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How to Ask Whether an Employee Is Happy at Work

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People quit jobs all the time — for better pay or a more exciting opportunity, to escape a toxic culture, or because they’ve reached an impasse in their current job. Some feel because they don’t feel valued by their manager or organization, or because their managers don’t spend enough time understanding their level of job satisfaction. And all this comes at a cost. The cost of replacing an employee can range from one-half to two times the employee’s annual salary. But this is more than just about losing money. It’s about losing your good people, dampening the team’s morale, and may be even losing customer relationships along with the employee. While you can’t make everyone stay, you can improve your attrition rates by investing time now to keep your team members by really understanding any underlying issues. The author offers recommendations for how to have effective “stay conversations” with your employees.

 

One mistake leaders often make is assuming that because a team member isn’t complaining, they are happy at work.

Take my client Rana (not her real name), a member of a senior team at a large international organization. By every measure, she was highly engaged in her work. She proposed fresh ideas in meetings, completed projects on time, and was responding to messages 24 hours a day as she had for the last several years. But, she was also applying for other jobs. Like many people, the pandemic caused her to reevaluate her priorities. In two years of working remotely, her well-intentioned but busy boss failed to make time to check in about anything other than work, did not talk about her career development, and ignored requests for support. As a result, frustrations built up and she left, and with it went her institutional knowledge, client relationships, and contribution to the team’s culture.

Could Rana’s departure have been avoided? Perhaps. According to research conducted by Gallup, 52% of voluntarily exiting employees say that their manager or organization could have done something to prevent them from leaving their job. While you can’t make everyone stay, you can improve your retention rates if you take the time to check in with your people.

Most people are familiar with the concept of an exit interview, where someone in HR interviews an employee who has given their notice to understand why they’re leaving. A “stay conversation” is when a leader checks in to make sure an employee is having an experience at work that makes them want to stay. I recommend having these conversations quarterly and also setting them up around key milestones (like work anniversaries). Research shows just how important it is to keep these “career risk triggers” in mind. The largest risk happens when an employee experiences a change in manager or responsibility, with job search activity going up by 17%.

Here’s how to prepare for these conversations and what to actually say when you meet with your employee.

Set the context

Let your employee know this is not a performance conversation or a meeting to talk about projects, but instead a check-in to understand how they are doing and how you can best support them. You could say:

I wanted to let you know that I really appreciate having you on our team. As we start the new year/quarter/etc. I wanted to set some time aside to just check in to make sure you’re having a good experience at work. There is no specific agenda, but I would love to have you think about the following before we meet (choose 3-4 questions from the list below):

  • How have you been feeling about work in general?
  • What part of your job are you enjoying the most?
  • What aspect of your job do you enjoy the least?
  • How have you been feeling about being able to balance work and home?
  • What has been the biggest challenge this year/quarter and is there anything I can do to better support you?
  • What can I do differently to support you and the team?
  • Is there anything you want feedback from me on?
  • Do you feel like you are learning and growing here? If not, is there anything I can do to improve your experience?

Mentally transition to the conversation

Our ability to listen and connect is largely impacted by our frame of mind when we enter a conversation. If you are scrambling to finish a project, or rushing from another meeting, it is unlikely you will be present and empathetic with your team member. When you schedule your conversation, make sure you have a buffer before you meet. When advising leaders, I recommend they take a few minutes to reflect on the below questions to help them get present to the person they are meeting with and why.

  • Who is the person I am speaking with and what does it take for them to do their job each day? 
  • What would be the impact on me and our team if this person left tomorrow? 

Start the meeting off right

Whether you are meeting in person or via phone or video put away any distractions. Turn off notifications, put away your computer and phone, and close out your email and any chat functions. Intentionally or unintentionally, nothing closes down sharing faster than someone looking away or responding to something else when they are sharing. 

Then, express the context of your meeting in the beginning. Remind the person that you are here to listen, understand their experience and see if there is anything you can do to improve it. Start by asking one of the questions you listed in your email to them. I recommend you start with a more general question to get the conversation flowing and then move deeper.

Probe, then really listen

When training leaders to have stay conversations, they will often express the concern “What if my team member brings up a problem I can’t address, or asks for a raise or promotion I can’t give them?” My response is always, “Isn’t it better to understand what is going on than to ignore it?” And, in most cases, the act of authentically listening to a person’s concerns often addresses them or, at a minimum, helps you identify a path forward together.

In my experience, nervous leaders will enter conversations expecting the worst, when things are actually going well.

