The surest sign of a bad boss? You don’t listen.

You’re likely making these 4 leadership mistakes as a leader. Here’s what to do instead to become a better listener.

You’re not listening, as leader. You think you might be — but it’s highly likely that you’re not.

Think back to your last one-on-one meeting. Be honest: What percent of the time did you accidentally zone out during your direct report’s answers? Were you distracted by an impending meeting with an unhappy client? Were you trying to guess your direct report’s motives, and running through past one-on-ones with them in your head?

I don’t blame you, quite frankly. As leaders, we’re trained — and rewarded — to multi-task, rapidly context-switch, and think in parallel. We’ve got a firehouse of tasks, team dynamics, goals, customer requests that we’re juggling… How else are we supposed to weather the storm?

However, listening requires an opposite motion. Listening lives in silence. In stillness. You need to focus purely on the person you’re listening to. Not analyzing the response as they speak, not anticipating the next sentence, nor brainstorming ourselves what we’ll say next. Not thinking about the next meeting, the next phone call, or, hey, lunch is in 40 minutes.

The only way we’ll truly understand what the other person is trying to say is if we’re zoomed in on listening, in that moment.

When we do, listening becomes a powerful lever. A great listener gains knowledge that’s overlooked. They hear the tone of disappointment in an employee’s voice and discover that person is not happy on the team. They recognize that an employee has been having revealing conversations with a customer, and they finally understand why a customer isn’t satisfied with a particular part of the product. It’s knowledge only found in the nooks and crannies — you have to pay attention closely in order to spot it.

Not to mention, when you listen well, you show empathy and build trust in a way that’s more genuine than any office perk or team social event.

So how do you know if you’re a good listener — or a terrible one? Here are the 4 most common mistakes leaders make that reveal they’re not a good listener. Read on to see if you’ve been unintentionally committing any of them…

Mistake #1: You keep your phone on “just in case.”

Yes, emergencies do happen. But keeping your phone on during a meeting and having it buzz is enormously distracting for the other person. Countless of employees I’ve spoken to have mentioned how disrespectful it feels for their manager to have their phone go off — or worse, to be texting during the meeting. A recent study revealed that smartphones are distracting, even when we aren’t looking at them. So, what’s the solution? Just put it away for the meeting to be present as much as possible. If you do have to take a call or are expecting an important message, simply let the other person know so they’re aware, or reschedule the meeting.

Mistake #2: You assume people want your two cents — so you give it immediately.

As a leader, you’re often looked to as the expert. And, well, you are the expert most of the time. So it’s common to want to jump right in and help your team by providing the answers, or share how you’d attack a challenge. However, that eagerness to lend a hand can backfire. Rushing in with your opinion can crowd out any room for your team to share their opinion. I’ll always remember my interview with Laura Roeder, founder and CEO of MeetEdgar. One phrase Laura rigorously used with her team was: “Make this decision without me.” This gave her team the space to figure things out on their own, share their honest opinions with her — and helped her listen, not just tell.

Mistake #3: You only ask one question, before moving on to the next topic.

How many questions do you typically ask a direct report? Just one, then on to the next item? Or do you try to follow-up each topic with at least two, three, or more questions? Whether it’s during a one-on-one meeting, a Zoom video conference, or in a Slack message, the best managers frequently ask follow-up, clarifying questions — both about themselves, and their colleague. They ask, “What isn’t clear?” or “What am I not explaining enough?” Additionally, when their team members speak, they ask questions such as, “What do you need to make X happen?“ or “What can I take off your plate to help you do X?” The more clarifying questions you ask, the more listening you’ll do.

Mistake #4: You rarely ask yourself, “What’s my mood right now?”

We all have bad days. It’s inevitable. To make sure you can listen to someone well, it’s important to be aware of your current emotional state and to optimize for it. Not a morning person? Schedule your meetings in the afternoon. Just got out of some crazy traffic, or rushing to get all your tasks done before the weekend? Consider rescheduling — not avoiding — a tough conversation. The other person will be relieved that you asked if they don’t mind chatting with you once you’ve had time to take a breath.


