Listen closely for the word “fine.” It’s never the whole story.
Growing up, my family and I moved around quite a bit. From Georgia to Washington to Ohio to Minnesota… People assumed we were a military family because of how often we moved. But that wasn’t the case.
Each time, we moved because of my dad’s job.
My dad has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. His first job coming out of his doctorate program was building robots to clear nuclear waste (nuts, right?). He did that for a few years, but then wanted to get into teaching. So we moved to where he could go teach at a university. After teaching for a handful of years, he wanted to work in business. So we moved again.
With each move, it was clear: There was something more he desired from his job. More growth opportunities, more autonomy, more ways to improve the environment around him.
As a kid, these moves began to wear on me. I had to change schools, make new friends, and be “The New Kid” all over again. It was exhausting. I became perpetually curious: Are we going to have to move again soon? How much is he enjoying his current job?
To get to the bottom of this, I asked my dad one question every day when he would come home from work:
“How’s work going?”
He’d often say the same thing:
That’s what he’d say… But soon enough we would pack up and move yet again. Clearly, things were not “fine.”
This was the first time I observed the disconnect between what we say and how we actually feel — especially in regards to how we feel about our work. This observation stuck with me for a long time.
Years later, after starting my first company when I was 22, I decided to take some time off and go work for someone else. I landed at an early stage e-commerce company right outside Chicago.
I’d been at this e-commerce company for about a year-and-a-half as an employee. One day, I was coming home on the train and I started to reflect on if I was liking my job.
I remember asking myself:
“How’s work going?”
And at the time, I recall thinking to myself:
I laughed. What a familiar situation I’d found myself in. Here I was saying the word “fine” the same way my dad said it to me years earlier.
Just like my dad, things at my job weren’t “fine” at all. I was frustrated with feeling like I couldn’t speak up at work. I felt stifled as an employee, even in such a small company. I was deeply unsatisfied with my job.
Things were not “fine” even though I was saying they were.
I ended up quitting that job to start my own consulting practice helping other employees not feel “fine” about their work. This journey eventually led me to become the CEO of Know Your Team in January 2014.
Now I pay close attention when people use the word, “fine.” Whether I’m asking an employee questions during a one-on-one, or I’m asking a client how things are going, I keenly listen for the word “fine” in her or his response.
To me, “fine” is the ultimate indicator of apathy and discontent. “Fine” means a standard is barely being met. “Fine” means there’s the potential for something to be better. “Fine” means there’s more to learn and dig into.
I’m sharing three years-worth of findings, based on data from 15,000 employees in 15+ countries through Know Your Team…
When’s the last time you had a one-on-one or performance review with an employee… and you learned something completely new?
Don’t think too hard 🙂 If you’re like most CEOs and managers, getting new, surprising insights from employees doesn’t happen very often. Oftentimes, when we’re asking for honest feedback, we simply receive a confirmation of what we want to hear.
We learn, “Oh okay, it seems like everything is fine” or “I already knew that was an issue, so it’s all good there.”
But what about the stuff you don’t know? How do you discern if an employee has an idea to improve the company that she hasn’t brought up yet? How do you figure out if an employee is frustrated with her manager? Or, how can you tell if she’s thinking about leaving?
That’s where we at Know Your Team come in. We’ve spent the past three years researching, writing and refining hundreds of questions across almost 300 companies with 15,000 employees in 15+ countries.
From our 312+Know Your Team questions, below are the best nine that we’ve found to yield the most interesting insights for companies…
#1: “Are you afraid of anything at work?”
Our findings: 67% of employees said, “Yes, I’m afraid of something at work” (753 employees answered this across 89 companies) when asked through Know Your Team. This result caught me off guard (almost 70% of employees are afraid of something at work!) but it goes to show the importance of showing vulnerability as a leader and digging deep to uncover the areas of the company (or people in the company) that employees may feel intimidated by.
#2: “Have you seen something recently and thought to yourself ‘I wish we’d done that’?”