As your team member shares their experiences, (really) listen. Then probe by celebrating and reflecting on what’s working.

“I have been really enjoying working from home, I feel like we are much more efficient as a team.”

  • Celebrate: “That’s great to hear, I feel the same way.”
  • Reflect: “What do you see has been making the difference?”

“I have really been enjoying working on the launch of the new app!”

  • Celebrate: “I am happy to hear that. I love the passion you have put into it.”
  • Reflect: “What have you enjoyed most about working on it?”

Look for hidden commitments

If the person starts sharing frustrations or what comes across as complaints about their work, working remotely, lack of childcare, etc., remember that behind every complaint is a commitment. Avoid the temptation to try and propose solutions, instead, listen for their commitment, reframe it, and ask about what you could do to address it together.

“I feel like I am in non-stop meetings every day and I am up until midnight every night to get my actual work done.”

  • Reframe: “I get you’re committed to doing great work and it is frustrating when you don’t feel you have the time during the day to get it done.”
  • Reflect: “What do you feel we could do that would make a difference for you?”

“I feel like I am doing the same thing every single day and I am not getting anywhere in my career.”

  • Reframe: “I get you are really committed to growing and, right now, you feel like that is not happening at all.”
  • Reflect: “What do you feel we could do that would make a difference for you?”

Agree on next steps

In the last ten minutes of your conversation, shift your discussion to the next steps. If there are multiple things you did not have time to discuss, schedule a meeting to continue the discussion. If there are follow-up actions you will each take, put them in writing so your team member knows you really heard them out.

“Thank you for your openness in our meeting today, I really appreciate you sharing all that you did. As promised, I am going to (list follow-up actions), and send you an invite now for another conversation in two months. And, if anything comes up prior, please know we will always make time to check in.”

While this may feel like “extra work” that you may not have time for, in reality, you don’t have time not to have a stay conversation. Remember, it is the simplest actions that often have the biggest impact.

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Leadership

To Get Results, the Best Leaders Both Push and Pull Their Teams

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Over the past year, there has been a call for leaders to be less demanding and more empathetic toward individual employees. To get results, managers needed to rely on “pull” — giving employees a say in how they carry a task out and using inspiration and motivation to get them going. But an analysis of thousands of 360-degree assessments showed that the most effective leaders also know how to “push” — drive for results by telling people what to do and holding them accountable. The takeaway? Your efforts to increase empathy shouldn’t diminish your ability to, on occasion, push when needed. The data shows that it can be a strong force that builds confidence among employees. The key is to know when to use which approach, depending on the task, the timing, and the people.

When you see a task that needs to be accomplished by your team, do you “push” them to get it done or do you “pull” them in, giving them a say in how they carry it out and using inspiration and motivation to get them going? These are two very different approaches to reach a goal, and the latter is often the best one, but knowing how to combine these two paths is an important skill for managers and leaders.

Take this example from a client of ours. There had been an ongoing discussion about the company’s policies around the environment and sustainability. The CEO had allowed debate and encouraged everyone to weigh in. The CEO strongly supported the need for change but allowed time for ample discussion (using the pull approach). However, two members of the executive team were naysayers and dragged their feet on enacting any of the proposed initiatives. After two months of inaction, the CEO announced to the team that the company was going to implement two initiatives and stated that everyone needed to get on board (moving to the push approach). One of the executives balked at this and made clear he wouldn’t support the initiatives. The CEO terminated him by the end of the week (using the ultimate push approach).

Leaders who are willing to try hard with pulling but ultimately resort to a strong push provide a good example of the power of the combination of these two approaches. Pushing too hard can erode satisfaction but, at times, is needed, especially when pulling just doesn’t work.

In our research, my colleague Jack Zenger and I identified two leadership behaviors directed at the same end goal but utilizing opposite approaches. We call one behavior “driving for results” (push), and the other “inspiring and motivating others” (pull). Let me define what I mean.

Defining Pushing and Pulling

When a leader identifies a goal that they want to accomplish, there are two distinct paths to get there.

Pushing involves giving direction, telling people what to do, establishing a deadline, and generally holding others accountable. It is on the “authoritarian” end of the leadership style spectrum.

Pulling, on the other hand, involves describing to a direct report a needed task, explaining the underlying reason for it, seeing what ideas they might have on how to best accomplish it, and asking if they are willing to take it on. The leader can further enhance the pull by describing what this project might do for the employee’s development. Ideally, the leader’s energy and enthusiasm for the goal are contagious.