If you’ve found yourself thinking, “Oh man, I’ve definitely done a few of those recently” — no need to get down on yourself. We all have been guilty of them, myself included. My hope is that in pointing them out, they no longer float under the radar. With awareness comes a small change in actions. We can all lift the veil that we’re all not as good listeners as we’d like to be. If we want to be better leaders, it starts with knowing what work we have to do 🙂


 

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8 ways to avoid your opinion swaying your team too much as “The Boss”

A good manager knows their opinion can influence their team sometimes TOO much. Here’s how to compensate for that.

When you’re a manager, something interesting happens: You mention an idea off-hand, and all of sudden, it becomes a priority. You casually ask a question out of curiosity, and all of sudden, everyone scrambles ASAP to get you an answer.

As a leader, your opinion matters. But sometimes, it can matter too much. You can unintentionally sway team members by stating your opinion prematurely. Or, you can accidentally quell perspectives that are critical for you to hear.

How do you keep this from happening? One of the managers in The Watercooler, our online community with almost 1,000 leaders, kicked off this conversation recently. Below is a summary of the insightful, practical replies.

Here are 8 ways for you to compensate for your opinion weighing too much, as “The Boss”…

Assign others the task of disagreeing with you.

Force the hand, and create a safe space for someone to disagree. For example, in a meeting with ~5 people, you might pick someone and say, “The four of us seem to be saying the same thing, and I’m making it your job to disagree with us regardless of how you actually feel. So if you’re forced to play the role of the disagreer, what’s your argument?

Give someone less experienced a chance to speak first.

This helps prevent folks from just shutting down and saying, “Yep sure, what that person said.” Even if the person is way off the mark in their opinion, it either signals you should spend more time working with them, or it causes the team pivot on the original idea after hearing others. One Watercooler member mentioned how he was recently listening to Great at Work and a high performing example company followed this practice: Most junior employees shared their thoughts first, most senior shared their thoughts last.

Have the person with the strongest opinion speak last.

A strongly-held viewpoint can drown out any potential for diversity of thought to emerge. So have the person who has already thought about an issue and formed a strong opinion speak last. This is also helpful because they’re the least likely to be biased by what everyone else says.

Ask others what they think before jumping in with your own thoughts.

One Watercooler member shared that he’ll often send people a link to a story, article, idea, etc. and ask people, “Thoughts?” to see what he gets back. This helps provoke thoughts from other people, in an unfiltered way, before you insert your own.

Ask everyone to explain their thought-process, not tell you their opinion.

This keeps the people with opinions — but perhaps more trivial reasoning behind them — from dominating the conversation (and wasting everyone’s time). In addition, understanding how someone is coming to a conclusion is sometimes just as valuable, if not more, than the conclusion itself.

Use phrases like “you’re the expert.”

When talking to people about areas that they’re a specialist in, affirm that they are the person who has the required knowledge and expertise. This helps make it clear that your view isn’t any more correct than theirs.

Ask for advice.

When you say to someone, “I need your advice,” you can open the door wide to getting useful feedback from your direct reports. The statement both indicates openness to fresh ideas, as well as a clear request for that person’s personal viewpoint.

Admit what you’re unsure about or struggling with.

Try saying something like, “I’m pretty sure I know the direction I want to go, but I want to be sure I haven’t overlooked something important. Will you review this with me, and poke holes in my idea?” Or “I’m having a tough time figuring this out…” It leads to a very different dynamic. Even if you end up sticking to your original plan, people are more likely to feel respected for being asked to help vet the idea. You’ll get valuable input, regardless.

If you want your team to be making the best decisions, making sure your opinion isn’t driving all the decisions is important. You want people to be honest, to bring up what they think could be better, and to point out what they think is wrong. Try one of these 8 ways to help foster that openness in opinions. Your viewpoint may unintentionally sway others, as a leader — but it doesn’t have to.


