Seven Questions Every Leader Must Ask
Engaging and mobilizing employees can feel like a daunting challenge. Given recent research on employee engagement, it’s more important than ever. According to a 2012 survey by Jobvite, sixty-nine percent of employed respondents are open to or actively seeking new work using social media. [i]
What if you could engage and mobilize your employees to create value in your business? As a leader, you can have tremendous influence in building an engaged workforce by ensuring that you have current answers to several critical questions. First, let’s look at the problem.
Mind reading opens door for mistrust
Many employees are frustrated because they feel like they have to read their manager’s mind. They don’t know how they are performing, how they can improve, or what opportunities are available to them. The annual performance review is often their only chance to find out, and that event is so stressful and formal that the environment is not conducive for improvements. To top it off, uncertainty and lack of clarity and feedback can quickly lead to a climate of mistrust that erodes engagement.[ii]
Leaders today are often faced with complex challenges and large teams. Focusing time on development may seem like a luxury. Perhaps you feel like you don’t have time to develop others. In early 2013 an HBR blog uncovered the most common areas of weakness of senior managers in a study by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman.[iii] The top area of weakness among senior leaders was “Developing Others.” The good news was that the study also found that leaders who were struggling were capable of making dramatic improvement. So if developing others can improve engagement, can you afford not to spend the time?
The simplest, most effective strategy involves establishing regular, informal ways to connect regularly with each employee to provide feedback, development opportunities, and support. Regular, informal conversations about performance go a long way to build relationship and engagement – especially when they include teachable moments about different business situations. This practice costs almost nothing to implement, can be put into place immediately, and have huge impact.
Employees are more engaged when everyone in an organization knows what is expected of them and how they can improve. The leader can also get first-hand information about potential roadblocks that they can work to remove to support progress. This is even more critical for millennial employees in the workforce—those born between 1980 and 2000. Receiving regular feedback and opportunities are two key principles to keep them engaged. [iv]
Start with seven questions
There are seven simple questions every leader must answer and communicate to employees. As with advertising, frequency counts. The opportunity for regular feedback—positive and constructive—is a chance for you to demonstrate that you care about the employee and their contribution to the business. The questions include:
1. Do you know what is expected of you?
2. What are you doing well?
3. What, if anything, can you be doing better?
4. What, if anything, do I want you to develop and improve in?
5. (If appropriate) What opportunities might be available to you if you develop in these areas?
(e.g., more responsibility, more time with leadership, more desirable assignments)?
6. (If appropriate): What will happen if you don’t improve?
7. How can I support you?
While all of these questions are important, the last question is the most critical. It shows the employee that you are invested in his or her success. Your follow through on that support clearly demonstrates that investment.
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[iv] Zemke, R., Raines, C., Filipczak, B. (2013) Generations at Work (2nd edition) New York, NY, AMACOM.
Have you ever had something that you really wanted to do but you couldn’t imagine how to find the time to do it? Whether it’s taking on a big project or challenge at work, volunteering in the community, or developing an exercise routine, it can look impossible to add a new thing to an already full schedule. We wish we had more hours in the day or more days in the week. We schedule ourselves to the minute and often lose energy just trying to find more time.
What about finding more balance between work and life? Thinking about work / life balance leads me to the place where I can only see the scarcity of time. Putting work on one side of the scale and life on the other lumps too many important things (projects, mentoring, career development, family, community, health) into two time-starved categories. I find that I still don’t have enough time. When I try to put my time into work / life compartments, I miss opportunities to find harmony between the things I do, like applying lessons learned from one arena to another or combining activities like having a “walking” work meeting.
The idea of harmony, however, paints a whole picture that works together, not something that can be lost with one careless step. The Oxford English Dictionary defines harmony as a “Combination or adaptation of parts, elements, or related things, so as to form a consistent and orderly whole; agreement, accord, congruity.”
Years ago when I was leading a team in a large organization, I was intrigued by what motivated individuals and teams to act in certain ways and why my experience ranged from a mountaintop high to a slog through a swamp. I yearned to go back to school to study organizational psychology, but I couldn’t figure out how to balance this with all my other responsibilities. Time passed and through an amazing convergence of events, I decided that I couldn’t NOT go back to school. Once I got past my own obstacle and committed to making a change, I shifted my focus from contemplating my dream to making it happen. The best day was of course finding out I was accepted into the program.
