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Honest One-On-One Talks With Employees

Honest One-On-One Talks With Employees

In the Big Bang Theory Episode “The Emotion Detection Automation” the character Raj decides to have a meeting with his ex-girlfriends in order to learn to become a better boyfriend.  The resulting meeting is filled with funny. comical situations, but also some painful truths and responses, that can apply to the subject of employee and employer relationships.

For years we have advocated the need for one-on-ones beyond the awkward annual employee review, and this episode was, well I thought so at least, a great way to provide a comical example of the subject.

It’s important to understand that regardless of an organizations size, employees are the life blood or the soul of the company.  Understanding and having honest, one-on-one communications with an employee is more important today than ever.

When company leaders try to do this, in most cases, they only get to hear what an employee thinks the ‘boss’ wants to hear.  So how can you change this?  In the case of Raj, he wants to appear tough and that he can handle it, but in reality everything said hurts his gentle soul, but he remains focused  to his mission to become better boyfriend material.

Watching the episode, there are a number of things Raj does well, and a few of his responses that are not as helpful.  So here are some pointers to help get employees to talk about what they really feel.

  1. Make empathy your mission.

The meeting has one single mission: to understand how the other person is feeling. Everything else comes second. Do not use the time to focus on critiquing an employee’s performance, nor 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. One point to Raj, as he makes this very clear.

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.

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 intimidating to an employee. And when an employee is less intimidated, they’ll be more honest with you.

2. Ask questions to uncover two things: tension and energy. 

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. (Raj does a poor job of this, though he does try).

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  your manager/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 you ask about a specific moment of tension, follow up with a question about what you 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 we make this place the best place you’ve ever worked?

Try peppering just one or two questions about a specific moment of tension or energy into your next one-on-one.

Please remember that the way employees feel about their work affect how well they do their work.

3. 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. (Raj fails miserably here, as his personal emotions and hangups reflect his unwillingness to really understand)

4. 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. 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.”  (Raj does a great job at this part – but he fails on his response – he gets defensive – albeit great comedy, but not successful response)

Don’t get defensive.

When someone does respond frankly to your question, you’ll want to make sure you remain calm and don’t 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.

5. Talk less.

Do not try to rebut every comment that is made. Do not give excuses. 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. (Raj’s response is to defend or to soften the response to be less harmful. Raj instructs H’Change ‘mamma’s boy’ to ‘loving son’). The truth is the truth and yes it can hurt, but again the goal is to learn how to improve).

Taking the time to sit down and have an honest one-on-one is incredibly beneficial to all parties.  Don’t be afraid, relax, listen and learn. Have fun!  Raj & Howard did.




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