 

P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share + give it ❤️ so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

From The Heart(beat) ❤️: Leadership lessons I wished I’d learned earlier

Here are a few of my favorite leadership tips from CEOs, founders and executives featured recently in our Heartbeat interviews.

Every two weeks, I ask one question to a founder, CEO, or business owner I respect and share it on The Heartbeat ❤️, our bi-weekly newsletter on how to become a better leader. The question I always ask is, “What’s one thing you wish you’d learned earlier as a leader?” Here’s what some of our recent interviewees had to say…

Leaders don’t need to know it all.

Rob Walling is the co-founder of Drip, an email marketing automation software company that we in fact use a Know Your Company. What does Rob wish he’d learned sooner? That it’s okay for leaders to ask questions. He says:

“I wish that I had learned that I didn’t need all the answers as a leader. [I hire] people that are better than I am at something, and then when a problem comes up I can look around the room and say, ‘I don’t know. What do you think?’” — Rob Walling, co-founder of Drip

Embrace failure.

Aynn Collins is the Director of Talent Strategy at MailChimp, the world’s largest marketing automation platform with more than 900 employees. Aynn’s advice to her younger self is to understand that failure is part of growing as a leader.

“Embracing failure and understanding how you learn and grow from those failures is what I would tell people to learn early in their career. They can own failures, talk about them, debrief with your team on…and not try to just make everything shiny and pretty. Because we know business and leadership is not always perfect, and shiny and pretty.” — Aynn Collins, Director of Talent Strategy at Mailchimp

Forget the org chart.

Dan Mall is the founder of SuperFriendly (a design collaborative that’s worked with clients such as Apple, Time Magazine and ESPN) and CEO of SuperBooked (a software application that helps people find creative work). For Dan, he wishes he’d known that an organizational chart isn’t the end-all, be-all of business.

“The leaders aren’t the ones at the top. They should be the ones at the bottom. They should be the one supporting everyone else…They need to be able to see everything. They need to be able to support people. So, I wish I would have learned the idea of servant leadership, which is becoming more and more popular now.” — Dan Mall, founder of SuperFriendly and CEO of SuperBooked

 


 

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11 must-read books for new managers

New to the whole “manager” thing? Get your feet wet by checking out these 11 most-recommended leadership books.

Congratulations on your role as a new manager! You’re likely feeling 80% excited… and 20% terrified. That’s completely normal 🙂 Becoming a first-time manager is intimidating. You’re about to start flexing skills you might never have had to use before.

Folks who were once your peers are now reporting to you. You’re now included in more high-level leadership meetings. Your entire focus in what you do has shifted, too: Your ultimate responsibility is no longer to just get your own work done. It’s to ensure the success of your team’s work.

So, how do you start getting into the mindset of a good manager?

I asked almost 1,000 leaders on The Watercooler, our online community for managers, what helped them transition into their first managerial role and the majority of them said reading has helped guide them into the leader they are today. Here are the top 11 must-read books that have helped them become better managers and leaders for their teams:

  1. Managing Oneself, by Peter Drucker
  2. Mindset: Changing The Way You Think To Fulfill Your Potential, by Carol Dweck
  3. High Output Management, by Andrew Grove
  4. Drive, by Daniel H. Pink
  5. Radical Candor, by Kim Scott
  6. Peopleware, by Tom DeMarco
  7. The Manager’s Path, by Camille Fournier
  8. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
  9. The New One Minute Manager, by Ken Blanchar
  10. Google’s Re:Work
  11. Unintuitive Things I’ve Learned about Management: Part 1 and Part 2, by Julie Zhuo

Big caveat here, though: Becoming a good leader requires much more than just reading books. Much of what you’ll learn is through experience: Trial and error, talking to your own team, and talking to other leaders who’ve been in your shoes before. Books are merely a primer to give you a foundation for what it takes to be a good manager. These 11 books are a good start.


Do you have any books missing from this list that helped you transition into a managerial role? I would love to add it to our must-read list. Let me know in the comments or on Twitter at @clairejlew.