Our findings: 75% of employees said, “Yes, I’ve seen something recently, and thought to myself, ‘I wish we’d done that’” (1,338 employees answered this across 221 companies) when asked through Know Your Team. Clearly, employees are noticing what competitors are doing and may have ideas for you to improve the business. Asking this question helps bring to light what those ideas are.
#3: “Is there something we should measure in the company that we currently don’t?”
Our findings: 78% of employees said, “Yes, there’s something we should measure in the company that we currently don’t” (286 employees answered this across 78 companies) when asked through Know Your Team. This reveals a need to more closely examine the metrics we use to run our businesses, and ask employees if there’s anything not being measured that should be.
#4: “Is there any part of the company you wish you were able to interact with more?”
Our findings: 81% of employees said, “Yes, there’s a part of the company I wish I were able to interact with more” (507 employees answered this across 72 companies) when asked through Know Your Team. An overwhelming majority of the employees we surveyed feel silo-ed. By asking this question, you’ll learn exactly which parts of the company they’d like more interaction with, be it a specific department or office.
#5: “Are there any benefits we don’t offer that you’d like to see us offer?”
Our findings: 76% said “Yes, there are benefits we don’t offer that I’d like to see us offer” (1,807 employees answered this across 179 companies) when asked through Know Your Team. You may be thinking, “Ugh, of course most of my employees want more benefits”… However, what’s most revealing with this question is which benefits your employees are looking for. Many of the companies who asked this specific question have added key benefits that have helped retain employees, or even gotten rid of benefits no one is using. You never know unless you ask.
#6: “Is there an area outside your current role where you feel you could be contributing?”
Our findings: 76% of employees said, “Yes, there’s an area outside my current role where I feel I could be contributing” (814 employees answered this across 135 companies) when asked through Know Your Team. This result is surprising, considering that most managers feel their employees are slammed and are already at capacity. Thus, this question all the more important to ask: You’ll learn very tactically where your employees want to contribute more to help push your business even further.
#7: “Is there anyone at the company you wish you could apprentice under for a few weeks?”
Our findings: 92% of employees said, “Yes, there’s someone at the company I wish I could apprentice under for a few weeks” (2,217 employees answered across 190 companies) when asked through Know Your Team. This shows how much employees crave learning and developing their skills — especially from others within the company. Asking this question will expose to you if this is similarly the case within your own company.
#8: “Have you seen someone here do great work that’s gone unnoticed?”
Our findings: 76% of employees said, “Yes, I’ve seen someone here do great work that’s gone unnoticed” (1,485 employees answered across 209 companies) when asked through Know Your Team. Based off this data, it’s highly-likely that employees in your company may feel under-appreciated. The answers to this question can help you discover which exact projects or areas of the company that employees would like more gratitude and recognition shown in.
#9: “Are there things you don’t know about the company that you feel you should know?”
Our findings: 55% of employees said “Yes, there are things I don’t know about in my company that I feel like I should know” (3,197 employees answered this across 702 companies) when asked through Know Your Team. Employees want to know more about the company —the company’s vision, people’s roles, why certain policies exist, etc. When you ask this question, you quickly get to the core of what those things are.
How many of these 9 questions are you asking in your own company? The next time you go grab coffee with an employee or have a quarterly one-on-one, consider asking one (or all!) of these questions. I guarantee you’ll learn at least one insight that is completely new and surprising.
I was in Hawaii last week walking along the Manoa Falls Trail, when our guide who was taking us through stopped us.
We all shook our heads, “no.”
“Okay, well that’s good,” he said. “If we had, it would have been the sound of the albizia tree limb cracking. You have to be careful if you hear that noise, The albizia tree limb could be cracking above your head… and onto your head.”
Our guide went on to explain that albizias are one of the largest, fastest growing trees in the world. Yet the albizia tree has one big problem: Their wood is weak and brittle.
As a result, albizia trees often topple and split, causing damage to other plant life around them — and to people. In Hawaii, albizia trees have become such a hazard, there are active efforts to preemptively remove them before they get too big and dangerous.
