little more thought to these three points. My guess is we could all find a happier place at work if more managers took these to heart. What do you think?


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.


Tell the truth.

July 2, 2008

Does your employer do a good job of communicating with you? Stop laughing. I’m serious.

What does it do well? What does it do poorly?

Part of what I’m trying to get from this grand blogging experiment is a sense of how I can improve communications where I work. We don’t work at the same place, but I have this theory that whatever’s going on at your place of business would probably sound strangely, eerily, sadly familiar to me and anyone else who visits. We’re all making the same mistakes. So maybe I can learn something here:

Rant. Go ahead. Tell me what outrages you. Tell me what makes you proud. I’m not talking about policy. I can’t do anything about your medical benefits. What I’m interested in is HOW THEY TALK TO YOU. How do employers talk to employees? And how can they do it better?