Making room for important things
The subsequent challenge was finding time to work, study, stay fit, and spend time with loved ones. I scrutinized my time to see where I was spending time that didn’t align with my top priorities and stopped doing some things, at least for a period of time. I carefully set expectations about my lack of availability. I found new ways to combine activities. My husband and I would read and exercise together, thus combining time together with other studying and fitness activities. As my school workload increased, and the harmony became more discordant, I adjusted my schedule by finding a rare part—time opportunity which gave me one more precious day for homework. I even tracked my time in a spreadsheet to ensure that I was devoting time to the most important things. Two years of creatively finding ways to continue to eat, sleep, exercise, work, study, and connect with loved ones eventually enabled me to graduate.
When I reflect on that time and ask if my life felt balanced, I would have to say that it wasn’t. When tests came up or papers were due, or something urgent required attention, the scales tilted sharply to allow for the focus I needed to get the job done. Yet I was completely engaged, no time felt wasted, and I gained new insights into organizational behavior that had previously mystified me. Being able to study and work gave me a front row seat into how theories played out in the world of work. The combination was powerful. Being fully engaged in the things that are important to me is a critical indicator of my own sense of harmony.
After that experience, I continue to pay close attention to the harmony of my life to see if I’m spending time on things I really care about, and how the pieces fit together. Here are a few questions to reflect on when it’s time to face the music:
If you had to evaluate your life harmony, what would you learn? What would you change? Life’s music is constantly changing, but you are the conductor holding the baton.
"This is the hardest thing I've ever done."
Those words went through my head every Saturday for about two months starting in March. In my half marathon training program, Saturday was reserved for a long run that would stretch my previously held notion of how long I could run. Every time my plan called for an addition of 10 or 20 minutes, I’d wonder and fret the evening before. But when I actually started running something changed. I stopped questioning and just committed to going the distance—well past the point when my dog decided that 60 minutes was sufficient for her. I also spent more time noticing the details of the experience itself rather than thinking about how much longer I had to go. It started to be almost enjoyable.
Mind you, there was a time not so long ago that I did not run at all. After embarking on a fitness program in 2007, I got the urge to try. My first 5k was a fun run near Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and I had a friend who was willing to pace me. I was spurred on by the encouragement and the scenery. My goal was to finish, and I did. Back then if I had set a goal to run a half marathon, I wouldn't have been ready to commit. I set a bunch of goals: finish a whole 5k, run a 5k with hills, finish in under 30 minutes, heck, try a 10k. The progressive accumulation of challenge and success prepared me to take on something more ambitious.
Getting support in tackling a big goal really makes a difference. Before taking this on, I talked to a bunch of people who had run half marathons. They were encouraging. If they could do it, I could do it. If I could run a 10k, a half marathon was a logical next step. All these conversations helped me to consider that running a half marathon was something I could do. January 2013 came, the opportunity presented itself, I found a team that was running and raising money for World Vision, and I committed. I wanted to finish strong without injury and enjoy the experience enough to consider doing another one. I contacted my trusted trainer and contracted with him to build a plan for me. It fit like a glove: focused on strength, heart rate, cross training as well as running. It had something mapped out for every day. The only days I missed were due to a bad cold.
The right goal
The larger challenge was overcoming the voice in my head that said I wasn’t an athlete. In my head, I was just trying new things to stay active and have fun. But without a goal of some kind, it’s tougher to ignore the voice and push through the harder exercises. Low and behold, the right goal changes everything. The right goal gives meaning to the training. And with consistent practice over time new behaviors become a habit.
To sum it up, I got more from setting the goal to run a half marathon than crossing the finish line. I started getting up earlier and structuring the rest of my day differently, too. I ate and slept better which lead to having a better focus throughout the day. Now I’m imagining what I’m going to do next. As I do that, I’m taking these lessons to heart:
What challenge do you want to tackle?
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