Tall and fast on the outside, weak and brittle on the inside. Looking at these trees, it made me think of businesses too. How the companies I’ve seen that seem big, tall and fast-growing cripple and implode internally. Preoccupied with raising as much money as they can and spending as much money as they can, these companies operate without regard to profitability, how well they’re solving a real problem, and if their team’s culture is healthy. Without strong insides, they don’t last long. And like albizia trees, they leave a wake of damage for others to clean up when they fall.
Even in nature, the things that grow too fast don’t survive.
to give power to (someone); to make (someone) stronger and more confident.
The key words here are “give” and “make.” Empowerment means you’re transferring power to someone else. You think someone else needs you — your permission, your influence, your talents — to do something. And I don’t ever believe that’s the case.
Our employees don’t need me to do anything.
When it comes to motivation, everything people need they already have inside them. Each person has something unique, special and important to offer the world. And as a leader, it’s my job to merely create the best environment that allows them to come into that themselves.
As Frederick Herzberg, a well-known American psychologist, once wrote:
“It’s the job of the manager not to light the fire of motivation, but to create an environment to let each person’s personal spark of motivation blaze.”
Instead of thinking about how you can empower people, here’s what you should consider:
How can I get out of our employees’ way?
How can I better understand what our employees really want?
How can I make it clear why what they do matters?
How can I uncover what makes meaningful, interesting work for that person?
How can I illustrate what “good enough” looks like?
How can I show what trade-offs we value as a company?
How can I consistently treat each person with respect, patience, and kindness?
How can I seek out dissenting viewpoints, and be open to new ideas?
How can I be clear and inclusive about the vision we’re all working toward?
How can I create opportunities for connection and a sense of belonging at our company?
You don’t need to empower anybody. Focus on creating an environment for people to be their best selves.
No, I didn’t get surgery. No, I was not mauled by a bear.
I went snowboarding for the very first time over New Year’s.
The experience was brutal, needless to say. I fell probably a hundred times. Over and over and over. For those of you who’ve learned to snowboard before, you know what I’m talking about 🙂
Surprisingly, the most painful part of the experience was not the physical aching of my knees or my wrists or my butt.
Rather, the greatest pain I felt was a sinking sensation I had in the pit of my stomach: I was reallybad at snowboarding. I wasn’t picking it up “as fast as I thought I was supposed to.” I was frustrated and embarrassed.
I recall thinking to myself, “Maybe snowboarding just isn’t meant for me…”
Then, I tried to remember the last time I felt this way. When was the last time I was this bad at something?
I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t remember the last time I was this outside my comfort zone. I hadn’t dared to suck at something — to allow myself to be vulnerable, to look a little “dumb” to my friends — in a very, very long time.
As adults, we gravitate toward the things that we initially have the least resistance to. The new hobbies I’ve tried to pick up as an adult — whether it’s screen printing or yin yoga — are all things I’ve already had a predisposition for. I’ve already been painting and doing yoga for quite a while. It wasn’t a stretch to try those new mediums and related activities.
But with snowboarding, I was in foreign territory. I wasn’t predisposed to snowboarding. And I’d forgotten the importance of doing the things you’re not predisposed to.
When you let yourself be bad at something, you regain your humility. Sucking at something humbles you. As adults, we protect our egos by not allowing ourselves to be bad at things.
You also remember what the point of learning is: to learn. When you learn, you mess around and you mess up. You’re not supposed to be proficient from the get-go.
And, you rediscover that persistence leads to progress. Day 3 of snowboarding was 10X better than Day 1. I got better. In fact, I got back from my second snowboarding trip just yesterday… and I did a few runs without falling once!
I couldn’t be more grateful that I was so bad at snowboarding. It was the reminder I needed to push myself outside my comfort zone more often. To fight the instinct to expect excellence when I learn something new.
Consider using this one word in your next one on one meeting…
A few years ago, a CEO told me how she was struggling to get honest feedback from her board.
