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Here are six ways to get employees talking about what they really feel (and not what they think you want to hear)…
“I can handle the truth. I’m pretty tough, Claire.”
My CEO at the time told me this during our one-on-one about five or so years ago. The year was ending, and he wanted to know what the company could do to improve, how he could improve as a leader — and he wanted to know the truth of what I actually thought.
Yet despite him saying he could “handle the truth,” I couldn’t bring myself to tell it to him.
Truth was, I wasn’t confident in the company’s overall direction. And I was troubled when I learned a few employees felt they were treated unfairly in the company… But it felt futile to mention these things. I couldn’t imagine that our CEO would take my feedback to heart and change anything in the company. If anything, I could more easily imagine that I’d provoke a negative reaction from him. Telling him the truth just didn’t seem worth it.
I’ll never forget that feeling of holding something back — choosing not to vocalize what I was thinking because I felt nothing in the company would change. To be clear: I’m not proud of my silence. Now knowing what I know about giving feedback to a manager, I wish I’d spoken up. Today as a CEO myself, I can only imagine how utterly frustrating it was for him to have that one-on-one with me… and then a few months later learn that I was leaving the company.
Having experienced this, I’ve thought deeply about the one-on-ones I do with my own team here at Know Your Company. I never want a teammate of mine to feel how I once did on the other side of the table. And I don’t want to be like my former boss, blindsided by how an employee is actually feeling.
To encourage honest responses during a one-on-one with an employee, here’s what I keep in mind…
Make empathy your mission.
Every time I have a one-on-one, I have a single mission: to understand how the other person is feeling. Everything else comes second. I don’t use the time to focus on critiquing an employee’s performance, nor do I use the time to get a status update on a project (those are separate, secondary conversations). A one-on-one is invaluable, sacred time to uncover the truth of how an employee is actually feeling.
When you make empathy your mission, the entire landscape of the conversation changes. You start listening more. You start asking more thoughtful questions. You start to level with employees, admitting you don’t have all the answers. Employees notice when an effort is being made to empathize with them, rather than pass judgement or get your own message across. The one-on-one becomes less intimating to an employee. And when an employee is less intimidated, they’ll be more honest with you.
I’ll oftentimes make my mission of empathy clear upfront during a one-on-one to further diffuse any sentiment of intimidation. For example, I’ll say: “Today is for me to listen and truly understand where you’re feeling on things – that’s it. This isn’t a performance review or status report. This conversation is for me to understand what I can be doing to make this the best place you’ve ever worked.” When you explicitly let your employees know that empathy is your mission, you give them consent to tell you something that they might not have told you otherwise.
Ask questions to uncover two things: tension and energy.
To get to the bottom of how someone is feeling — particularly the negative stuff — I’ll ask questions around specific moments of tension, and specific moments of energy. Specific moments of tension are situations when someone felt angry, frustrated, bored in, etc. Specific moments of energy are situations when someone felt uplifted, excited, and motivated. You want to uncover what these situations have been so you understand how to create more positive situations for an employee that give them energy, and how to avoid and resolve the negative ones that create tension for them.
When you ask someone about specific moments when they felt disappointed, confused, proud, etc. at work, they can reference their emotions to something real that happened, not something ephemeral or imagined. For example, ask the question, “How’s it going?” and nine times out of ten your employee is going to say, “Things are fine” or some other vague, over-generalized response. You’re never going to hear the real stuff. Versus, if you were to ask: “When have you felt frustrated in the past year?” you’re asking an employee about a specific moment, situation, and emotion. You’re forcing them to think in more literal, concrete terms, and giving them permission to talk about how they feel about working at your company (something that doesn’t always happen all too often in the workplace).
Here are some examples of questions you can ask an employee around specific moments of tension so you know what to avoid:
- When have you been frustrated in the past year? What can I do to help make things less frustrating for you, or get out of your way?
- When have you felt dejected or demoralized this past year? What I can I do to better support you, and make sure that’s not the case going forward?
- When have you been disappointed with a decision or the direction that the company has gone in the past year? Was there an opportunity you think we squandered? Something you think we mishandled? How would have you preferred with proceeded?
