Three Powerful Questions

Since we are barely into a new year, it’s not too late to do something really simple to end the past year and open the new one on a great note.  If you manage a team, this is a great time to sit down with each of your employees and ask, “What was your proudest moment in 2018?” You might then ask two more questions, “Looking forward to next year, what is one skill you’d like to grow?” and “How can I help you do that?”  The conversation will take all of five minutes, but it can have a big impact!   And – it must have occurred to you that you can ask very similar questions any time at all and they’ll have a beneficial result!

Why is this quick chat potentially powerful?  Let’s break this down just a bit.  Everyone likes individualized attention; if your manager shows interest in your accomplishments and aspirations, that’s a big deal.   People also like to blow their own horn and get a tap on the back for something they did well.  For many people, recognition matters more than money.  So even if your employee had a Thank you from you for an achievement when it took place months ago, they’ll be happy to get another one, especially if you go beyond a superficial Thank you and tell her why this achievement made a difference for you, the team, or the business.  That ties the contribution to something bigger, and employees want and need to make a difference.  If the employee can quickly point to an accomplishment that she is proud of – great!  That gives you clues about the kind of work this employee wants and appreciates – very useful if you and the employee can tweak her responsibilities so they evoke pride.  On the other hand, if the employee is struggling to identify a proud moment, that should sound an alarm bell in your head – is the person viewing her work as ho-hum?  Good or even great work – the kind people want to approach with enthusiasm – evokes emotions – pride, a sense of belonging, mastery, purpose.   So, if the employee responds with, “I can’t think of anything” maybe it’s time to help her find pride, and imbue her work with a sense of purpose?  A good starting point might be to get to know this person a bit better.  You can ask, “What in the past has given you a sense of pride, here or somewhere else?  You can include when you were at school or before you started working.”  The discovery that this employee is not proud of her work is a good thing if it alerts you to start helping her make her work more meaningful.

That’s the looking backward part.  Now, on to the future.  Most employees would want to develop some skill and become more capable, if given the chance.  Asking a question about desired development brings out the employee’s aspirations.  It’s like saying, “I want you to reach for more, so tell me about how you want to progress, and I will help you.”  Asking this creates an expectation that the desired development will take place and you will help.  And the last question, “How can I help?” reinforces the promise that you will actively support the employee.   Employees don’t mind driving their own development but don’t want to be left to their own devices, so they flounder and waste time. 

With these three simple questions you can transform the relationship with the employee.  You are promising to be far more than a manager of the employee’s performance – you are making yourself the employee’s development partner; you are showing that you not only care about the employee’s performance and results but also the employee’s development.  Ask any employee and if they are candid, they will tell you that they are seeking interesting and meaningful work, work they enjoy and that helps them become more rounded out.  The organizations that have understood this and are focusing on making work into a rewarding experience for employees outperform other organizations. 

These questions are powerful, but they are only the beginning.  Getting them to produce impact takes time and consistency.  If you ask these questions and nothing happens later, the employee might have a short-lived buzz that soon becomes disappointment.  It’s through the regular and consistent attention you give to the employee’s learning that the employee sees your continuing commitment.    Attention doesn’t have to mean that the employee’s development becomes a big preoccupation for you.  The secret is in the consistency.  Let’s say that Bill wants to learn accounts receivable in addition to his work in accounts payable and is shadowing Sandra, the AR person.  If you ask Bill, “How is this learning going?  What have you learned lately?” from time to time, that shows that Bill’s development remains on your agenda.   With simple and quick questions like this that demonstrate your interest, you are encouraging Bill’s development which will make him a more skilled Accounting professional and give you more flexibility and bench strength in AR.  Most learning these days is of this type – learning in bite-sized chunks that takes place while the work is going on.  Your attention to Bill’s learning doesn’t have to take more than a few minutes, perhaps once or twice a month, but he needs to see it.   And here is the key – when Bill sees you consistently interested in and encouraging his development, chances are good that he will respond by applying discretionary effort – going above and beyond expectations.  If you invest in Bill, he will likely want to return the favor by investing in the organization through great performance. 

If this has been going on for some months and you look at yourself in the mirror, you can see that your relationship with Bill has changed.   Now imagine if you did this with every employee – took a few minutes here and there to more deliberately support them in their development.  What kind of impact would this have on your business unit’s overall performance?   How would your employees respond?  Would there be a noticeably different feel to the working environment?  Does this subtly different treatment of employees have a ripple effect?  Have any of the changes resulted in improved employee participation or motivation? Bottom line, positive changes should take place, and over time, help you, as the manager, improve overall performance for your department.  Improvements like these get noticed and your career as a manager will also benefit!

We believe that, over time, you will notice a real impact for the better.  Here is a friendly challenge.  We are asking you to try what we were describing on for size:   Ask your employees, one at a time, these three questions or other similar ones, listen to what they are asking for, deliver on your promises and become more intentional and consistent in making development a regular part of the business.  Then let’s see what happens.  What kind of impact is this having?  Are you seeing a ripple effect?  Are you seeing yourself differently as a manager? 

You’ve heard the expression, “Don’t wait for City Hall.”  Well, it applies here too.  Positive change doesn’t necessarily need senior management declarations (this might help, though) or a lot of fanfare.  It can also start with you.  If you start taking steps to make this simple change happen in your workplace, we would like to hear from you.  When a few months have gone by, write to us about what you are doing and the changes you are noticing.  As we gather feedback from various organizations about this experiment, we will publicize the results.  Your participation will benefit your team and your organization but if we share what you are doing and learning more widely (names withheld, of course), the benefits will be far greater.  You can learn from other managers in other organizations, and they will learn from you.  Have a great 2019!

If you would like to learn more about key questions and conversations your managers can have with their employees contact us to learn more. Helping managers drive higher performance and improved business results is what we do. Contract us at info@engaged2perform.ca

We look forward to hearing from you.  

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