The Worst Performance Review


Annual, semi-annual, quarterly, 360…no matter what form they take, performance reviews can be anxiety-inducing workplace rituals. In today’s episode of the Rework podcast, we talk to the head of HR at an HR software company (meta!) and a Basecamp designer about why helpful feedback is so difficult to give and receive — and what can be done to improve the process.

The 8 best questions to put on your next one-on-one meeting agenda

I asked 1,000 leaders from all over the world what questions they ask during a one-on-one meeting. Here’s what they said…

That one-on-one meeting is scheduled on your calendar this week. So, what should you talk about?

As a manager, executive, or business owner, this is one of the most recurring and perplexing situations you’ll face. Should you prepare an one-on-one meeting agenda ahead of time? Does it feel too stiff to do so? Should you simply have general meetings topics ready to go? What are the questions you should asking during this one-on-one?

We posed this dilemma to The Watercooler, our online leadership community in Know Your Team with almost 1,000 leaders from all over the world, to see what they had to say. From that conversation, I’ve shared what these managers, business owners, and executives from The Watercooler have found to be the best questions to ask during a one-on-one meeting.

Take a look and see if you agree…

#1: How’s life?

On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a significant question to ask. After all, some managers default to asking this question as a crutch when they’re not sure how to open up a one-on-one meeting. However, this question can be actually quite powerful, if you can embrace a greater intention behind it: To build trust. When asked, most Watercooler members agreed on the importance of having trust and a strong personal rapport going into the one-on-one. The more you know about a coworker’s dreams, hobbies, pets, children’s names, etc., the greater the sense of trust is. And the greater the trust, the easier a tough conversation is. As a result, many managers from the Watercooler kick off their one-on-one with a “get-know-you” question like, “How’s life?” or “How’s [insert spouse’s name]?” or “What are you up to this weekend?”

One manager in particular emphasized the importance of talking about life outside of work way before you even have the one-on-one. That way, you build a foundation of trust to use if you need to bring up a difficult topic during your one-on-one. Prior to a one-on-one, here are some of the top 25 get-to-know you questions that can help with this.

#2: What are you worried about right now?

During a one-on-one, you want to figure if there’s anything bothering an employee, before it’s too late and they decide to leave or their performance is affected. Few questions do that an well as as this one. Recommended by a few of the Watercooler members (and a question I regularly asking during my one-on-ones), this question can help unearth the deep-seated concerns, confusion, or uncertainty an employee might be facing. A slight variation to this question that may unearth even more specific answers is: “When’s the last time you were worried about something?” This question is rooted in a specific moment of tension that can help make it more concrete for an employee when reflecting on if there’s something they might be worried about.

#3: What rumors are you hearing that you think I should know about?

Asking this question can bring to light rumors that you can dispel before they spin out of control. But on top of that, as one Watercooler member said: “What the rumor mill is saying is also often a compass pointing to places where people feel stressed.” Ask this question to uncover a deeper, disconcerting source of unease or frustration for employees. You’ll want to pay attention to that.

For one Watercooler member, asking this question had a direct effect on her entire team’s morale: She was able to nip a rumor in the bud very quickly about why an employee was fired.

#4: If you could be proud of one accomplishment between now and next year, what would it be?

To get a coworker thinking about their personal goals over the next six months, as well as their long-term careers, one manager in The Watercooler recommended asking this question. You may not get a meaningful response every single time from every employee you pose it to, as some employees may find it difficult to answer on-the-spot. However, it’s a great way to spark the initial conversation with an employee about future goals. Not to mention, it’s a more thoughtful question than simply asking, “What goals do you have for yourself?”

#5: What are your biggest time wasters?

No one likes to waste time. Few feelings are as stifling and demoralizing, especially in a work setting. As a result, asking this question during a one-on-one is imperative. Once you ask this question, be prepared to think on and follow with concrete ideas for how you think that person’s time won’t be wasted.

#6: Would you like more or less direction from me?

Feeling micromanaged is often another source of stress for an employee — and it’s one of the most common. As a manager, it can easily to unintentionally give an employee too much guidance. At the same time, employees find it equally frustrating when they’re hung out to dry with no support. When you ask this question, you can then adjust your management style and techniques. Furthermore, asking this question also signals to your coworker that you recognize the value of providing the right level of support as a manager. As a leader, this question shows you’re self-aware.