 

P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share + give it ❤️ so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

4 non-cringeworthy team-bonding events that people actually enjoy

Here’s what 1,000 managers in The Watercooler said their employees enjoyed most as a team-building activity.

Team bonding — known to some as “forced fun” — can bring feelings of dread and resentment to many employees. And who can blame them? When thinking of team bonding, many people picture awkward trust falls or hours spent with a facilitator asking corny questions.

However, a team does need to feel connected in some way. You can’t work well together if you don’t trust each other — let alone, know each other. And getting to know each other, while that can happen organically over time, only gets harder the bigger the team gets or the more spread out your office is.

Particularly for new employees, an effective team-building activity can go a long way. It’s rare, dedicated time for folks to not talk about work, relax, and just have fun.

I asked members of The Watercooler, our online community of almost 1,000 managers, what their most successful team bonding events were. Below were the top four mentioned. Feel free to tailor these ideas to fit your own team dynamics and preferences.

Work ‘n Travel

Few experiences are as memorable and unique as traveling somewhere novel. For the past couple of years, one Watercooler member’s company spends a week together as a team, working remotely and traveling. So far, they’ve been to Lisbon, Portugal, and Poland. (And they already have their destination picked out for next year!) For them, it’s been a perfect way to spend high-quality time getting to know each other, while also getting to have a common shared experience of traveling.

Team Volunteering

Contributing to the community around you, together with your team, is a fantastic, non-cliché way for everyone to feel more connected. One Watercooler member’s company volunteered at a local food bank when everyone was in town for a company meeting. They spent the day providing thousands of meals to people in need while also bonding as a company.

3+ Lunch Fridays

Possibly the most common team-bonding event that teams seem to do is to sponsor lunch outside the office on Fridays. Several managers in the Watercooler mentioned how their company will cover the cost of lunch for groups of three or more employees if they go out to eat on Fridays. This in fact incentivizes folks to get out of the office and socialize a bit with one another.

Cereal Day

It sounds odd, I know. But a Know Your Company customer and Watercooler member shared how surprised she was that a seemingly insignificant team-bonding event had such a big effect on her team’s morale. Every month, she brings in a box of everyone’s favorite cereal to one of their most intense days of the month: The strategic planning meeting. It was a small, quirky move — not any big grand gesture – and it was a big hit with her team.


Are you a manager who’s looking for more ideas to develop your team? Check out The Watercooler — our online leadership community with almost 1,000 managers — where we share advice, suggestions and best practices on topics just like this. We’d love to have you join us.


 

P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share + give it ❤️ so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

How to prepare for a one-on-one meeting as a manager

The 4 things you should do to make the most out of your next one-on-one meeting.

You’re not prepared. Or at least that’s what employees think when it comes to one-on-one meetings. In a recent survey we conducted of 125 managers and 45 employees, we found 35% of employees believe their manager is only “somewhat prepared” — and 15% of employees think their manager is “not prepared” or “not prepared at all.”

That’s almost half of employees thinking that their managers aren’t as prepared for one-on-one meetings as they could be.

Managers seem to agree. Sixteen percent of managers we surveyed said their biggest frustration with one-on-one meetings is they’re never sure how to prepare or what to ask.

Fortunately, preparing for a one-on-one meeting is neither hard nor time-consuming. Before your next one-on-one, here are the four things you can do (and each takes 10 minutes or less):

#1: Get up-to-speed.

You waste time when you’re not up-to-speed. When you walk into a one-on-one meeting not knowing what the person has been working on for the past month, you squander 10–15 minutes to get caught up on old information. That’s 10–15 minutes that could’ve been spent discovering and discussing new information. Instead, spend a few minutes getting up to speed before the meeting rather than during it. Specifically:

  • Review status updates ahead of time. You’ll save time by not rehashing “What’s the latest on X?” And you’ll better orient yourself on what the focus of the one-on-one meeting should be.
  • Revisit notes from the last one-on-one meeting. You’ll realize there’s an important topic you need to circle back on, or an action item you need to complete. These notes can also help inform the questions you want to ask for this upcoming meeting.