Gathering data from over 100,000 leaders through our 360-degree assessments, we measured both push and pull and found that 76% of the leaders were rated by their peers as more competent at pushing than pulling. Only 22% of the leaders were rated as better at pulling, and a mere 2% were rated as equal on both skills.

We also asked the people rating those leaders (over 1.6 million people) which skill was more important for a leader to do well to be successful in their current job. Pulling (inspiring others) was rated as the most important, while pushing (driving for results) was rated as fifth most important.

Understanding What People Want and Need

While our data is clear that most leaders could benefit from improving their ability to pull or inspire others, our research revealed that leaders who were effective at both pushing and pulling were ultimately the most effective.

We gathered 360-degree assessment data on 3,875 leaders in the pandemic. In this analysis, we did the following:

  • The direct reports rated the leader’s effectiveness on both pushing (driving for results) and pulling (inspiring and motivating others).
  • The direct reports were also asked to rate their confidence that the organization would achieve its strategic goals and their satisfaction with their organization as a place to work.
  • We ranked leaders’ data on pushing and pulling into quartiles and identified those who were low (bottom quartile) and high (top quartile).

The results are captured in the chart below. When both push and pull are in the bottom quartile, both confidence and satisfaction of direct reports are low. When push is high and pull is low, both confidence and satisfaction increase. When pull is high, satisfaction increases to a level substantially above confidence. When both are high, then you see the most significant increase. (Note: High confidence and satisfaction were measured by the percentage of people who marked 5 on a 5-point scale. This is a very high bar for satisfaction.)

Bringing Push and Pull Together

As many leaders across the globe grapple with retention and how to prevent their employees from joining the Great Resignation, they’re asking themselves hard questions. How do you motivate people to stay? How do you encourage them to increase their efforts? What is it they really want and need from their work environments?

Over the past few years, there has been a call for leaders to be less demanding and more empathetic toward individual employees. More pull, less push seemed to be what’s needed to retain talented employees. While I agree with this sentiment, this data also offers a clear warning. Your efforts to increase empathy shouldn’t diminish your ability to, on occasion, push when needed. As our data shows that it can be a strong force that builds confidence.

In fact, your influence as a leader comes from your ability to know when to use which approach, depending on the task, the timing, and the people. So next time you’re trying to accomplish a significant goal, consider whether your team really needs a good push, a big pull, or perhaps both.

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Leadership

How to Respond When an Employee Quits

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Someone giving notice doesn’t have to be the end of the world or the end of a relationship. In this article, the author offers advice for how to respond in a constructive and professional way when someone says they’re quitting. First, take a moment to digest the news. It’s okay to show you’re surprised or to say something like, “Wow, I wasn’t expecting that.” The last thing you want to do is react impulsively and say something you might regret that would leave the individual with a negative impression of you and the organization. Notice and manage any in-the-moment reactions and depersonalize the news. It’s also important to show your support and genuine interest in why they’re leaving and what they’re going to do next. And make sure to get alignment on what they need and what you need from them before they leave to ensure a smooth transition. It may involve some give and take and could include finishing a specific project or set of tasks, training others to take over these responsibilities to minimize disruption, or even hiring their replacement. Using these strategies can help all parties move on in a positive way.

With over four million people quitting their jobs each month during the first quarter of 2022 and 44% of workers currently looking for new jobs, it’s entirely possible that someone on your team could leave in the near term. And it may not be the person you thought it would be — or hoped it would be. It could come as a total surprise to you and be a key contributor on your team, someone with whom you really enjoy working and who has great potential in your organization. So, how do you respond when this person gives their notice?

While there are several things you should not do — like take it personally, belittle their new opportunity, or give them a guilt trip (among others) — there are six key elements to ensuring that you respond in a constructive and professional manner while processing the surprising news.

Take a beat

First, take a moment to digest the news. It’s okay to show you’re surprised or to say something like, “Wow, I wasn’t expecting that.” The last thing you want to do is react impulsively and say something you might regret that would leave the individual with a negative impression of you and the organization.

Notice and manage any in-the-moment reactions

During this momentary pause, take a breath and try to discern precisely what it is that you’re feeling. Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, shares that naming our emotions is the first step in dealing with them. Try to be as specific as possible. In addition to being surprised, you may feel frustrated, discouraged, hurt, deflated, betrayed, angry, miffed, irked, or deeply disappointed or just plain sad. There are many subtle flavors of negative emotions, and parsing out the specific emotion you’re feeling will help you create greater self-awareness and enable you to process your feelings more effectively and respond more constructively.