#7: Would you like more or less feedback on your work? If so, what additional feedback would you like?

Watercooler members suggest asking this question, because you’re most-likely going to get a resounding “yes.” After surveying hundreds of companies and thousands of employees through Know Your Team, we’ve found that 80% of employees say, “I want more feedback about my performance.” Your one-on-one is the perfect opportunity to figure out exactly what kind of feedback someone would like.

#8: Are there any decisions you’re hung up on?

One of the best ways to help coach an employee is to give them some support on a decision that they’re wrestling with. They could be quite distraught because they’re not sure with path to take — and you can help. Asking this question during the one-on-one is a wonderful way to alleviate the potential pain they may be feeling around a tough decision.

Whether your one-on-ones are weekly, once a month, or once a quarter, I’d highly encourage you to place one or two of these questions in your typical meeting agenda. Based on the experiences of Watercooler members who’ve asked these questions, you’re guaranteed to learn something new and create a stronger rapport with your team.

P.S.: This was originally published on the Know Your Team Blog. If you enjoyed this piece, please feel free to share + give it 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😊(And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Excuses we tell ourselves as leaders to avoid honest employee feedback

I was on the phone with a CEO the other week. He wanted my advice for how he could cultivate a more open, transparent company culture for his team.

This CEO seemed to be already doing a lot of the right things. He held monthly all-hands meetings to get everyone on the same page. He also regularly asked questions to his employees about what could be better in the company.

However, when I recommended one question that he ask his employees, he was a bit taken aback.

“You want me to ask my team: ‘Are there any benefits we don’t offer that you think we should?’ Hmm, I dunno, Claire,” he told me.

This CEO assured me that he welcomed and valued feedback from employees. But asking about company benefits? And asking about them so publicly? He started to feel nervous about it.

“I don’t want the feedback to be a distraction,” he shared. “There’s so much we already do around benefits — I think this could set the wrong expectations and derail people from getting their work done.”

He continued:

“And, I don’t think we’re ready to act on that feedback. If we ask that question, it implies we need to implement something. But it might not be cost-effective. If we can’t do it, I don’t want to let people down.”

I get it. I’m a CEO myself. No CEO wants her employees to be distracted. No CEO wants to make false promises.

Here’s the reality, though: If you dig deeper, those two statements are actually excuses that are keeping you from building the open, transparent company culture you’re keen on.

Let’s take a look.

Excuse #1: “I don’t want feedback to be a distraction.”

Any feedback your employee might have already exists, whether or not you choose to ask about it. If someone has an idea to improve company benefits, that’s an idea that they’re already thinking about in their heads. So if you don’t ask about it — if you let that feedback sit and fester — it becomes a distraction. The longer you ignore it, the longer you don’t ask about it, the greater the distraction balloons. The way to nip the distraction in the bud is to ask about it. When you ask a question like, “Are there any benefits we don’t offer that you think the we should?”, you have an opportunity to clear the air, and help an employee feel heard. Asking for feedback isn’t the distraction — pretending that your employees don’t have feedback is.

Excuse #2: “I’m not ready to act on feedback.”

Popular management wisdom tells you that,”You shouldn’t ask for feedback unless you’re ready to act on it.” Sure, if you don’t do something with the feedback, you’ll look like you’re not following through on your word. But acting on feedback doesn’t necessarily mean implementing the actual piece of feedback. You can thank the person who gave you the feedback. You can explain why you’re not enacting the feedback, and provide context for the decision. Both routes show you’re listening, and that you value your employees’ feedback. Oftentimes, that recognition and explanation is all an employee is looking for. They’ll take notice.

If you’ve ever caught your own manager — or yourself — saying the above two excuses, then here’s my tip: Stop.

While you may mean well, you’re hindering yourself from creating the open, transparent company culture you’ve always wanted.

P.S.: This was originally published on the Know Your Team Blog. If you enjoyed this piece, please feel free to share + give it 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😊(And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)This article was originally published for

The Bad News Advantage

Telling your employees the truth — even when it’s bad — makes you a better leader. Here’s why…

Sharing bad news is a good thing.

As a leader, you might not think it, at first. But it’s true. Leaders who are honest about the bad — just as much as the good — are better leaders.

But it’s not just me saying this. Research proves this.

