The three questions your employees want you to answer, part 1

Over the past 15 years, managers in all types of organizations I have consulted with have asked me what they need to do develop trust and engage their people.  The answer is complex, nuanced and might take a book.  But, here I offer three important questions that, when answered well, will support such efforts immeasurably.

Every employee, in every company (and, yes, this includes you), typically has three questions they want answered by their manager.  Therefore, to the degree that you provide answers to these questions, and the answers build trust, are timely, and support productive action on the part of the employee, you will have a more aligned, engaged and productive employee.  Importantly, you will have taken a giant leap toward creating a high performing, great workplace.

When I say the answers should build trust, be timely, and support productive action, I mean:

·      Your answer should be credible (open, honest, accurate), respectful (have the best interests of the employee at heart), and fair (to the employee and to the team).

·      Your answer should be regular and timely.  Not once a quarter during a check-in or once a year during review time.  It’s important to “find the extra 60 seconds” to answer these questions (or remind employees) on a regular basis.  Finding the extra 60 seconds can make all the difference in helping an employee feel connected and engaged.

·      Your answer should support productive action.  In other words, your answers need to paint a roadmap or picture that an employee can see and do something with.  If the answers are not actionable, they’re not effective.

So, what are those three questions you ask?  In this blog, and in the next two blog posts, I will share those questions with you, and importantly, why they are important to answer and how to best answer those questions.

The first question that employees want an answer to is this:  Why does this work matter?  Answering this question does two things.  It helps align the employee to business goals.  And secondly, it helps the employee understand what she or he is accountable for.  I once had a colleague say that ‘if an employee can’t have a clear line of sight to what business goal or objective they impact, then probably they are miscast or the work isn’t clear.’  And way too often, employees don’t know how the tangible output of their work contributes to the whole.  An effective manager closes this loop.

Some of the more successful orientation or onboarding programs now feature business acumen training for employees.  This is as true of not-for-profits or government agencies as it is for for-profit businesses.  At the core of “The Great Game of Business” by Jack Stack, for example, is transparent communication with employees on how the organization makes money and how they impact the business.  This training game has been used by businesses all over the world for many years.  When employees understand how things connect, and what part they play in the business, they become more invested in the outcome.

Everyone needs to feel that they matter.  You’ve heard the refrain that people work for money but live for meaning.  Well, answering this question helps employees understand the importance of their work and why they matter to the company.  Sometimes the mission of the organization is not perceived as inspiring, or the strategy is complex or not transparent, or the work being done is tough or routine.  Actually, it is when these conditions are present that managers have to really help employees make meaning of their work.  One way to do this is look for the secondary or tertiary value of the work (answer the question ‘how does this work help people/animals/the planet?’).

When people feel that their work matters and has value, and they understand how their work contributes to the business or the greater good, they become more involved and take pride in their work.  They offer more discretionary effort than what is expected.  And you, as a manager, have a more engaged employee and a deeper, more trusting relationship with them.

In future posts, I will offer the other two questions that managers really need to answer in order to enhance performance and engage their people.