By Marcus Nicolls, Senior Partner at Partners In Leadership
Employees don't always ask managers the hard questions. Perhaps they fear repercussion for asking the "wrong" question, they don't know if certain questions are taboo, they don't want to expose their lack of knowledge, or they are afraid of taking risks in general. Whatever the reason, experience shows that if employees don't get the information they need from managers, they look for it elsewhere--often in the wrong places.
While you won't preempt all rumors, here are five common questions that employees want answers to but often don't know how to ask their managers. Proactively addressing these concerns can ward off misinformation, as well as build trust and open communication in the organization, encouraging employees to approach you when new concerns arise.
1. What is my future at this company?
This question is best answered by asking the employee: "Where would you like to be in 2 years? In 5 years? What does your ideal future look like?"
If there is a place for that future within the organization, lay out the actionable steps the employee can take to get there. Rather than make false promises or leave them in ambiguity, use this opportunity to be honest about the employee's performance to date and discuss what results are necessary for them to move forward in the organization.
2. What are my strengths and weaknesses?
It's difficult (some might say impossible) for people to objectively self-assess. We are hardwired to filter our experiences and perceptions through belief biases (the tendency to selectively interpret events and people through our own current view of things - our pin-hole perspective). But the fact that people generally want to know their strengths and weaknesses represents a huge opportunity for leaders.
Exchange candid feedback with your employees regularly, using both appreciative and constructive terms like "opportunities" and "gaps to close" instead of "problems" or "flaws." Lead a two-way conversation, rather than delivering a lecture. You'll be surprised by what your employees tell you when you create a consistent and safe opportunity to speak openly.
3. What's the best way to ask for a raise?
Asking for a raise is a delicate matter, and this may be among the hardest questions for an employee to bring up with their manager. To ensure that everyone in the company has realistic expectations surrounding compensation, be open about how these decisions are made (and the appropriate time to posit the question).
Establish a biannual review period during which this question can be addressed, for example, and make it clear which performance-based metrics are used as criteria when these decisions are made. If compensation is aligned with specific targets, employees will be more likely to take accountability to deliver on those targets that are directly impacting their compensation.
4. When is it ok to unplug from work?
Let your employees in on a secret: the last thing that you, as a leader, want to do is micromanage them. If an employee has established herself as a responsible, hard worker who always meets deadlines, then that's what matters--not whether she responds promptly to an after-hours email.
If your employees feel compelled to be available to you at all hours, have a conversation about your expectations: when you send an email at 7:00 pm, do you expect a response right away or can it wait until the next morning? It's best to set these expectations early on so that misunderstandings don't arise later.
5. Is the company on track to achieve its goals?
Without a clear vision of the organization's progress, employees speculate. If revenue goes down, don't give people time to assume the worst. The last thing you want is for everyone to worry about keeping their jobs instead of focusing on the work.
Keep employees engaged by being honest about progress, what the company is doing to address the downturn, and how employee actions directly impact the outcomes. Employees who understand that they're playing an essential role in the company's success are more motivated to take ownership of their work--just the kind of organizational culture you need to pull the company out of a slump.
Water What You Want to Grow
Understanding your leadership style is a good first step in knowing how to communicate with employees so they feel comfortable approaching you with the difficult questions.
As a rule of thumb, motivate employees by starving the problems and feeding the opportunities. Experience demonstrates with clarity that people respond much better, and are more positively engaged, when empowered by gain than threatened by pain.
The secret to exceptional leadership is to lead and manage the way you'd like to be led and managed. With deliberate attention to this approach over time, you'll discover a more open, candid, engaged workforce where employees aren't wondering where they stand - or looking to put their talents to use elsewhere.