In a 2013 study discussed in Forbes, researchers found that leaders who gave honest feedback were rated as five times more effective than ones who do not. In addition, leaders who gave honest feedback had employees who were rated as three times more engaged.

Employees yearn for this honest, corrective feedback. In a study shared in Harvard Business Review, 57% people preferred corrective feedback to purely praise and recognition. When further asked what was most helpful in their careers, 72% employees said they thought their performance would improve if their managers would provide corrective feedback.

In other words, people don’t just want to be patted on the back and told, “Good job.” Employees want the truth. They want to know: How can I be better? What can I change or improve?

I call this “The Bad News Advantage.” When you share bad news and honest feedback, you gain three advantages:

  1. You become a better leader.
  2. You engage your team more.
  3. You’re saying what your employees want to hear.

Leaders who understand these benefits of “The Bad News Advantage” have a leg up over others.

However, despite how helpful sharing bad news and honest feedback can be, we as leaders avoid it like the plague.

In two other surveys published in Harvard Business Review, each of nearly 8,000 managers, 44% of managers reported that they found it stressful and difficult to give negative feedback. Twenty-one percent of managers avoided giving negative feedback entirely.

Sound familiar? 🙂 You may have found yourself avoiding giving negative feedback or sugar-coating your words to an employee, at some point. I know I have. Giving honest feedback can feel critical, unnatural and just flat-out uncomfortable.

Des Traynor, co-founder of Intercom, knows this feeling, too. I recently interviewed him, and he candidly admitted how he’d found himself in this situation…

Des had entered a one-on-one meeting, prepared to give honest feedback to an underperforming employee. In fact, he’d written down notes beforehand of what he wanted to say.

Then, he went into the meeting to deliver the feedback.

Upon leaving the meeting, Des looked back at his notes and realized he’d said the complete opposite to the employee. He’d minced his words, and dramatically softened what was supposed to be pointed feedback.

The employee walked away thinking he didn’t need to change anything he was doing — which was not what Des was thinking.

In that moment, Des, like many of us, had forgotten “The Bad News Advantage.” He’d forgotten that when you give difficult, honest feedback…

  1. You become a better leader.
  2. You engage your team more.
  3. You’re saying what your employees want to hear.

Des is an incredibly self-aware leader to have recognized this himself. He clearly saw the lost opportunity to improve things with an employee, and has since made delivering honest feedback — no matter how bad it is — a priority as a leader.

But that’s just Des.

How about you?

P.S.: This was originally published on the Know Your Team Blog. If you enjoyed this piece, please feel free to share + give it 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😊(And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

The 3 types of bullshit feedback — and what to do about them

How to handle the most-frustrating types of feedback we hear.

The feedback we receive can sometimes feel like bullshit.

I recently spoke with a CEO who told me she received feedback from an employee who proclaimed, “This company doesn’t care about parents.” The employee then proceeded to gripe about the lack of maternity and paternity benefits.

Admittedly, the CEO agreed that the company’s maternity and paternity leave policies could be improved… But she was livid about the broad accusation that “this company doesn’t care about parents.” What an unfair generalization. The CEO was a parent, herself!

The CEO was conflicted about how to react to the feedback: She didn’t want to come off as being defensive to her employee. But she also didn’t want sweeping, inflammatory remarks to be seen as well-received by the employee. How was she supposed to take this feedback? It felt like bullshit.

Bullshit feedback usually comes in one of three forms…

The feedback is true — but the delivery is off.

(This is case of the CEO’s situation I just described). The other person complains and makes it a bitch-session. Or she or he is overly snappy, harsh, and rude.

The feedback is flat-out untrue.

The other person doesn’t have the full picture or was misinformed about something. Or she or he may even be lying.

You can’t tell if the feedback is true or not .

The feedback is vague, unclear or supremely subjective. There aren’t any examples or specifics to back up what she or he is saying.

These three types of bullshit feedback —the poorly delivered, the untrue, and the unclear — are insanely frustrating to be on the receiving end. How in the world are you supposed to possibly receive them well?

Given that how you receive feedback as a leader sets the tone of openness and honesty in your company, this is especially challenging. If you dismiss the feedback too readily or respond negatively to it, you’re likely to discourage that person (and the rest of your team) from ever voicing their honest opinion to you again. But, if the feedback goes completely unchecked, then untrue, rude, or vague feedback could become normalized, accepted behavior in your company.

