One of the most important ways that human beings interact with each other is through conversations.
It may seem obvious, but conversations can be one of the most powerful tools for organizations to run like a well-oiled machine. For managers, it is vital to understand the impact conversations with reports can have on their work-life happiness and psychological perspective of the workplace. “Bad” conversations can mean the difference between outstanding work and sub-par output, a fact that holds significant implications for efficiency and employee satisfaction.
It really comes down to this: managers need to lead frequent, productive conversations with their employees — and accomplishing this goal isn’t as easy as it seems on the surface. At Campfire, we encourage managers to focus on setting clear expectations, having regular scheduled and non-scheduled conversations, and building trust with their direct reports to make the most of their interactions.
Through intentional and empathetic conversations, managers can understand the needs of their employees and formulate actionable plans that see real business results.
The Importance of Setting Expectations
Setting clear expectations before going into employee-manager conversations is key to establishing ground rules for interaction. Whether in leadership or not, both parties need to know what they can expect from the other.
Set the Right Expectations Before Talking
Managers should set appropriate expectations even before sitting down to have a conversation. When letting an employee know that a conversation is needed, there is a stark tonal difference between demanding they come to your office with no warning and a more approachable “Hey, do you have a minute to sit down and talk about that project you’re working on?”.
The way an invitation comes across can have real repercussions on how the conversation as a whole goes. Ideally, letting employees know (1) what will be discussed and (2) more or less how the conversation will turn out can do wonders for employee morale and effective conversation output.
An oft overlooked piece of setting conversation expectations is creating a non-threatening, collaborative environment before an employee even walks in the room. Rather than relying on the conversation itself as a starting point for expectation setting, improve the interaction before it begins with some positive prep and openness about the meeting’s purpose.
Ask Direct Questions
Another smart way to set expectations during the conversation in question is by asking employees direct questions. For example, asking an employee, “What do you expect from me?” can yield a thought-provoking and insightful conversation.
An open question makes you more accessible to your conversational counterpart, particularly if the power dynamic favors the manager. Other good expectation-setting questions you can use in your next one-on-one can include:
- How do you prefer to communicate?
- How do you learn best?
- What do you struggle with?
Creating an opportunity for candid, thoughtful answers will do wonders for a relationship that could otherwise be affected by disingenuousness or distrust.
Similarly, clear and direct statements set the tone for follow-up communication and allow your employee to attain a clear view of your expectations. Being as specific as “What I expect of you individually…” or “What great communication looks like to me is…” can set working parameters that are clear from the outset, with little room for assumptions and interpretation.
Defining how you operate as an individual — and as a member of a broader team — enables others to do the same. You may be surprised by how often employees have never been asked questions like these before or encountered leadership that spells out expectations in such a clear way.
Add converastions to your operations toolbox: Think of conversations as strategic parts of the company operations process. Building a safe space for collaboration and creative brainstorming communicates to employees that ideas and comments are welcome.
Creating Space for Conversations
Creating and sticking to a regular discussion cadence is also a good strategy for relationship building and workplace check-ins.
Good managers know that conversations focused on performance and personal employee needs can be extremely motivating and valuable when done right. Conversely, conversations where feedback is given, yet not expounded upon (or given without a chance for response), could leave your employees feeling deflated and unsure of their next move.
Regular conversations between employees and managers should happen frequently, intentionally, and openly. Not only do they provide opportunities for performance feedback, but they also offer employees a chance to let their managers know what they might be struggling with or appreciate about their roles.
Consider the Timing
Being intentional about the timing of certain conversations can also assist with setting appropriate expectations. For example, subjects with no near-term relevancy may not require a prominent position in your conversation agenda. Other complex topics may require multiple conversations.
Our timing tip? Try to time conversations when the subject holds importance but isn’t yet in red-alert crisis status.
This strategy allows managers to actually plan for deliberate, separate discussions focused on building a general understanding of the topic, aligning on appropriate options and responses, and finalizing decisions. These planned strategic conversations create room for more flexibility and idea exchange outside of a formal structure.
Set a Regular Cadence For Your One-on-Ones
Setting up weekly one-on-ones is typically a good place to start when it comes to picking the right number of conversations to schedule. Although some employees may initially balk at the idea of attending a one-on-one meeting with their lead every week, managers that pull these conversations off in the right way can reveal their true value.