- When have you been annoyed, peeved, or bothered by me and something I’ve done as a CEO? Why? What would be helpful for you for me to change my behavior going forward?
- When have you felt bored in the past year? How can I create situations going forward so you don’t feel that way?
- When have you felt stressed or overworked in the past year? What can I do to create a better work environment going forward so you don’t feel that way?
Notice that when I ask about a specific moment of tension, I follow up with a question about what I or the company can do going forward. This way, your one-on-one doesn’t devolve into a complaining rant, but becomes a productive conversation about how to resolve, avoid, or fix a tension point in some way. This doesn’t mean you need to solve the issue right then and there (very rarely will you come up with a resolution on-the-spot). But a follow-up question about what future action can be taken will get your mind and theirs thinking in a constructive direction.
Here are some example questions you can ask around specific moments of energy — the positive stuff — so you know what to create and do more of:
- When have you felt excited about what you’ve been working on in the past year? What can I do to provide you with more opportunities so you feel that way?
- When have you felt most proud about being a part of the company this past year? What can I do to make sure that we do things that continue that feeling?
- When have you felt most motivated about the work you’ve been doing? What can we do to create an environment so you feel like that more often?
- When have you felt most “in flow” or “in control”of what you’re doing during the past week or so? What can we do to give you more space and time to feel that way?
- What have you been wanting to learn more of, get better at, and improve on? How can we here at the company support you in doing that?
- When have you felt that this company was one of the best places you’ve ever worked? How can I make this place the best place you’ve ever worked?
If this feels “touchy-feely” and not really your style because you’re talking too much about emotions – I understand. Try peppering just one or two questions about a specific moment of tension or energy into your next one-on-one. I guarantee those one or two questions alone will shed more light on an employee’s level of morale, more than anything else.
And, keep in mind that touchy-feely isn’t a bad thing. The way employees feel about their work affect how well they do their work.
Admit what you think you suck at.
When you’re asking employees about specific moments of tension or energy, sometimes the specificity of the question alone isn’t enough to encourage someone to respond honestly. Employees are especially wary of divulging or pointing out something negative, and may need an extra nudge. Why? Because there’s an inherent power dynamic between employees and a business owner. You need to figure out a way to disarm it.
The best way to overcome this power dynamic is to admit what you think you suck at. As you’re asking questions, reveal your fallibility. For example, if you pose the question: “What do you think we can improve on as a company?” and you’re getting a bit of radio silence on the other end, share what you’re struggling with or feel unsure about. You can suggest to them, “I think ___ could’ve gone better… what do you think?” or “I think I could probably be better at __ . Would you agree or disagree?” By showing vulnerability, it gives confidence for an employee to share something that might be perceived as negative.
Explain why you need their input.
One of the keys to making it safe for your employees to be more honest with you is explain why their input is valuable. I often forget to do this myself. But I find that when I do, it shows an employee that I’m not asking questions out of vanity or to “check a box.” Rather, I’m explaining how their feedback impacts the success of the company, and their own career development. Professor Amy Edmondson who coined the term “psychological safety” in workplaces recommends to “make explicit that there is enormous uncertainty ahead and enormous interdependence.” In other words, because the future is so uncertain and there’s much to still figure out, everyone’s opinion and input matters. For instance, you could say something like this to your employee: “Hearing your thoughts really matters to me because we haven’t figured ___ out. There’s so much unknown, and we need your input in order to get to where we want to go.”
Don’t get defensive.
When someone does respond frankly to your question, you’ll want to make sure you do not get defensive. Defensiveness is a killer of an open culture. The minute you get defensive you’re sending the message to your employee: “I actually didn’t really want to hear that.” And the next time you have a one-on-one, that employee isn’t going to speak up honestly. So when someone brings up a tough topic, watch yourself. Do you get testy and a bit defensive? Or do you calmly listen and ask insightful follow-up questions? Your reaction will be their benchmark of whether they’ll feel comfortable bringing up these hard conversations in the future.