What should you do?

Here’s exactly how you can receive each type of bullshit feedback well as a leader, and still encourage an open, honest company environment…

If the feedback is flat-out untrue, say this:

“Thank you for letting me know. Can I think on what you shared, and get back to you?”

When we receive feedback that is inaccurate, misinformed (or even a straight-up lie), it’s important to not just blurt out, “I think you’re wrong.” Such a knee-jerk response — even if you are in the right — will come across as defensive to the other person.

Instead, take a little time (be it 30 minutes, or a day or two) to verify that the feedback is indeed false, before letting that other person know. This way, you can first make sure you do have your facts straight, and more calmly point out and share why you think their feedback is untrue.

You may also want to acknowledge your own role in why they may have been misinformed, and how you could have contributed to the issue. Rarely does an employee independently give incorrect feedback (unless they are maliciously lying). Usually, as leaders, we haven’t done our role well enough to shine a light on something — hence their misinformed feedback.

If the feedback is true, but poorly delivered, say this:

“Thank you for sharing what you think and feel. This is helpful for me, and I’m going to think on and act on it right away. Also, not to detract from the merit of what you’re saying — in the future, it may be worth considering that you came across as ____ when delivering your feedback to me.”

When someone blows up at you or goes on a complaining rant, no matter how true the content of what their feedback may be to you — you’ll want to make aware to the other person that their delivery was off. Again, to make sure you don’t come across as defensive, you don’t want to say: “You’re a complainer” or “That was rude.” Instead, use this as an opportunity to coach them. Show you’re not resentful by saying, “not to detract from the merit of what you’re saying,” and be forward-looking by saying “in the future” or “next time.” You want this person to continue to speak up and give you their candid perspective… just not in how they delivered it. Communicate this to them calmly, kindly, and directly.

If you can’t tell whether or not the feedback is true, ask these questions:

“Can you give me an example of what you’re talking about, just so I can better understand and improve for the future?”

“Going forward, what’s the one thing you’d like to see done differently?”

“Was there a specific moment or occurrence that triggered what you’re describing?”

“What would success look like to you in this situation?”

Unclear feedback is perhaps the most frustrating type of feedback to receive because it can feel like a waste of your time to try to unpack. Asking questions is the key to learning and getting to the truth of the feedback. Questions can also serve as guideposts to your employee, encouraging them to give you more clear, specific manner next time.

Handling these three types of untrue, rude, and vague feedback require a bit of patience and self-discipline. Our natural reaction in our inner monologue (for instance, “WTF?!”) must be quelled and placed aside.

How you handle bullshit feedback is a test for you as a leader. Handle it well, and you’ll set an important precedent for your team.

P.S.: This was originally published on the Know Your Team Blog. If you enjoyed this piece, please feel free to share + give it 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😊(And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Five ways to receive negative feedback well

Receive feedback well, and you‘ll get more honest feedback in the future. Here’s how.

They’re watching you.

I don’t mean to sound creepy. But it’s something to come to terms with as a leader: Your team is watching you.

As a leader, your actions set the example – especially, when it comes to creating an open, honest environment in the workplace.

Your employees are taking note: When someone offers a dissenting opinion, do you come off as annoyed and brush it aside? Or do you calmly listen and say, “Thank you, I’ll consider that”?

How you receive feedback — especially negative feedback — sets the precedent for how welcome honest, forthcoming perspectives are in your company. Dismiss feedback on a whim or become overly defensive, and you’re not likely to hear critical feedback from that person again.

So how do you receive feedback well? Here are five things you can do…

Make empathy your mission.

How could they be saying that?” “I’m not sure that’s true…” Ever catch yourself thinking that while someone is giving you negative feedback? One of the most common, immediate reactions to feedback is to evaluate what the other person is saying… often before the other person is even finished talking! How can we truly listen to feedback and take in the parts that may be valuable, if we’re not completely listening to what’s being said?

To avoid this tendency to pre-judge feedback, make empathy your mission. Decide that your role in receiving feedback is simply to try to understand the other person. You don’t need to obey or agree with them in that moment — just understand. Once you make empathy your mission, you’ll be able to hear feedback for what it is: An opportunity to learn something, in some way. (I also talk about the importance of making empathy your mission when having a one-on-one with an employee.)

Sit in silence for 3–4 seconds.