#2: Ask your direct report to create an agenda.

Ask the employee to create an agenda ahead of time with what might be on her mind. You can say or write something like: “Mind kicking-off the first draft of the agenda for our one-on-one meeting? I want to focus on what you want to talk about, first. And then I’m happy to take a pass and add anything else to it.”

By letting her take the lead and initiate the agenda, you demonstrate to her that it’s her priorities that you want to address first. She’s in the driver’s seat, not you.

Then, of course, you’ll want to review the agenda before the meeting, and offer any additions for what you want to talk about.

#3: Clearly define for yourself: What do you want to know?

Yes, you’re asking the employee to write the agenda — but you also want to think for yourself what you want to know. Is there a concern you have about this person’s ability to work well with others? Are you wondering if they feel challenged enough by the work itself? If nothing specific comes to mind, consider these four areas of focus for a one-on-one meeting:

  • Concerns and issues. What potential problems might be bubbling up that you don’t know about, but should?
  • Feedback about work performance. What does your direct report need to be doing differently? How can you improve your own management style?
  • Career direction. How can you help support this person progress toward their career goals? Are you both on the same page for what progress looks like?
  • Personal connection. What outside of work in their life is going on that you want to know more about?

Reflect on these four areas to generate ideas for questions you should be asking, or topics you think should be covered during the one-on-one meeting.

I’d recommend picking one or two of these focus areas, and then brainstorming at least 3–7 questions for each area. You may not ask all the questions (or any!), but they are helpful to have in your back pocket should the conversation lag or veer off-topic.

To help you get started, here are some examples for one-on-one meeting questions in each focus area:

Questions that uncover concerns / issues…

  • “When have you felt most motivated about the work you’ve been doing?”
  • “Is anything holding you back from doing the best work you can do right now?”

Questions that elicit feedback about work performance…

  • “Would you like more or less feedback on your work? Why/why not?”
  • “What’s a recent situation you wish you handled differently? What would you change?”

Questions that help provide career direction…

  • “What’s one thing we could do today to help you with your long term goals?”
  • “Is there an area outside your current role where you feel you could be contributing?”

Questions that foster a sense of personal connection…

  • “Been anywhere recently for the first time?”
  • “What have you been excited about lately?”

I always try to ask at least one question focused on personal connection, and use that question to open up the meeting. This helps break the ice at the beginning of your meeting, and builds rapport with your employee. Without this sense of rapport, your employee won’t feel comfortable divulging anything meaningful — nor will she find the conversation much fun.

For more ideas for questions to ask during a one-on-one meeting, you can visit here.

#4: Calibrate your mindset.

Take a minute to remind yourself: This meeting is not like other meetings. You aren’t running it. Your primary job is to absorb the information being shared with you, poke holes to figure out how an employee is actually feeling, let things marinate, and then figure out when you need to do. You shouldn’t be talking. You should be listening and scanning for the truth.

These four steps takes 15 minutes, maybe 30 minutes at most, to complete in total. That’s 15 minutes — 30 minutes of preparation that ensures your hour-long one-on-one meeting is not an hour wasted. Invest in preparing for your one-on-one to get the most out of this time together.


 

P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy 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 leadership mistake you’re likely making? Being nice.

Why being nice as a leader backfires — and what to do instead.

Leaders, stop being so nice all the time.

I don’t mean to sound like an asshole. But when it comes to leadership, it’s true: Prioritizing “being nice” keeps us from being good leaders.

Now I’m not advocating for us to be mean. Disrespectful or dismissive leaders help no one. Rather, I’m calling for us as leaders to loosen our grip on “being nice.” To stop wanting our team to like us all the time. To let go of the expectation that every single interaction with our team should feel good.

Truth is, our team isn’t going to like us all the time. Our team isn’t going to feel good all the time. And trying to be nice to everyone all the time isn’t going to change that. Nor is it actually helpful for your team.