Do not try to rebut every comment that is made. Do not give excuses on how swamped you’ve been. Ask your question succinctly. Listen. Take notes. Thank your employee for bringing something up, and say you’ll think on what they said and get back to her or him about it. If you catch yourself replying to an employee’s reply, reel yourself in. Remind yourself that you’ve made empathy your mission. That means you need to talk less. When you talk less, you create the space an employee needs to tell you the truth of how she or he is feeling.
This isn’t easy. Every time I do a one-on-one, I still feel a little nervous when I ask about a specific moment of tension… And I always take a deep breath to keep myself from reacting defensively when they share their answer. Navigating a one-on-one well requires discipline and a dose of courage.
Most of all, it requires a real desire for the truth. What fuels me to seek out honesty in a one-on-one is because I know that seeing the current reality for what it is — how our business is doing, what our employees think of the company — is the only way I’ll build a better company and become a better leader. Without knowing the truth, I’m squandering a chance to move the company forward, or even perpetuating a valuable employee to leave the company.
Holding an honest one-on-one with an employee is one of the few yet most effective ways to get that truth. Let’s double down on doing it well.
Wondering other ways you can learn the truth of what your employees are thinking? Come take a peek at Know Your Company – our software helps over 12,000 employees in 15 countries give more honest feedback to their managers.
(If you found this article helpful, please click the ❤ below so others can find it! And please say hi at @cjlew23 — I always love meeting new people.)
The question has everything to do with the answer
“What’s one thing you love about Basecamp?”
“What’s the one thing you like least about Basecamp?”
“If you could change one thing about Basecamp, what would it be?”
“Would you recommend Basecamp to a friend or colleague?”
We’ve asked these questions before. They’re ok, but ultimately they’re pretty self-serving. We wanted people to talk about us. What are we doing well, poorly, etc. We were getting answers. That’s what most companies are after when they ask questions — they’re looking for answers about themselves.
But answers are easy to come by. What’s more interesting is impact and outcomes. What kind of impact is Basecamp having on people’s lives? What’s changing for the better at companies that run on Basecamp 3? That’s what I really wanted to know.
So on our latest survey we shifted the question outward. If you want to get people talking, ask them about themselves.
So we asked “What’s changed for the better since you started using Basecamp?” and, wow, impact came streaming in. Nearly 4000 people responded in just a matter of days — making it one of our most successful surveys ever. But it was what they said that really mattered…
If you read through the responses you’ll see patterns — accountability has increased, people know what’s happening inside their company now, business owners are on top of things again, things are getting done with fewer errors, stuff is going in one place rather than all over the place, people have been able to jettison a cobbled together mess of multiple tools to standardize on one, etc.
None of these are specific features of Basecamp — they are all outcomes. They are the result of impact the product had on a given company’s workflow and lifestyle.
And yes, a webpage that goes on forever with 1,000 quotes isn’t meant to be read from top to bottom. We obviously know that. But if you play scroll roulette, and end up anywhere on that page, you’ll get something good out of it. That, plus the sheer volume of positive outcomes, impacts, and good feels, is the point.
So next time you’re setting out to get some answers, make sure you consider the question first. What’s it going to prompt? Answers about you, or answers about them?
2017’s right around the corner. Going to let your hair burn for another year? Or time to put out the fire once and for all? Business doesn’t have to be crazy. You don’t have to run around with your hair on fire. Get off the conveyor belt or crazy and come over to the calm, organized, sane way to work: Basecamp 3. It’s free to try. Bring accountability, organization, and discipline to your business.