To further mitigate your knee-jerk reaction to want to respond right away and offer a counterpoint, sit in silence for a few seconds after someone gives you a piece of feedback. While it might seem or feel unnatural initially, doing so gives you the space to digest what is being said, instead of superficially reacting to it.

Write it down.

Whether or not you are an avid note-taker by habit, bring a notebook the next time you’re in a one-on-one meeting. Having a notebook or sheet of paper in front of you, ready to take notes, physically demonstrates to the other person that you’re attentive to what they’re saying. You’re not thinking about what you’re going to say next — you’re intentionally trying to take in what they’re saying, and process it thoughtfully.

Assume positive intent.

Don’t get defensive. Getting defensive is the surest way to discourage someone from ever telling you their honest opinions in the future. The minute we become defensive is when we permanently dissuade the other person from ever bringing up feedback again. To overcome defensiveness, assume positive intent. The reason why we often become defensive is we think that the person giving us feedback doesn’t have our best intentions in mind — they’re out to “get us” or have a separate agenda. When we choose to assume positive intent in the other person, that urge to become defensive melts away. We stop questioning the “why” behind the feedback, and become more receptive to what’s being said.

Talk less.

The more talking you’re doing, the less listening you’re doing. So talk less. Talking less is the best way to show you’re listening to the feedback you’re receiving. Be conscious of your temptation to launch into full-on rebuttal mode, or to share your side of things. If you do feel compelled to say something, tell the other person, “Thank you — I’m going to think on what you said. Do you mind if I get back to you by X date?” That way you give yourself more time to think about what you do want to say, and you’re showing that you’re listening by saying fewer things.

Of course, writing about “talking less” is much easier to do than actually “talking less” in practice. Particularly, in the heat of the moment, when someone is telling you something you don’t want to hear, it is not easy to just shut up and listen to them 🙂

To internalize these tactics, just try one. No need to go after all five. Pick one. Perhaps you try bringing a notebook to your next one-on-one meeting. Or remind yourself to assume positive intent the next time you read an email from an employee that contains some criticism.

Regardless of which tactic you choose to try first, merely choosing to try to receive feedback well in the first place is a significant, positive step toward building an open, honest company culture.

Your reaction to feedback is a test for you as a leader. What example will you set for your team of how critical or dissenting views will be handled?

Remember, they’re watching.

P.S.: This was originally published on the Know Your Team Blog. If you enjoyed this piece, please feel free to share + give it 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😊(And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Why we dismiss negative feedback

Three fallacies that get in the way of hearing what we need to hear. Here’s how by recognizing them, we can overcome them.

My stomach dropped. My face flushed.

I thought to myself: “No way that’s true!” and “No way that’s me…”

Those were my physical and mental reactions when an acquaintance gave me some feedback a few years ago. (She told me I had “come across as fake” to her… Ouch!)

My first instinct was to completely dismiss her feedback.

Now looking back, I wonder… Why?

Why was my first instinct to push this feedback away? Why was I so quick to say it wasn’t true or that it didn’t matter?

Simply put: We hate criticism.

Anything negative, anything critical — we fear it. We resist, push back, and build a wall around ourselves.

In fact, as humans, our brains are hardwired to resist negative feedback. Research show how our brains hold onto negative memories longer than positive ones — so the negative stuff always hurts more. We’re more upset about losing $50 than gaining $50… It’s the same when it comes to feedback. When we hear something negative, it sticks with us more than when someone tells us something positive about ourselves.

Our distaste for negative feedback is so strong that further research shows we drop people in our network who tell us things we don’t want to hear. In a recent study with 300 full-time employees, researchers found that people moved away from colleagues who provided negative feedback. Instead, they chose to seek out interactions with people who only affirmed their positive qualities.

Fascinating, right? In other words, whether or not we intend to, we seem to insulate ourselves away from any potential negative self-image of ourselves.

To be honest, it sounds like quite a self-absorbed way to live: To seek out only those who tell you what you want to hear. To never have the humility to want to learn, adjust, improve and become better.

How did we get like this?

Some psychologists suggest that we associate negative feedback with criticism received in school or from our parents growing up, and that’s what prevents us from hearing negative feedback.