When we’re preoccupied with seeming popular instead of fair, when we optimize for pleasant conversations instead of honest ones — we hurt our teams.

I was reminded of this most recently while I was reading The Watercooler, our online community with almost 1,000 leaders. One manager revealed he was facing this exact dilemma. He was seen as “The Nice Guy” in his company, always complementary, never critical. As a result, he was struggling how to start giving his team difficult feedback — and his team was floundering.

He’s not the only one.

Have you ever found yourself in one of these situations?

  • You avoided giving tough feedback to a coworker… and now the person has made even bigger mistakes than you previously imagined.
  • You didn’t tell someone that you disagreed with them… and now you have to figure out how to course-correct without blindsiding the person.
  • You postponed firing someone… and now have to do damage control for the low morale they infused throughout the team.
  • You said something was “great!” even though it actually wasn’t… and now you have to fix the level of quality for what was produced.

Many of us focus on “being nice” as a leader more than we should. And we pay a price for it.

Hiten Shah, founder of Kissmetrics and Crazy Egg, emphasized this point to me, in a recent interview. He warned that when you’re concerned with being nice all the time, “there’s a level of toxic culture that develops that’s hard to see, especially on a remote team.”

Prioritizing “nice” as a leader is an easy trap to fall into. Being nice fits into our desire for belonging and companionship as humans. We’re social creatures. We want to be liked. Inherently, there is nothing wrong with that.

But “being nice” becomes problematic when it becomes your rudder as a leader. It leads you astray. You lose sight of your purpose as a leader: To help your team accomplish a specific mission. Your barometer for success as a leader morphs from “Are we accomplishing our mission?” into “What does the team thinks of me?

Over time, “being nice” becomes your crutch. It’s a convenient rationalization to avoid hard decisions, uncomfortable conversations, and controversial actions. It’s easier to “be nice” than it is to have tell someone to their face that they’re rubbing a client or colleague the wrong way.

Ultimately, being nice as a leader is selfish. It doesn’t serve the team. It serves your ego. The team is looking to you to help them achieve a goal. And instead, you’re looking to have your decisions, actions, and yourself perceived as positive by them.

A leader is the only person’s whose sole job is help a team achieve the outcome they want to achieve. When you care about “being nice,” you’re essentially saying, “The needs of my team as a whole don’t matter as much as their perception of me as an individual.”

Instead of seeking to be nice, we should seek to be honest, rigorous, and consistent.

Or even better, we can seek to be nice and honest, nice and rigorous, nice and consistent. One of my favorite books, Crucial Conversations, discusses how being nice and being honest are not mutually exclusive. You can be both. The best leaders embrace this duality.

Let’s just stop being so damn focused on being only nice.

 

P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share + give it ❤️ so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Stop asking these 4 questions during your one-on-one meetings

If you’re wondering why your one-on-one meetings tend to feel unfruitful, these questions might be the culprit.

Looking at the clock. Staring into the distance. Short, nondescript answers.

A CEO recently told me how he’d frequently see this body language from an employee during their one-on-one meetings. Flat. Disinterested. Preoccupied. It felt lousy to witness, but it’d always been this way. He’d silently concluded that he was wasting both of their time.

“I want to know what’s on his mind and how I can help, but these one-on-one meetings just aren’t working,” this CEO admitted to me. “I’m not really sure what to do except to stop having them.”

To see if I could help, I asked him what questions he was asking. He shared them with me… and then it clicked.

The once hazy picture zoomed into focus: This CEO was asking the wrong questions. All of his questions were common questions, no doubt. But therein lay the problem. Stock questions might be effective once or twice. But ask them during every one-on-one, every week, and over time, and the effectiveness of the question erodes. The person grows sick of answering the question. Or she doesn’t think you really care to know the answer anymore.Before too long, she starts looking at the clock, staring into the distance, and giving you those short, nondescript answers.