No one seemed willing to be critical or give her pointers on things she could improve. After every board meeting, she would turn to them and ask directly:
“What feedback does anyone have for me?”
She’d hear crickets. Every single time.
No one would speak up. Even though they were board members — people who are supposed to hold her accountable as the CEO of the company — they shied away from offering their honest input.
This was so perplexing to the CEO. She felt like she was being very clear with what she wanted… Why weren’t they just giving her the feedback she was asking for?
One day, she decided to try something different.
Instead of asking, “What feedback does anyone have for me?”… she asked this:
“What advice does anyone have for me?”
All of sudden, everyone started weighing in. “Well I might try this…” and “The way you brought up this point could’ve been better…” and “You could try structuring the meeting like this…”
The word “advice” unlocked all the honest feedback that CEO needed.
Why? The word “feedback’” carries a lot of baggage. To some, they automatically associate it with a “critique” or something negative. It can seem scary and formal.
But “advice” is a much more welcoming word. Advice is about lending someone a hand. When someone gives you advice, they’re just looking out for you.
And when you ask for advice, it’s an invitation. You’re signaling that another person has expertise or knowledge that you find interesting and valuable. That person is often flattered you even asked for advice in the first place.
Who doesn’t love to give advice? 🙂
The next time you’d like to get honest feedback, try asking for advice instead. Notice how much more people open up to you. See how swapping that one word makes a difference.
One of the most popular methods of delivering feedback is, well, shit. Here’s why and what you should do instead…
I recently ran into a friend who mentioned how she uses the Shit Sandwich to deliver feedback.
If you’re not familiar with it, the Shit Sandwich is a technique for delivering feedback popularized by the classic management read, The One Minute Manager. It’s when you layer your feedback “good-bad-good.” You say one complimentary thing to your coworker (one slice of bread), then offer the critique or piece of feedback (the “shit” filling in the middle), and then bookend it with another complimentary comment (the other slice of bread).
My friend and I went back and forth about it. We disagreed. I don’t think the Shit Sandwich works at all.
On the surface, it seems like a solid tactic. You help the person know what they’re doing well, which is great. It’s always good to give positive reinforcement. And it’s nice to know there’s a handy framework when you’re in an uncomfortable situation. Telling someone what they might not want to hear is never fun.
However, the Shit Sandwich can easily backfire. Here’s why…
Most people have been fed the Shit Sandwich before — so they know what’s coming. You’re not doing anyone any favors by trying to add cushioning before and after the bad news.
It feels disingenuous.
Because it’s predictable and feels formulaic, it can come across as fake. As a result, the good things you said will be labeled as “not true” because, to the recipient, it’ll feel like you were obligated to say these “good things.”
People tune out the good, and zoom in on the bad.
Oftentimes, even if what you point out as the “good things” will be cast aside entirely. People tend to have heightened sensitivity about what’s being critiqued when they know what’s coming, and when the “good stuff” feels fake.
The reality is that the Shit Sandwich doesn’t make the other person feel comfortable — it only makes you feel comfortable. No one likes to be seen as “the bad guy” or a heartless leader. So you pepper in the “good stuff” around the “bad stuff” to make you feel more comfortable in delivering the news.
You layer the feedback “good-bad-good” for your own benefit. Not theirs. Seems pretty shitty, to me.
If anything, the Shit Sandwich should be called what it is because you’re simply feeding the other person shit.
So what should you do instead? Instead of layering your feedback “good-bad-good,” try this…
Come from a place of care.
You’re giving feedback because you care. You deeply care about this person’s personal and career growth. You deeply care about the project’s success. You want both the person and the company to thrive. Communicate these things. Ask yourself: “What can I say to let this person know that this feedback is coming from a place of care and helpfulness? How do I let this person know I have good intentions, and that I’m not trying to spite them or be rude?” As you deliver the piece of critical feedback, make this clear.