Personally, I’ve found three fallacies in my own head that get in the way of me being receptive to negative feedback…

  1. I’m a perfectionist. I expect myself to be good at everything. So when I hear negative feedback about myself, it conflicts with what I think is true… and it makes me push the feedback away.
  2. I don’t trust the other person. I’m skeptical of the person who gave me the feedback. What was her intention? Does she really have the full story? Perhaps she just misinterpreted things? So I disregard the feedback, as a result.
  3. I conflate behavior with identity. I interpret the feedback as an assessment my sense of self-worth. “If I’m seen as fake by someone, that must mean I’m a bad person.” It’s hurtful to think about this, so I choose to ignore the feedback.

These knee-jerk reactions are the foundation for the wall I start to build around me when I hear negative feedback.

To knock down this wall, and make sure my mind and heart is open to receiving criticism, I keep these three fallacies in mind. When someone gives me negative feedback, I ask myself…

  1. Am I being a perfectionist? Are my perfectionist tendencies getting in the way of hearing something worth learning from this feedback?
  2. Am I distrustful of the other person? Am I resisting this feedback simply because of my relationship with this person, or what I perceive her or his intentions to be?
  3. Am I conflating behavior with identity? Am I shutting out this feedback because I’m projecting this feedback onto my sense of self-worth?

Take a moment to sit and marinate on these questions. They may uncover why you tend to isolate yourself from feedback. This understanding of why you dismiss feedback is the first step to making sure you’re hearing all of it.

After all, you don’t want to get caught inadvertently pushing away those who tell you the truth, creating a circle of yes-people who tell you only what you want to hear.

Know why you dismiss feedback, first.

P.S.: This was originally published on the Know Your Team Blog. If you enjoyed this piece, please feel free to share + give it 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😊(And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Specific questions yield specific answers

Specific questions are our most underrated management tool.

Ask the right question… and you’ll learn that your company’s most valuable employee doesn’t feel challenged by her work and is thinking about leaving.

Ask the wrong question… and you’ll hear the same employee tell you she enjoys the work environment and is confident about executing her work. You only learn she’d been considering leaving when she gives you her two weeks notice.

The greatest example of a “wrong question” is one I found myself asking to others early in my career:

“How’s it going?”

Nine times out of ten, the other person’s response would be…

“It’s fine. Things are going fine.”

What an empty response! But it’s because I asked an empty question. “How’s it going?” could not be a more run-of-the-mill, vague question to ask someone. So I got a run-of-the-mill, vague response.

Ask a general, half-hearted question, and you’ll get a general, half-hearted response. Ask a specific, carefully thought-out question, and you’ll get a specific, carefully thought-out response.

The more specific the question, the more specific the response.

Sounds easy and obvious enough. Yet in practice, it can be tough to come up with specific questions “on the spot” — especially if you’re asking questions in-person during a one-on-one or over lunch.

Here are a few tactics to help you ask more specific questions that will yield specific answers…

Pick one thing.

When you ask a question like, “How’s it going?”, you provide no context for which a person is supposed to answer. You’re essentially asking a person to consider their entire time at the company, and deliver an eloquent, precise answer summarizing exactly how they feel about it. It’s no wonder people always answer, “It’s fine.”

To provide more context in your question, ask about “one thing.” As a result, you’re not asking someone to consider or talk about all things — just one thing. It makes answering your question much easier.

Try saying this: What’s one thing that could’ve gone better?” or “What’s one thing that frustrated you?” or “What’s one thing you’re surprised is working as well as it is?

Anchor your question in an event.

You can uncover a lot more depth about how someone feels about the company if you use an event as the focal point of your question. For example, if you’re curious if the leadership team is communicating well with employees, ask an employee about the last all-company meeting. It could be a question like, “What else should have been brought up by the leadership team at our last all-company meeting?” Doing so can be more revealing than just asking, “What could the leadership team improve?

Or, say you’re curious to know about an employee’s relationship with her manager. A question like, “During your last project, what hiccups or struggles did you encounter while working with your manager?” is much more specific than simply asking, “How’s it going with your manager?”. A question around a concrete, tangible event will help a person mentally reference that in their head, and provide a much more meaningful answer to you.

Try saying this: What’s something we totally missed talking about during our last meeting?” or “While you were on your last project, what did you observe that you felt were slow or inefficient?” or “What could have been improved about the most recent product release we did?”

Time-box your question.

