What happens when you ask an employee a question?
If yours is a polarized workplace, you probably get awkward pauses and averted eyes at first. Then you get a neutral comment, a "safe" stock response, or remarks that seem unnaturally bright and chipper, like the one depicted in this wall mural.
People don't want to tell the boss the truth. They're worried that doing so will make them the scapegoat.
A story is told about the first American astronauts who were guests aboard the Soviet Mir space station. They were appalled to find broken instruments that had been fixed with the aerospace equivalent of duct tape and baling wire. When they asked their cosmonaut counterparts why they hadn't requested replacement parts, they were told that problems generally weren't reported -- because if they were, the cosmonauts doing the reporting were blamed. It was assumed that the breakdown happened on their watch, and they could face disciplinary action for failing to perform maintenance correctly.
If questions from the boss are viewed as ticking time bombs, no wonder people don't want to engage in dialogue!
In a workplace where systems and equipment are expected to run perfectly, humans are the only target when things go wrong.
Does that describe your organization? Does your upper management automatically assume that people are the problem? Do you?
If so, you will continue to have a hard time engaging your employees in dialogue. When you do corner them, you will continue to get no-answer answers. They aren't stupid!
The way to reverse the trend is to start giving the impression that you are more interested in fixing problems than blaming people. And that means you must ask questions that invite analysis without implying blame. Wording is extremely important here.
The #1 Question Technique That Gets Results
Here's a questioning strategy I recommend because it builds one-on-one relationships as it breaks new ground in management-employee relations. And oh yes, it usually gets reliable answers.
1. Set up a conversation. Start your interaction in a friendly, casual way. Never ask a question "cold." Start with an affirmation (see last week's post) or a neutral observation about a project that states a very obvious fact without any judgmental overtones. This might be a comment about a project's state of completion, or a recent observable trend. It should include a time reference. Some examples: "It's been about a month since they finished installing the new machines." "Job orders have picked up the past two weeks." "You were at that department meeting the other day."
This type of opening comment gives employees the context of your upcoming question in a non-threatening way. It helps them pull their thoughts away from what they were just concentrating on, and zero in on what the heck you are talking about. Don't forget, you may have had your question in mind for a while, but for your employee, it's coming out of the blue. Engaging the employee with light commentary will give them a chance to focus on the topic at hand and start framing their response.
2. Make "face contact." After your comment, pause the verbal communication and take a moment to communicate non-verbally via your facial expression. Your expression needs to be upbeat, curious, energetic, and focused on the employee. If you don't know the type of expression I'm talking about, just picture how you would look at your best customer if he or she walked through the door right now. That's right. You need to treat your employees as though they were your best customers when you talk to them. That means not only making eye contact, but making a connection. And if you're looking dull, distracted, or down your nose at them, your conversation is likely to be relationship-damaging, not relationship-building. So practice in the mirror if you have to! Then, keep your face working full time as you go on to the next step and...
3. Ask the Universal, Neutral, Open-Ended Question. I am very proud of this question. It's such a winner -- but it's so deceptively simple, you might be tempted to scoff at it. That said, here it is (and I wish I had a dramatic drum roll sound effect to accompany it):
"How's all this working out for you?"
I have worked very hard to perfect this question over the years. Giving it to you is like giving you a magic lamp, because if you set it up correctly, it will grant your wish for real, honest feedback.
Look at it again. Do you see what's going on here? You are giving the employee an opportunity to talk about his or her experience within a receptive, constructive context. That employee might still clam up -- and if so, you have more relationship-building to do -- but by now he has had a chance to mentally check in with the topic (step 1), and received your non-verbal permission to talk freely (step 2), so it's highly likely that the next words you hear will be heartfelt.
4. Pay attention! Your role now, in case you haven't figured it out, is Support Person. You will hear the employee's comments from a support provider point of view. in his eyes, you are not the boss now -- you are the Person With Pull who might be able to help solve a problem.
4. Refrain from weighing in. Keep building the relationship by remaining non-judgmental. Don't object, defend, or explain -- just keep listening. Respect and value whatever is being said as the reflection of that person's experience, whether you agree with it or not. When the person has reached the end of his or her comments, ask follow-up questions if it makes sense to do so, but concentrate on only two things:
- Which parts of the process are helping the employee do his job?
- Which parts of the process might need to be clarified or changed to help the employee do his job?
5. Thank the employee. No matter what has been said, you need to show appreciation to the person who said it. Even if it was information you already knew, giving it to you was an effort. Say, "That's good feedback for me. I appreciate it."
6. Supply answers or assurance of support if you can. If you have detected a cry for help in the employee's remarks, address it right away. Reaffirm that your goal is to help the process work the best for everyone, then give direction or offer input in your role of Support Person and/or the Person With Pull as a way to help the employee address the issues and do his job well. Even if the crux of the matter lies outside your sphere of responsibility, commit to a follow-up action if you can: "I'll check into it when we have our task force meeting next week."
Other strategies to keep in mind when engaging in two-way Deliberate Dialoguing:
- Continue to avoid blame. If you hear "She did this" or "He didn't do that," ask a question to defuse the finger-pointing and bring the focus back to the process. "So you're saying that some people are having a hard time with ____?"
- Ask permission before you share the employees' comments. Keep in mind that if they've divulged information to you alone, in a one-to-one conversation, they may assume that it will be kept confidential. When you want to take it further, explain your reasons for doing so (and these should focus on improving the process or resolving the issue), then let the employee choose between going on the record or remaining anonymous.
- Don't penalize the employee for sharing -- in any way. Don't make them late for lunch or take up their whole coffee break with your questions. Above all, don't make them do extra work: "Can you summarize what you just said in an email and send it to me?" (Imagine how that will play in the inter-office grapevine! Good luck getting any comments the next time you go fishing for them!)
- Respect that people are speaking off the cuff. Cut everyone a lot of slack, and say so: "I know I haven't given you time to think about this. I'm just looking for your gut reaction."
- End the conversation by linking it to a mutual objective. If you haven't already done so, make your purpose clear: "I'm trying to make sure we can meet our company goal of ______."
- Invite more input. Say, "If you think of anything else, here's how to contact me..." then give your availability and how to best get in touch over the next few days.
To empower quality relationship-building conversations, you need to stay intentional. Make systems and processes the focus of trouble-shooting, not people. Your people are your most precious problem-solving resource at work. By engaging in Deliberate Dialoguing, you can ensure that this resource is available to you when you need it the most. So remember my guiding motto:
"Aim, Don't Blame."