For example, you could say something like: “I’m saying this because I believe in you and I want you to succeed…” or “This is important to me because I care about the company’s direction as a whole…” or “This matters to me because I only want to ensure that we perform well as a team…”
Come from a place of observation.
We’re often worried that the person is going to take any negative feedback personally. This is big reason why we layer our feedback with the Shit Sandwich of good-bad-good. It’s to say, “Hey look, I don’t think you’re a bad person… see these things I like about you!” Instead, look to communicate your feedback more objectively. Come from a place of observation. Focus on the actions and the situation of what happened — what you observed — and not the personal attributes or characteristics of the person.
For example, if you think a coworker wrote a sloppy email to the client, instead of saying: “I think you’re careless and sloppy”… you could say, “I noticed that in the email you wrote, there were a few careless mistakes that seemed sloppy.” See the difference? The former makes it about the person, while the latter makes it about your observations on what has happened.
Come from a place of fallibility.
Your feedback is not infallible. Don’t forget that your feedback is only an interpretation of what you observed, and your own perspective of how things can improve going forward. Your perspective is not a universal truth. You could be wrong. Be willing to admit that your feedback, while it’s something you strongly believe in, is colored by your own personal lens. Ask yourself: “How can I remind this person that this feedback is only my opinion ? That this isn’t the word of God, that mistakes happen, that there may be information I’m missing?”
A few examples of how you can do this is to say directly: “I might be wrong…” or “I might be off…” or to ask, “Is there any information that you think I might be missing?”
Come from a place of curiosity.
When you give feedback, it should feel like a conversation. No one likes being talked at. Your time to give feedback also as a time to listen to what the other person thinks, as well. Be curious. Consider: “How does this person feel about my feedback? Was there anything I might have misinterpreted or overlooked? Is there anything that I can be doing better to help support the other person?” You want to invite the person to give their side of their story.
To do this, simply ask after sharing your feedback: “What do you think?”
When you’re curious, you’re signaling that you value hearing their perspective on what happened. You’re not mad, upset, or resentful. You see the moment of giving feedback as an opportunity to learn and get better as a leader, yourself.
Sure, all the tactics I’m describing are a little more complex than the catchy “Shit Sandwich” moniker. And yes, they require a bit more nuance and effort to do well.
But when you come from a place of care, observation, fallibility, and curiosity — it makes for a much more honest and productive conversation. You’re going to get a better result.
The person on the other side is going to feel like you’re really trying to help them… which is the whole point of giving feedback, after all. They’re going to feel like you’re giving them a real, meaningful critique.
On March 30th, we’ll reveal insights from almost 300 companies and 15,000 employees in a hands-on, in-depth workshop…
Over the past three years as the CEO of Know Your Company, I’ve heard numerous business owners say a version of this to me:
“Claire, I dig your software and the methodology behind it… but is there a way to put those concepts into practice on day-to-day basis? What are other ways that I can avoid blindspots? And is there a way to teach my leadership team and managers to do the same?”
I get it. I’ve always believed that creating an open, honest working environment requires more than just using a piece of software. As with any complex problem, you’ve got to act in a different way if you want to see any changes.
Because of this, I decided to pull together all our learnings over the past three years, across almost 300 companies and 15,000 employees, and distill it down into an interactive, three-hour workshop next month…
In this hands-on, in-depth workshop, we’ll give you the playbook on how to not be “the last to know” in your company — it’s something we’ve never shared before completely end-to-end.
We’ll reveal best practices and techniques developed from hundreds of conversations with CEOs, and data from almost 300 companies and 15,000 employees in over 15 countries who use the Know Your Company software.
You’ll learn how to get your employees talking about what they really feel (and not what they think you want to hear), so you can avoid costly blindspots as a leader.
And, you’ll get to practice these strategies and tactics during the workshop with live in-person coaching from our yours truly 😊
While I’ve given plenty of talks, a 30-minute keynote has never been enough time to really dig into the issues, understand each attendee’s personal situation and struggles, discuss techniques in detail, and coach each person along on how to implement them. In this workshop, we’ll get to do that.