However, keep in mind that a weekly cadence may not be right for your team’s needs. Talk to your employees, get their thoughts, and evaulate often they would like to meet. Find a common ground between being a supportive manager and also allowing your employees some autonomy in setting their own check-in schedule.
Regardless of how often you have them, use these scheduled conversations to allow your employees to meet one-on-one with you and offer reflections on their work performance. Encourage them to provide a more transparent and communicative employee-manager relationship. Feedback on both sides is encouraged.
Scheduled vs. Impromptu Conversations
Most people want to know if their work is satisfactory, and two-way conversations regarding individual performance are a great way of offering feedback in a constructive and safe environment. However, not all conversations need to be so formalized. In fact, some of the best employee-manager interactions may happen spur of the moment.
Although formal reviews have their place in an organizational structure, they also can intimidate employees in a way that less threatening conversations might not. Sometimes, an impromptu “good job” or watercooler tip goes a long way in improving morale and soliciting an honest response.
PWC recently published a piece on a “citizen-led approach” to achieving business success. Essentially, this concept means treating employees as key pieces of your organizational ecosystem and promoting an atmosphere of innovation and experimentation. Employees feel more connected to their jobs when they clearly understand their role and its impact on the broader company.
One way to meaningfully help employees see themselves as integral pieces within a larger organizational chain is by holding frequent conversations - both planned and unplanned - and remaining accessible to them as their manager. Aside from just simply reviewing work-related wins and losses, conversations can also tease out growth opportunities and get at the core of your employees’ specific roles and career aspirations.
Perhaps your employee needs some additional training in a key area of the business model, or maybe you get a sense of that individual’s future goals after talking with them. Either way, conversations can foster a working relationship that allows direct reports to be honest with their needs and wants while allowing you to communicate much-needed praise or constructive criticism.
Cultivating a Sense of Trust
Finally, building a sense of trust with your direct reports is a pivotal part of conducting on-the-job conversations. Part of building trust is maintaining your sense of personal integrity and being truthful in a way that encourages your employees to do the same.
Campfire’s preferred method for establishing an early understanding of trust in employee-manager relationships is to “break the ICE.” In this case, ICE stands for Intent, Credibility, and Empathy. These three elements can build a foundation for open communication when practiced correctly. They also help you develop a baseline for trust on both sides of the interaction.
The first part of “breaking the ICE” is to examine your intent going into the conversation. Intent generally refers to the underlying motive behind forging a relationship in the first place.
Asking yourself hard questions can help you identify your intentions with the relationship as a whole and the conversation in question. Being honest with yourself and reframing potentially leading questions more neutrally can help eliminate biases and open the door for trust.
Similarly, credibility speaks to a sense of being believable. Can your employees trust you to be honest? Do you have their best interests and the team's interests in mind? Being credible means keeping commitments that you make with team members. Showing your reliability reinforces others’ feelings around being credible themselves. It’s easier to justify dishonesty when your manager has already modeled it in kind.
Empathy is perhaps the most crucial part of “breaking the ICE.” In many ways, empathy is a learned skill, which means that you can practice it in conversations with your reports. Caring deeply and personally about the other person is the key to holding empathetic conversations. Putting yourself in their shoes as much as possible is an excellent way to better understand their mindset and struggles relating to certain situations.
Brene Brown, a prominent empathy researcher, and author, created the idea of a “square squad.” Within this square, she encourages readers to add in the initials of people that belong in their “squad.” Ideally, these people should be those whose opinions matter the most to your sense of accomplishment and well-being.
In short, these initials represent the people that you trust the most. Brown finds that these trustworthy family members and friends care about you because of your imperfections, not despite them. Making the list on anybody’s “square squad” should feel like a noteworthy accomplishment and one that managers can strive for within their work relationships.
Ultimately, conversations are necessary to establish trustworthy, clear, and consistent manager-employee relationships. Although there are several tips for how to go about crafting these conversations, it’s important to remember that, often, following your gut is the best strategy. As Fred Dust, author of Making Conversation, notes, the best thing to do is rewrite the rules of conversations as you have historically encountered them. Adapt to the other person's needs and work to make conversations an enjoyable, secure experience as much as possible.
At Campfire, we want managers to feel empowered to conduct conversations based on best practices and know when to go off a script a bit. Conversations are two-way streets, and if the best you can do is make your side roadblock-free and safe, then that’s a pretty darn good place to start.
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