To avoid this, you’ll want to avoid the routine questions you lean on. Below are the four most common questions I’ve found used during one-on-one meetings that elicit dead-end, unhelpful responses. Take a look and see which ones you might be asking:

#1: “How’s it going?”

Ah, the perennial one-on-one meeting opener. It seems like a solid way to break the ice and initiate the one-on-one meeting. Yet it’s unusual that you ever get an answer other than “Fine” or “Good” in response. While someone might truly be fine and good in reality (which is great!)… the conversation usually stops there. Anything personal you wanted to learn, any sense of rapport you wanted to create dies with the question, “How’s it going?” This is because, as a society, the question “How’s it going?” has become our automatic greeting to each other, so our answer to it has become just as automatic.

What should you ask instead?

If you’re looking for a casual, open-ended way to kick off a one-on-one, ask “How’s life?” instead. It may not seem like a big difference, but it makes a big difference. “How’s life?” gives permission for someone to talk more personally about life — about what they did that weekend, how their family is doing, how their personal side project is coming along, how they’re managing their workload. “How’s life?” invites the other person to elaborate. Though, quite frankly, almost any other opening question than “How’s it going?” to going to help you learn more about how someone is doing in their life.

#2: “What’s the latest on __?”

It can be tempting to use your one-on-one session as time to get caught up on what’s going on. However, keep in mind that this completely squanders the purpose of your one-on-one meeting, to begin with. A one-on-one meeting isn’t a reporting session. It’s not an accountability tool. A one-on-one meeting is your radar. It’s your metal detector. It’s one of the only ways you have to unearth what’s actually going on in your team, and what an employee is thinking and feeling. You can get a list of deliverables in Slack any ol’ time.Client problems, unforeseen issues with the product, messy team dynamics, unspoken personal frustration — this is only time you’ll get to hear that stuff.

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, Claire, asking this question has helped me get good insights into the team’s problems.” Yes, I’m with you. This question “What’s the latest on X?” can be great if you’re using it to segue into asking deeper questions. For example, perhaps you follow it up with, “What’s most frustrating about how X has been going so far?” Or, “Where do you feel you need more support in working on X?” Merely asking “What’s the latest on X?” falls flat if you use it singularly.

What should you ask instead?

Ask something specific about the project, instead of asking for a general project update. Possibly my favorite question to ask to instead of “What’s the latest on X?” is “Can you tell me about what’s been most surprising about working on X so far?” If an employee has found something surprising, good chances that you’ll find it surprising too. A surprising insight is always useful for you to form an accurate picture of potential issues bubbling up within your team.

#3: “How can I help you?”

The intention behind this question is fantastic. You want to help, you want to get out of their way, you want to figure what you can be doing better. However, this question is the worst way to signal that. Why? It’s lazy. It makes the person receiving the question do all the hard work of having to come up with the answer. It’s also a very hard question to answer, especially on-the-spot and given that you’re a person in a position of power. You’re asking a person to critique you, “The Boss,” across all spectrums and come up with something actionable for you to do. If you do ask this question, answers tend to be, “Nothing I can think of right now,” something vague, or an answer that involves something that you’re already doing. Rarely do you get a precise, thoughtful to-do that you’ll then go implement the next day.

What should you ask instead?

Suggest something you think you can be doing to help. Then ask, “What do you think?” For example: “I was thinking I’m being too hands-on on this project. Should I back off and check-in with you only bi-weekly? What do you think?” By being targeted in what you suggest — and suggesting ityourself — you make it easier for that person to share the exact ways in which you can support them. You help your employees by suggesting what you think you can do to help, first.

#4: “How can we improve?”

This is the vaguest of questions. The problem with vague questions is they invite vague answers. You prompt the person to offer broad suppositions and knee-jerk assumptions, instead of exact details and practical examples. Ask an employee “How can we improve?” and they think, “Hmm, from a business development perspective? Marketing perspective? Leadership perspective? Where to even begin?” Now, some employees you work with will be able to craft a distinct, rich answer from this question. But it’s infrequent. And it’s probable they spent a good chunk of time thinking about the answer ahead of time. For most employees who you ask this question to without any warning, you’ll receive a variant of “I think things are pretty good right now” about 90% of the time.