It’s when we’re not conscious of these negative emotions that they can unexpectedly emerge from below the surface, triggering unconstructive, reflexive comments or behaviors that you may later regret, such as lashing out or making a sarcastic jab or snide remark. It’s ill advised to share that you feel betrayed or angry, even if that’s the case — here, discretion is the better part of valor. However, if you’re sad or disappointed, it’s okay to say, “I’m so sad you’re leaving, but it sounds like a great opportunity. We’re going to miss you.”

Depersonalize the news

When we feel hurt or betrayed by such departures, it’s because we take the news personally. Even if you could stand to improve as a manager (let’s face it, we can all find ways in which we can do better), their departure is not a statement about your personal worth or how good you are as a person, so it’s best to put your ego to the side and rise above any strong or harsh feelings you may have. The individual might be leaving for a better opportunity, better compensation, personal reasons, or all of the above. The best career development path for them may be to leave the organization and get experience elsewhere. It is their career, so respect that they made the best choice for themselves, their career, and/or their family, which is the same anyone would expect you to do for yourself. They are showing loyalty to themselves — not disloyalty to you.

Be curious and show a growth mindset

Show genuine interest and curiosity to learn why they’re leaving and what they’re going to do next. What can you learn that would benefit you, the organization, and other employees for the future? You might ask, “What could we do to entice you to stay?” At that point in time, the answer may be nothing since they’ve likely accepted another position. But one client of mine let her boss know, when giving her notice, that a competitor was willing to bring her on at a more senior level with much higher compensation — something her organization had been dragging their feet on and had been noncommittal about for quite some time. Unexpectedly, within a few days, they came back with an even better offer that ultimately did convince her to stay.

While this scenario might be the exception, it’s still important to ask the question above, which might also be phrased as, “What else could we have done to keep you?” or “What appeals to you or excites you most about this new job?” Their response may be related to better work/life balance, the ability to work remotely, a more inclusive culture, a new and exciting challenge with more responsibility, or being more empowered to make decisions. This is all useful feedback for you and the organization so that these areas can be addressed for remaining and future employees, even if it’s too late to do anything about it for this individual.

Show your support

Maintaining positive working relationships with departing employees is important, well beyond the time that you actually work together, so show your support for their decision and enable them to leave on a good note. After all, you may need a positive reference from them one day.

Further, as a former employee, they are still a brand ambassador for the company and may be a future customer, client, or referral source for business and other employees. And by showing support and enthusiasm for their new opportunity, as disappointed as you may be, you are more likely to keep the door open for them to potentially return to the organization one day. So, celebrate their contributions and next endeavor, and ask them how you can be helpful to them as they start their new role.

Ask for what you need

When an individual gives notice, they likely have a desired end date in mind. After all, they will want to take a break before diving into a new job. Get alignment on what they need and what you need from them before they leave to ensure a smooth transition. It may involve some give and take and could include finishing a specific project or set of tasks, training others to take over these responsibilities to minimize disruption, or even hiring their replacement.

. . .

Someone giving notice doesn’t have to be the end of the world or the end of a relationship. As surprised as you may be, using the six strategies above can help you respond in a constructive way that builds the relationship and helps all parties move on in a positive way.

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How to Help an Employee Who Struggles with Time Management

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If you have direct report struggling with time management, it can be challenging to know how to address the issue. Fortunately, there are ways that you, as their manager, can help. Before you get frustrated or deliver a harsh feedback in an unproductive way, first consider yourself. Identify the emotions you’re feeling and why, and assess where there might be times you’ve contributed to the problem. Then, pinpoint the stress and communicate your needs to your direct report in a calm manner. Help them prioritize work, setting milestones, requesting daily updates, and so on. Be sure to celebrate progress — especially at the beginning. Finally, if it looks like they need it, consider getting them outside support from a coach.

The tell-tale signs are there: Tasks done at the last minute, completed late, or even forgotten. Tardiness at meetings. No response to e-mails or replies at weird times, like 2 a.m. And more explanation of why items aren’t done than action to finish them.

You’ve got a direct report struggling with time management. As a manager, it can be challenging to know how to address the issue. On the one hand, you need them to get things done, and your natural tendency can be to respond in obvious annoyance at the lack of follow through or even to consider writing them up. On the other hand, you want to develop your team members. You may have truly brilliant individuals who you know have the potential to be exceptional contributors if they could only figure out how to use their time effectively.