Possibly my favorite way to ask a specific question is to time-box the question to a specific period of time. For instance, rather than asking, “What do you think we could improve on?” you should ask, “What’s something in the last two weeks could we have improved on?” By asking someone to reflect on the last two weeks, you narrow the scope of what they need to consider to answer your question well. All of a sudden, it’s easier for that person to recall something interesting, pinpoint a specific insight, and share it with you.

Try saying this: “What’s something last week that could be better?” or “What’s been most motivating for you to work on this past month?” or “What’s annoyed you this quarter? It can be big or small…”

If you’ve ever caught yourself thinking to yourself, “My employees never tell me anything,” now you know that the solution might lie in questions you’re asking, themselves. And the remedy is simpler than you might’ve thought:

Specific questions yield specific answers. General questions yield general answers.

Which are you asking?

P.S.: This was originally published on the Know Your Team Blog. If you enjoyed this piece, please feel free to share + give it 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😊(And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Go first

You can’t expect people to be open with you, if you’re not open with them first.

You’re at a swimming pool. The water looks nice. It’s not quite a warm enough day… But it’s almost summer so why not jump in?

You want others to join you in the pool (it’s more fun that way!). So you wander around and ask each of the pool loungers: “Hey, care to jump in the pool with me? The water looks warm…”

Think anyone jumps in? Especially, if you’re not in the pool yourself?

Not likely.

I view the process of getting honest feedback from employees the same way. If you want everyone in your company to be open and honest with you — if you want everyone to jump into that swimming pool with you — you’ve got to take the first dive.

I call this “going first” as a leader. You must take the first step to show it’s safe to speak up (particularly given that fear plays such a large role in why employees don’t give feedback). You must be forthcoming and candid with your employees first, as a leader. You can’t expect someone else to do something if you don’t do it yourself first.

Here are a few ways to “go first” as a leader and jump into that swimming pool to create a safe environment for employees to speak up…

Share what you’re struggling with.

One of the best ways to “go first” is by sharing something that you’re struggling with. If this makes you feel a little vulnerable as a leader… that’s a good thing! You’re modeling the honesty that you’re similarly looking for from an employee. As a result, you diffuse some of the anxiety and fear an employee may have about offering a critical opinion. An employee may now think, “Well if she, my manager, is struggling with this, then I guess it’s okay to share this…”

Try saying this: I’m struggling with…” or “Can you help me understand something that I’m having trouble grasping?” or “Hey, I don’t have all the answers…

Play devil’s advocate with your own opinion.

Another way to “go first” as a leader is to challenge your own opinion in front of your team. The next time you’re explaining a new idea, pose an opposing viewpoint to it yourself, and then ask for feedback. By playing devil’s advocate with your own opinion, you invite others to give dissenting viewpoints. When you’re a contrarian to your own ideas, you give your team permission to be contrarian too.

Try saying this: I could also take a devil’s advocate point-of-view and say ___. What do you think?” or “Another way to look at it is ____. Would you agree or disagree?

Commend vulnerability when you see it.

“Going first” as a leader also means to positively reinforce the behavior you want to see. If you want meaningful, honest feedback to be given to you more often, be sure to publicly recognize it when you do see it. A CEO who is a Know Your Company customer here in Chicago makes a point to do this every month during her company all-hands meeting. She’ll publicly commend an employee for her vulnerability, and say, “Thank you for sharing an opinion that might not be popular. It’s important.” When you do this, you set the expectation that you want to hear frank, non-sugar-coated information in the future.

Try saying this: That’s a great thought — your honesty is appreciated and important to the team…” or “I’m so glad you’re disagreeing with me. It’s helping me understand a new perspective…” or “Thank you for bringing that up. I’m sure that was not an easy thing to share, so I value you doing that.

As a leader, it’s your job is to make your employees feel as safe as possible to speak up. You can’t sit back and ask other people to be candid and forthcoming without doing it yourself first.

Want others to jump into the pool of honesty and openness? Go first.

P.S.: This was originally published on the Know Your Team Blog. If you enjoyed this piece, please feel free to share + give it 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😊(And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

“Fine” never means “things are fine.”

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:

“It’s fine.”

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:

“It’s fine.”

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.

“Fine” never means “things are fine.”

P.S.: This was originally published on the Know Your Team Blog. If you enjoyed this piece, please feel free to share + give it 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😊(And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)