Why a company’s vision really matters (& how to figure out yours)
Last week, I was asked to advise an entrepreneurship class over at the Northwestern Law School here in Chicago. Students pitched business ideas to a panel of mentors, including myself. We were then asked to give feedback on these ideas.
The first team of students presented an idea to use video conferencing technology to better connect legal services with clients. On the first slide of their presentation, it said something to the effect of…
“Vision: To alter the delivery of legal services.”
This caught my attention. The “vision” they’d written was not a vision.
“To alter the delivery of legal services” describes what you’re doing or what you’d like to do. But that’s not a vision. A vision is a place.
Let me explain.
What exactly is a vision?
A vision is a picture of a better place. You see this picture in your head: It’s what you want the world to look like because your product or company exists. In many ways, your company’s vision is your opinion for how you think the world ought to be. A vision answers the question, “What world do you want to create?”
Vision is often misconstrued with other business-y terms, like “mission,” “purpose,” and “values.” But a vision is different from any of those things.
A vision is what you want to create (remember, it’s a place!). The mission of your company is why you want to get to that vision. Your company’s values are how you want to get to that vision.
For the team of law students that I was mentoring, their vision for their company needed to be a picture of a better place. “To alter the delivery of legal services” is not a place.
Instead, a potential vision of theirs could be: “A world where legal services are democratized and easily accessible to anyone.” Or perhaps another take on their vision might be: “A world where people’s time and money are saved by having on-demand, affordable access to legal services.”
See the difference?
Why does a vision matter?
Knowing the vision of your company is important for two reasons: (1) it’s the vision the ultimate clarifying force in your business decisions and (2) it’s the greatest motivator for your team.
At Know Your Team, I’ve found this to be especially true. When I became the CEO, the first thing I did was write down what I saw as our company vision: A world where people can communicate openly and honestly at work. It has since driven everything we do.
Vision clarifies business decisions.
Take product development, for instance. When we think about our product development here at Know Your Team, we envision that picture of a better place: How can we build a product that creates an environment at work where people communicate openly and honestly?
We’ve surely lost sales because of this decision. People come to us saying they want an anonymous feedback feature in the product. And when we explain that we don’t offer anonymous feedback and the reasoning behind it, they’ll tell us they’re no longer interested in using Know Your Team.
For us, that’s okay. Upholding our vision matters more to us than turning a quick buck or two. I prefer to sacrifice a sale here and there for the sake of showing others a different way of how the world could be better off. After all, that’s the only way real progress toward your vision is made. When you stick to your guns, the world you want slowly begins to take shape.
Vision informs the product. Not the other way around.
The same holds true for the team of law students I’m advising. Depending on what they determine their vision to be, that will ultimately shape what they will build and who they will build it for.
For example, if they decide their vision is “a world where legal services are democratized and easily accessible by anyone”, they might focus on low-income individuals who typically cannot afford in-person legal services.
On the other hand, if the students decide their company’s vision is “a world where people’s time and money are saved by having on-demand, affordable access to legal services,” their target customer might be busy professionals who need quick legal advice, but don’t have the time to schedule an in-person appointment with a lawyer.
Both visions encompass the “altering the delivery of legal services.” But depending on which vision they choose to pursue, their business will have fundamentally different product directions, target customers, etc.
Vision is the greatest motivator for you and your team.
At Know Your Team, this picture of a better place is what motivates me and gets me up in the morning. I can literally see in my mind’s eye how employees, managers, and CEOs interact when they’re living in a world where they can communicate openly and honestly at work.
But this vision isn’t just motivating to me. When shared, a vision is the most powerful way to motivate a group of people.
Why? A shared vision gives your team a common place to strive for. When each employee at your company clearly sees that same picture of a better place in their own minds’ eye, each person connects to it and feels that pull of motivation to want to create that place.