As a time management coach, I talk with people who struggle in this area every day. I know how their brains work, and I help them to move into a place of higher levels of productivity.

If you’re a manager unsure of how to help, here are some practical steps you can take to improve the situation, starting today.

Acknowledge your own emotions.

If you’ve been managing this person for a long time, you’ve likely experienced a broad range of emotions ranging from mild irritation to outright infuriation. Your feelings will vary depending on how severe the issues have been, the stakes involved, your personality, your expectations, and your stress levels.

Before you give feedback to your employee, acknowledge your own emotions. Write out anything you might be thinking or feeling in a free-flow manner. Do not share your raw thoughts (via email or otherwise) with your colleague. This exercise is so you can become aware of your own internal state.

Process what you’re feeling on your own or with a trusted person and honestly assess why you’re so upset. Is it a lack of control? Fear? Embarrassment? Stress?

This process helps you to release pent up negative emotions before you give feedback so that you’re not overly harsh with your direct report and do more harm than good.

Assess your part.

Your direct report may very well have poor time management. But you might want to consider whether you also have poor time management skills and in which ways, if any, you’re contributing to the problem.

If you send over assignments last minute, don’t give clear direction, refuse to set priorities, have no follow-up system, or forget to give feedback, then your actions could be playing a role in the situation. If you also expect your employees to be constantly available through email, chat, or other channels, so they can’t set boundaries to complete focused work, you’re also partially at fault for the struggles they face.

By identifying these issues in advance of the feedback conversation, you can go in acknowledging where you could also have done better.

Pinpoint the stress.

Earlier this year, I had a situation I found very stressful with an outside contractor. There was a large project that I needed them to complete, and they were very delayed. One day as I was thinking about it, I realized that within the larger project, there were just a couple of distinct items that mattered most. Once those were done, my stress would dramatically decrease, and the other parts could take more time.

By clarifying my most important needs, I felt much less stressed and could communicate what I needed to get back most urgently, even if the whole project wasn’t done.

Take the time to think through exactly what’s causing issues for you with your direct report’s lack of time management: Do you not have what you need for important update meetings or presentations? Are you experiencing stress from them asking you to review things last minute? Are their actions costing you time or money? Do you feel anxious when there’s not good communication on status? Once you know this, it will help focus your feedback discussions.

Communicate what you need.

Once you know exactly what’s bothering you, calmly communicate exactly what you need, when you need it, and why you need it. You can also ask them what they need from you to help them be successful.

Although you may feel tempted to unload all of your frustration on your direct report about the stress they’ve caused you and the issues they’ve had, a harsh approach will typically backfire. They’ll be so overwhelmed by your anger and shut down or become defensive and stonewall. Take deep breathes, and try to remember that they likely mean well but simply struggle in this area.

Help at the start.

In some situations, simply giving feedback about what you need or want can improve the situation. But in others, you’ll need to do more to help things move forward.

To get your direct report started, consider taking these actions with them:

  • Work with them to prioritize the work
  • Brainstorm the direction to take
  • Talk through the smaller parts
  • Set up intermediate milestones
  • Do some of the work with them in a meeting
  • Team them up with colleagues
  • Request daily updates on what they planned to do and what they’ve accomplished

Structuring the situation so that they can get and keep momentum can make a world of difference.

Appreciate progress.

When you start noticing movement in the right direction, show appreciation for each step forward. You may feel concerned that giving positive feedback too quickly when they haven’t done everything yet will cause them to slack off. But the opposite is usually true. Positive feedback helps to build their confidence, positivity, and motivation and can propel them toward better and better outcomes.

Your direct report likely knows they have really bad time management and may feel worse about it than you do. Laying into them is counterproductive; increased negative emotions about their work usually causes more delays, not less. Remember that you’re on the same team. Instead of tearing them down, build them up each step of the way.

Get outside support.

Sometimes you’re too close to a situation. No matter how hard you try, you can’t provide objective, calm feedback. Or your direct report may not be able to be honest with you about what’s truly going on, such as wasting hours each day scrolling on their phone or a situation at home that may be distracting them.

In these situations, it can be helpful to connect your employee with outside resources such as time management training, an internal coach, or an external coach who can help them to develop these skills. Someone with experience in helping people overcome these challenges and who is more emotionally distant from the situation can often be more effective than someone with a history of frustration.

As a manager, you can’t force anyone to improve their time management. But your communication and actions can make a huge difference in your direct report’s ability to overcome their struggles and increase their productivity.

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