You're a leader. You want your employees to be happy. But that seemingly simple goal is hard to achieve, for one obvious reason: Why should employees open up about what makes them happy?
It's a private subject. Most employees would rather tell you what they think you want to hear. Which is that they're happy and grateful. Thank you very much. Nothing to see here.
As a leader, you hold the leverage. So if employee happiness truly is your goal, you're the one who has to make the first move. And several follow-up moves. Over a period of months. Even years.
That's the upshot of a conversation I recently had with Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh, coauthors (along with LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman) of The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age, which comes out next week. Casnocha and Yeh, for their part, have also worked as company founders. So they grasp the dynamic of potentially power-imbalanced conversations with abashed employees. Here are four of the tips they shared on building employer-employee alignment:
1. Don't try to create a lasting bond in a single chat. "It's absolutely true that it's very difficult to get employees to trust you and open up if you haven't had a trust relationship in place already," says Yeh. "Historically employees feel they have to be very guarded around their manager and the company in general."
The solution? Bring them out slowly. Share your own values and aspirations. Share something personal, even if it's merely who your favorite band is. And don't expect to learn anything the first several times you're speaking frankly. The truth is, most employees fear they're getting fired, whenever a leader wants to speak privately with them. That's why this type of trust-building takes time. It must be sincere and in-person. And it can't be done with an app.
2. Forget the notion that you and your employees must have 100% long-term alignment. "The key," says Casnocha, "is to have sufficient alignment to get this particular tour of duty to work out."
The phrase "tour of duty" is a term the authors borrow from the military and use throughout The Alliance. "The metaphor conveys the key concept that both military and business tours of duty have in common," they write. "Focus on accomplishing a specific, finite mission."
What might that mission be? For employees, it could be developing skills or gaining connections that help them transition to a different industry or job type. As a leader, it's in your power to help your employees with their missions. Think about how much more motivated your employees would be, if they knew you actually wanted to help them make a career transition--even though the transition would mean that they'll be leaving your company one day.
3. Get out of the office. You can't possibly expect an employee to let his guard down if you call him into your office and close the door. Change the context. Lose the serious vibe of the workspace. Going out to lunch is a great place to start.
When the time is right--remember, this work takes time and multiple chats--consider inviting your employees to your house. Yeh says he's invited staff to his house for family game nights. Board games make it easy to feel chummy--and to temporarily forget about employee-employee boundaries. "It's hard to maintain that distance if you're playing Trival Pursuit or Yahtzee," says Yeh.
4. Depersonalize the key questions. Yeh suggests approaching your employees by saying something like this: "It's my job to help you overcome bottlenecks and all the things that are in your way. What things are preventing you from accomplshing your mission, and how can I solve them?"
Phrasing the question this way enables you to emphasize the mission, rather than the employee himself. It allows the employee to describe what's wrong with his job, without feeling like he's critiquing his own performance or ability to adapt to challenging circumstances.
Casnocha says he learned a great conversational tactic from Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University. The idea is another form of depersonalizing questions: Ask an employee what "most people" think of a certain situation. Usually, the employee will tell you what most people think. But in doing so, she will also provide a glimpse of her own personal feelings. Specifically, Casnocha suggests these conversational cues:
These questions allow you, as a leader, to follow up on whatever topics arise. But you can do so delicately, without pouncing on the employee who--even in sharing what "most people" think--has just displayed a great deal of vulnerability.
All of which is in the interest of that most precious of workplace aims: employee-employer trust. Which leads to one final caveat: The reminder that all of your employees are different. You can't follow the same template or timetable to create trust, every single time.
There will always be differences in how long it takes--and the gestures it takes--to create that trust. "You have to understand and recognize how much honesty and transparency is possible given the current state of the relationship," says Yeh. "You can't use same script with all 10 of your direct reports. All you can do is work toward a level of mutual trust, and move toward honesty."