Are you looking for an answer or are you asking about impact? was originally published in Signal v. Noise on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
I was at a winter fair at my daughter’s school over the weekend and spotted a bin full of plastic…
<p class="author">By <a href="http://www.uxmatters.com/authors/archives/2005/11/pabini_gabriel-petit.php">Pabini Gabriel-Petit</a></p> <p>There are many different types of interaction models, relating to all sorts of domains of human endeavor. General classes of interaction models that have significant impact on user experience include models for</p> <ul> <li><span class="run-in-head">business interactions</span>—Such models represent the ways in which organizations conduct their business—internally, working in partnership with other businesses, or serving their end customers. Business interaction models may be specific to a particular business or represent standard practices in particular industry domains. They define the business context for design solutions and, thus, help ensure that they create business value.</li> <li><span class="run-in-head">social interactions</span>—These models represent the ways in which people interact with one another in specific social contexts—whether in real-world, virtual, or digital environments or on social networks. Social interaction models may either represent common patterns of human interaction or define patterns for specific products or services.</li> <li><span class="run-in-head">user interactions</span>—Such interaction models represent the ways in which people interact with technologies of various kinds, which are often specific to particular platforms or types of devices. However, in today’s cross-channel / omni-channel world, it is becoming evermore desirable to design solutions that are consistent across all relevant channels.</li> </ul> <p class="sub-p">In this column, I’ll focus on interaction models for software and the impact of consistency—or the lack thereof—on users’ ability to learn and interact with software user interfaces. <a href="http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2016/12/the-importance-of-consistency-in-interaction-models.php" class="read_more_link">Read More</a></p>
<p class="author">By <a href="http://www.uxmatters.com/authors/archives/2016/12/mark_baldino.php">Mark Baldino</a></p> <p>UX design encompasses user research, user-interface design, visual design, and content. But what about <em>process</em> design? Why should seasoned companies—whose product-development process hasn’t previously relied on conducting design research—hire UX professionals to help them devise and realize a new business model?</p> <p class="sub-p">At times, my UX team at Fuzzy Math, has had to convince our clients—particularly those who have been around for a while—of the importance of doing user research before design and explain how it affects the end product. We’ve had to be their UX mentor as well as their design agency. <a href="http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2016/12/applying-ux-design-tactically-to-achieve-strategic-objectives.php" class="read_more_link">Read More</a></p>
<p class="author">By <a href="http://www.uxmatters.com/authors/archives/2011/03/laura_keller.php">Laura Keller</a></p> <p>As experience designers, we love solving messy, wicked problems. Therefore, many experience designers are now focusing on fixing problems relating to healthcare. We’ve made great progress in improving the healthcare experience. We’re using journey mapping to streamline and improve healthcare providers’ processes—for example, hospitals’ check-in and discharge processes and pharmacies’ processes for dropping off and picking up prescriptions. We’ve designed new channels that let healthcare providers communicate with their patients. We’ve helped make clinics’ physical spaces more warm and welcoming.</p> <p class="sub-p">No doubt such improvements have made the experiences of being a patient or caregiver better. In fact, many of us have experienced these improvements personally. But there is a healthcare process that, while much less visible and tangible to the average person, offers the possibility of dramatically improving people’s health once we solve it: clinical trials.</p> <p class="sub-p">Clinical trials and the drug-discovery process overall enable pharmaceutical companies, medical-device companies, doctors, hospitals, and researchers to innovate new and improved ways of treating and caring for people. However, the clinical-trial process is significantly flawed—both for the organizations driving such trials and for patients—so much so that innovation has stalled. <a href="http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2016/12/encouraging-innovation-drug-discovery-and-clinical-trials.php" class="read_more_link">Read More</a></p>