What should you ask instead?

Focus your efforts on asking specific questions, instead of defaulting to general ones. For instance: “What do you think is the most overlooked area of the business?” or “Where do you think we’re behind in, that other companies are excelling at?” Notice how specific each of these questions are. The more specific the question, the more effective they are.


You may have cringed while reading this list. Many of you (including myself!) have found yourself asking all four questions, at one time or another.

No need to panic or be hard on yourself. You haven’t inflicted irreparable harm to your team. Your sins are not unforgivable. Rather, I hope sharing the unintended consequences of these four questions nudge you to evaluate the questions you ask during your one-on-one meetings a little more closely.

The questions do the heavy lifting. The questions determine the path to which your one-on-one meetings will take. Ask thoughtful, sincere questions, and there’s a higher likelihood your answers returned back to you will be thoughtful and sincere too.


 

P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share + give it ❤️ so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Managers: Want the truth? Recognize the employee who tells it.

The best managers encourage their team to tell the truth by recognizing the employees who voice it.

Employee recognition” is all the rage lately.

The idea is that you should positively reinforce the behaviors you want to see in your team. Want employees to hit their sales goals? Recognize those who do. Want employees to be more creative in the work they deliver? Recognize those who do.

However, when it comes to cultivating and open and honest culture, what we often forget (or conveniently avoid) as leaders is to positively reinforce one particular behavior: We rarely encourage our team to tell the truth.

How often do we publicly and graciously recognize employees for being a voice of dissent? For asking tough questions? For calling out mistakes? For being flat-out honest in our organizations?

And, how often do we do it well?

A few years ago, I was inspired by a fellow CEO in Chicago who shared with me something she does at every all-hands meeting…

Prior to the meeting, she reflects on the feedback she’s gotten (through Know Your Company, no less — she’s a happy customer 😊). Then, at every all-hands meeting, she will publicly thank a specific person who offered a critical opinion, or asked a tough question, or brought up a new idea. She’ll recognize that one person by name, and with genuine sincerity. She’ll thank them for speaking up and being honest… even if she doesn’t necessarily agree with his or her viewpoint.

This CEO immediately noticed the difference her actions made after the first time she did this. At the next all-hands meeting, there were more hands raised, more questions asked, more ideas offered.

Her simple, earnest “thank you” went a long way when it comes to acting on feedback. She didn’t implement the person’s idea. Nor did she even agree sometimes with the person’s perspective. But she did truly listen, and appreciate what the person had to say.

This isn’t to say you should never act on feedback or implement someone’s suggestion. This is just to say that cultivating a more open, honest work environment starts by recognizing the messenger.

Most of the time, when an employee gives feedback, they are merely looking for this recognition: Acknowledgement that they have been heard. Validation that you are listening. Gratitude for weighing in. Sometimes that recognition is all they are looking for.

This CEO’s practice of intentionally recognizing a person publicly for giving honest feedback is powerful also in how she does it. Notice two things:

The recognition is specific.

She didn’t say “Big thanks to my leadership team” or “Great job, support team”. It wasn’t vague, it wasn’t generalized. She specifically recognizes the person by name, giving them respect and individualized attention for doing something that she believes is important to the company. Other employees who are watching and observing this won’t easily forget that.

The recognition is heartfelt.

She never faked the “thank you.” She never recognized someone just for show. People will see right through you when you’re doing something to just check the box and appear to be “doing all the correct things as a leader.” There are few things are worse as a saying something and not meaning it. Going through the motions of a “thank you” is one of the worst actions of insincerity.

Personally, I’ve taken a page out of this CEO’s book. I try to make my recognition toward my team specific and heartfelt. And, I do this not only in all-company meetings, but in the moment — during a one-on-one conversation, in an email or a group chat.

Give it a shot. Who do you need to thank in your company for telling the truth?


 

P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share + give it ❤️ so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)