The Most Effective Method For Engaging Employees? Simply Ask Questions

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Brian Grazer (2015), the movie producer of such blockbusters as Apollo 13, Splash, 8 Mile, A Beautiful Mind and Friday Night Lights, popularized the notion of being curious and asking questions in his best seller A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life.  Grazer makes the case that asking questions allows us to understand and imagine the perspective of others.  This is obviously a useful skill when one is crafting a movie plot line that will grab the attention audience.

However, Grazer also contends that the ability to ask questions is a strategic tool for many professions.  Don’t we want police detectives who are able to predict criminals’ next move, military leaders’ ability to stay ahead of the opposing armies and coaches’ ability to grasp the game plans of the opposing team and put counter plans in place?

Similarly, it is useful for organizational leaders to understand the wants and needs of our workforce.  The best way to get into the minds of employees is to ask them targeted and insightful questions.  Rather than guessing your employees needs, the most credible original source is the employees themselves.

This method of asking questions may sound like a simple task.  In fact, it may not sound like a method at all!  Isn’t asking questions an intuitive human behavior? Research and practice would suggest not. There is more to asking the right question, at the right time, to the right group of employees than initially meets the eye.

However, asking powerful questions is learnable.  Skilled facilitators such as Dorothy Strachan (Questions That Work: A Resource for Facilitators, 2001) advises us to ask ourselves the following three fundamental questions in crafting questions for others:

  • What do I want to ask?
    • What information do we need to accomplish our work? For example, background information, data points, reflections, interpretations, etc.
  • Why do I want to ask this question?
    • How will the response to this question lead us to accomplishing our work? For example: Input of data, offers up a new approach, prioritization, clarification, etc.
  • What response might I get?
    • What is the possible range of answers I may get when I pose this question? For example: An initial response, confusion, curiosity, etc.

Your responses to these three questions will help you select a series of questions that will allow you to accomplish your purpose.  This exercise will also help you craft individual questions for getting the most useful data back.  Finally, the responses will help you figure out who else you need to ask these questions in order get accomplish the objective.

By asking myself these three questions, I developed a series of questions to ask during a change management initiatives that involved launching a new product.  The objective of asking these questions was to engage this operations group in the change.  I was attempting to build ownership in the employees for the change.  The questions I asked dozens of times over a period of months were:

  • What is it about this approach that most interests you?
  • How will you use this approach?
  • How should we evaluate the success of this approach?
  • What can we do to ensure that you are committed to this approach?
  • How can we transfer ownership of this approach to you?

The answers to the last two questions get directly at figuring out how we can ensure that employees are able to accomplish the work at hand and will continue to over time.  The employees I posed these questions indicated that in order to be committed to rolling out this new product over time they needed more information about how the product worked, they needed to talk to potential customers to learn more about their needs and they needed to craft a more defined implementation process.  Once I was aware of these needs, I was able to help facilitate them becoming a reality.

Our Hollywood producer, Grazer, provides us with what is perhaps the most convincing reason to start asking more questions: You can stop having to force, trick, cajole or even charm your workforce into being better.  Instead, your employees will have the internal drive and excitement to carry them through any challenging work.

How does this happen? Peppering your workforce with interesting questions will inevitably lead to dynamic two-way conversation.  Your employees will be actively engaged with you.  At this point, your team will have the same level of enthusiasm and commitment for the tasks at hand that you do.  By creating in your workforce a high level of interest and curiosity for the work at hand, you are essentially generating a self-sustaining culture of productivity.

Who would have predicted that asking key questions could result in such a powerful outcome!

Questions:

What are some key questions that you want to start asking your workforce?

What is your response to Grazer’s three fundamental questions?

What will asking these questions mean for you and your organization?

 

What True Employee Engagement Looks and Sounds Like

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As leaders we seek to create a calm work environment which is programmed.  All of our actions should be by design based on logic as opposed to spontaneous actions based on emotion.  We have been led to think that employees work together best in quiet, rationale and controlled spaces.

However, the reality we experience is vastly different.  Some of the most productive, innovative thinking I have experienced has resulted from dynamic work teams.  These have been conglomerations of employees coming together to solve difficult problems.  We sometimes operated on emotions which, at times, have verged on the edge of chaos.

For example, during a global roll out of SAP software team members participated in animated discussion, loudly challenged others thinking.  We even found ourselves at times shouting and at other times on the verge of crying.  Being on this roller coaster was one of the most challenging, productive, rewarding and downright fun work teams I have ever experienced.