<p class="author">By <a href="http://www.uxmatters.com/authors/archives/2006/03/janet_m_six.php">Janet M. Six</a></p> <p><img src="http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2016/12/images/JSix_SmarterScreen_fig1.png" alt="The Smarter Screen Cover" width="194" height="318" class="book-image-float-right">Shlomo Benartzi is a behavioral economist at UCLA who, with Richard Thaler, has created the <em><a href="http://www.ted.com/talks/shlomo_benartzi_saving_more_tomorrow?language=en" title="Save More Tomorrow">Save More Tomorrow</a></em> program, which encourages people to save a significant percentage of any <em>future</em> pay raises. <a href="http://www.anderson.ucla.edu/documents/areas/fac/accounting/save_more_tomorrow.pdf">The program</a> has been very successful in helping people to save money—even people who had said they could not afford to save. The goal of this program differs quite a bit from the common admonition to spend less and start saving more now: it acknowledges the reality that things may be tight today, making it difficult to save money right now. By encouraging people to save their future pay raises, the <em>Save More Tomorrow</em> program makes saving more practical. It’s easy to plan to be better in the future—just look at all the great resolutions we make on New Year’s Day. But it’s all too easy to give into temptation and break our resolutions. <em>Save More Tomorrow</em> works because people <em>commit</em> to saving money before they have it.</p> <p class="sub-p">In his book <em>The Smarter Screen:</em><em> Surprising Ways to Influence and Improve Online Behavior</em>, Shlomo explores the way people spend money on mobile apps because it’s easy, exciting, and gives them an immediate sense of satisfaction. Our mobile devices deliver a great deal of information to us and let us act on it very quickly—sometimes too quickly. <a href="http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2016/12/book-review-the-smarter-screen.php" class="read_more_link">Read More</a></p>
<p class="author">By <a href="http://www.uxmatters.com/authors/archives/2016/11/yana_yelina.php">Yana Yelina</a></p> <p>As designers who work in the spheres of mobile-app design, Web application design, or graphic design for the Web, we may face certain clients whose favorite phrase is: “I don’t like that design.”</p> <p class="sub-p">Even if you have extensive experience as a designer, showed your client countless examples of your work that the client seemed to appreciate, and your client provided a detailed design brief before you started the project, you’ll sometimes encounter dissatisfied clients and will have to listen to objections like the following when you deliver your design solutions:</p> <ul> <li>It’s not a fit with what we’re looking for.</li> <li>It’s not in our style.</li> <li>We can’t associate our organization with that branding. <a href="http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2016/12/how-to-placate-clients-who-are-dissatisfied-with-your-designs.php" class="read_more_link">Read More</a></li> </ul>
A few years ago I worked at a mega corporation. I had just finished up a brutal week of all-day meetings with 20 people. My boss and I sat down to catch up. Eventually, she warned:
“Dan, you need to speak up more. You need to participate and contribute during these meetings.”
I was livid.
She felt that others had “contributed” far more than me.
It didn’t matter that people were talking just for the sake of it — repeating things that were already said and adding no value. It didn’t matter that very little was accomplished from all that talking. It didn’t matter that the week was a huge waste of time. It only mattered that people were speaking loudly and frequently.
All of my quiet contributions — selectively speaking, listening, thinking, writing, leading small group discussions — were being completely ignored.
Suffice to say, I didn’t last very long at that company.
But the sad part is that given the right environment, I could have. I had plenty of energy, ideas, and good work in me. But because I wasn’t always a loud voice, all of it was being overlooked.
If you’re a leader in a company, it’s important to keep your eyes and ears open for all types of contributions. The quiet members of your team have a wealth of insights everyone can benefit from.
While it’s easy to hear the loud voices, they might be drowning out the quiet ones. To tap into the potential of those quiet voices, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Encourage writing as the preferred medium to share ideas. Writing has a wonderful way of leveling the playing field. No single voice can physically drown out or interrupt another. Not to mention it’s far more efficient than huge meetings.
- Don’t correlate being quiet in meetings with a lack of participation. It’s likely that people are thinking about conversation at hand before responding. This is a good thing. Instant reactions aren’t what you want anyway.
- Give people time and space to think. Don’t fret if written responses come in slower than you’re used to. Reviewing ideas, thinking, and building thorough contributions takes time and focus. These responses will be far better in quality than the speedy ones.
- Judge contributions by quality, not quantity. Not everyone needs to chime in on everything — there’s already too much noise and commentary. Look for depth and breadth of contributions, not volume.
- Don’t assume you’re privy to every bit of collaboration that’s happening. People share and discuss all over the place — in small groups, individually, in public, in private. Just because you don’t see collaboration, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
- Ask for opinions individually. Sometimes the quiet voices just need a tiny bit of encouragement. Find the medium they prefer (IM, Hangout, face to face) and talk to them individually about a particular topic they’re interested in. You might strike gold and it will help them find their voice in the long run.
- Avoid large group-think sessions. They’re insanely ineffective. Short bursts of collaboration in small groups is great. Huge ideas spread across hours and hours? Not so much.
I really believe in quiet voices. They’ve taught me the most and positively influenced my career — far more than the big talkers.
I hope you’ll give them a chance.
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