This means you can give more autonomy to each employee. Your employees now have a shared destination on the map, so you don’t need to be ordering a series of coordinates instructing them how to get there. No more micromanaging.
A shared vision also helps people get things done amidst disagreements. When people argue over how to grow the sales team or whether to acquire another business, this shared vision is a uniting force that can override seemingly irreconcilable differences.
The key is that this vision is shared. If it’s purely top-down and coming from the CEO, people will see it as such. “Oh that’s just the CEO’s vision…” Now, your company isn’t aligned at all. You want to make sure your company’s vision is a picture of a better place that everyone wants to get to.
How do you create a shared company vision?
For your own company: Is the vision a picture of a better place? And if it is, is the vision shared?
Or, like the law students in the entrepreneurship class, is the vision a bit amorphous? And perhaps a little different for every person in the company, depending on who you talk to?
If it’s the latter, don’t beat yourself up! You’re not alone. When asked to 1,385 employees across 160 companies though Know Your Team, “If someone asked you to describe the vision of the company, would a clear answer immediately come to mind?” 30% of employees answered, “No.”
Here are a few ways to figure out what your company’s vision is, and ensure it’s shared across your company….
Commit to figuring it out.
You can’t expect your company’s shared vision to be some magic phrase that hits you upside the head. A shared vision only emerges after repeated, deliberate conversations and actions toward what it could be. The key is to be genuinely committed to developing one. A shared vision comes from an real desire to cultivate a greater sense of meaning in the work that you do.
Ask your employees what their personal visions are.
Ask each of your employees: What is the picture of a better place that you want to create? A company’s vision stems from the personal visions of each employee. After all, that is what the company is composed of: individuals. Each person must contribute to the vision in some way for it to be truly shared. You should ask each employee: Why are you here? What makes you proud to work here? What’s the most rewarding part of what you get to do? From their responses, you can identify the common thread, and begin to foster a shared vision.
Interact more with those who benefit from the work you do.
Since vision is the end result of what you do as a company, reminding yourself of that impact is key. Your company is (hopefully) making someone’s life better and improving the world in some way. Ask yourself, What’s the impact my company is creating right now? How can we further that impact? What would it look like to help people? To help answer these questions, you should interact more with customers — the very people who are benefiting from the work you do. Hear their stories, how you’ve helped them, and how your company has made their lives better. It can help paint the picture for creating that impact for more people, and sets the foundation for a shared vision.
This isn’t easy to think about, let alone to act on. It’s understandable why fostering a shared company vision is frequently bypassed, or conflated with “a mission statement” or “values.” And among the seemingly thousands of things you need to do for your company to survive, a shared vision can feel more like a “nice-to-have” than a “must-have.”
In fact, trying to distill a clear company vision can feel so daunting that many CEOs I’ve spoken with over years have said a version of this to me:
“You know what Claire, I think it’s okay that we don’t have a shared vision for the company right now. I don’t think it’s mission-critical.”
Don’t settle for that. Your company’s success is contingent on utmost clarity on what you’re building toward. You need a shared vision to make decisions and to motivate your team — and you need that clarity and motivation now.
The clearer and truer that vision is for you, the more easily those decisions and motivating your team will come.
Here are six ways to get employees talking about what they really feel (and not what they think you want to hear)…
“I can handle the truth. I’m pretty tough, Claire.”
My CEO at the time told me this during our one-on-one about five or so years ago. The year was ending, and he wanted to know what the company could do to improve, how he could improve as a leader — and he wanted to know the truth of what I actually thought.
Yet despite him saying he could “handle the truth,” I couldn’t bring myself to tell it to him.
Truth was, I wasn’t confident in the company’s overall direction. And I was troubled when I learned a few employees felt they were treated unfairly in the company… But it felt futile to mention these things. I couldn’t imagine that our CEO would take my feedback to heart and change anything in the company. If anything, I could more easily imagine that I’d provoke a negative reaction from him. Telling him the truth just didn’t seem worth it.