This is where a great deal of robust, open dialogue to seek understanding takes place.  In these electric environments there is no need to survey employees regarding their level of engagement.  Rather, one can simply walk into the room and see and hear the engagement.  One can:

  • See employees who are actively collaborating with one another for understanding
  • Hear employees who are having lively conversations which at times can get loud
  • Experience conversations which take twists and turns no one could predict!

Employees who are truly engaged are ‘in the moment.’ They are internalizing the topic at hand in real-time through the most enjoyable and effective method of learning which is experiential.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called this type of optimal experience ‘flow’ – the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.  This researcher discovered that when people are in a state of ‘flow’ the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will seek to carry out these activities even at great cost, for the sheer sake of experiencing ‘flow’. http://www.amazon.com/Flow-Psychology-Experience-Perennial-Classics/dp/0061339202

Csikszentmihalyi’s finding that people experience the best moments of their life when their body or mind in stretched to its limits in an effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile has significant implications for us as leaders.

This suggests that it is not always advisable to create manageable workloads for employees.  It also calls into question ‘dumbing down’ tasks so that they can be easily accomplished.  Rather, the research on ‘flow’ proposes engineering a much more dynamic, unpredictable work environment, where employees will inevitably be stretched and challenged in ways that we cannot even imagine.

Proactively creating this type of unruly work environment may go against much of what we have learned.  It may seem downright counter intuitive to good leadership practice.   Our paternal instincts to protect our workforce may kick in.

However, think back to your most rewarding and fun teaming experience.  Chances are that you were in a state of ‘flow’ which resulted from a work environment that was anything but calm!

Questions:

  • Why do you resist creating work environments which are dynamic with new priorities and directions emerging in real-time?
  • How can we create work environments where employees feel ‘flow’ on a regular basis via challenging work environments where they are stretched beyond their limits?

Note:The views expressed in this blog are my opinions and do not in any way reflect the views of my employer.

How To Obtain True Employee Engagement

Intelligent toddler girl wearing big glasses while using her laptop

Intelligent toddler girl wearing big glasses while using her laptop

We agree that engaging our employees is one of the keys to organizational success.  In fact, most organizational improvement, at some point, involves actively involving our teams of  employees.  We have been told countless times that this is the ‘secret sauce’ for improving our products, processes and culture.

The key question is: How do we truly engage our employees in their work?

Engaging our workforce in authentic conversation is not as easy as it sounds.  I have worked with peers who have claimed to be experts at drawing out our workers. I once tested this claim by tracking the amount of time my peer talked (95% of the time) versus team members talked (5% of the time) at a session with the specific outcome of ‘hearing’ from the employees!

How then do we ensure that our teams of employees are heard and fully engaged as they deliver on the important work of designing new products, creating better processes, reshaping our culture, etc.:

  • Cultivate Understanding of the Work and How It Will Impact Them
    • To achieve a high level of commitment and avoid resistance, involve those impacted in the development of the work itself.
    • Enable our teams to understand the dynamics of the work being carried out, new behaviors required of them and how their actions will contribute to success.

 

  • Assess the Level of Change Required By Our Teams & Make Adjustments
    • Continually assess change readiness levels over the course of the journey and adjust work and change management activities to address issues and gaps.
    • Our leaders should be accountable for making sure their teams are understanding and internalizing the work in their respective organizations.

 

  • Align the Organization to Enable and Sustain the Work
    • Explore the following elements of the organization: structure, culture, people, rewards, work processes and management processes.
    • Ask, ‘Do the above areas encourage or discourage employee engagement and the new/changed behaviors required to achieve the goals?’ Focus on areas that have the greatest influence on desired results.

The above advice involves grappling with complicated organizational dynamics.  However, the first easy thing leaders can do is simply to talk less and ask employees more questions.

Had my talkative peer I mentioned above reached even a 50 – 50 split between his air-time versus the amount of time employees shared their thoughts, we clearly would have gained more insight from our workforce.  Start by asking more questions.  It is that simple.

Questions to consider:

  • How should we evaluate the success of employee engagement?
  • How can we further transfer ownership of the work to employees?
  • What is standing in the way of you asking employees more questions?

Note:The views expressed in this blog are my opinions and do not in any way reflect the views of my employer.