I’ll never forget that feeling of holding something back — choosing not to vocalize what I was thinking because I felt nothing in the company would change. To be clear: I’m not proud of my silence. Now knowing what I know about giving feedback to a manager, I wish I’d spoken up. Today as a CEO myself, I can only imagine how utterly frustrating it was for him to have that one-on-one with me… and then a few months later learn that I was leaving the company.
Having experienced this, I’ve thought deeply about the one-on-ones I do with my own team here at Know Your Team. I never want a teammate of mine to feel how I once did on the other side of the table. And I don’t want to be like my former boss, blindsided by how an employee is actually feeling.
To encourage honest responses during a one-on-one with an employee, here’s what I keep in mind…
Make empathy your mission.
Every time I have a one-on-one, I have a single mission: to understand how the other person is feeling. Everything else comes second. I don’t use the time to focus on critiquing an employee’s performance, nor do I 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.
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.
I’ll oftentimes make my mission of empathy clear upfront during a one-on-one to further diffuse any sentiment of intimidation. For example, I’ll say: “Today is for me to listen and truly understand where you’re feeling on things – that’s it. This isn’t a performance review or status report. This conversation is for me to understand what I can be doing to make this the best place you’ve ever worked.” 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.
Ask questions to uncover two things: tension and energy.
To get to the bottom of how someone is feeling — particularly the negative stuff — I’ll 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.
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 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 we proceeded?
When have you been annoyed, peeved, or bothered by me and something I’ve done as a 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 I ask about a specific moment of tension, I follow up with a question about what I 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 I make this place the best place you’ve ever worked?
If this feels “touchy-feely” and not really your style because you’re talking too much about emotions – I understand. Try peppering just one or two questions about a specific moment of tension or energy into your next one-on-one. I guarantee those one or two questions alone will shed more light on an employee’s level of morale, more than anything else.
And, keep in mind that touchy-feely isn’t a bad thing. The way employees feel about their work affect how well they do their work.
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.
The best way to overcome this power dynamic is to admit what you think you suck at. As you’re asking questions, reveal your fallibility. For example, if you pose the question: “What do you think we can improve on as a company?” and you’re getting a bit of radio silence on the other end, share what you’re struggling with or feel unsure about. You can suggest to them, “I think ___ could’ve gone better… what do you think?” or “I think I could probably be better at __ . Would you agree or disagree?” By showing vulnerability, it gives confidence for an employee to share something that might be perceived as negative.
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. I often forget to do this myself. But I find that when I do, it shows an employee that I’m not asking questions out of vanity or to “check a box.” Rather, I’m explaining how their feedback impacts the success of the company, and their own career development. Professor Amy Edmondson who coined the term “psychological safety” in workplaces recommends to “make explicit that there is enormous uncertainty ahead and enormous interdependence.” In other words, because the future is so uncertain and there’s much to still figure out, everyone’s opinion and input matters. 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.”
Don’t get defensive.
When someone does respond frankly to your question, you’ll want to make sure you do not 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. So when someone brings up a tough topic, watch yourself. Do you get testy and a bit defensive? Or do you calmly listen and ask insightful follow-up questions? Your reaction will be their benchmark of whether they’ll feel comfortable bringing up these hard conversations in the future.
Do not try to rebut every comment that is made. Do not give excuses on how swamped you’ve been. 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.
This isn’t easy. Every time I do a one-on-one, I still feel a little nervous when I ask about a specific moment of tension… And I always take a deep breath to keep myself from reacting defensively when they share their answer. Navigating a one-on-one well requires discipline and a dose of courage.
Most of all, it requires a real desire for the truth. What fuels me to seek out honesty in a one-on-one is because I know that seeing the current reality for what it is — how our business is doing, what our employees think of the company — is the only way I’ll build a better company and become a better leader. Without knowing the truth, I’m squandering a chance to move the company forward, or even perpetuating a valuable employee to leave the company.
Holding an honest one-on-one with an employee is one of the few yet most effective ways to get that truth. Let’s double down on doing it well.