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?

 

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.

Improved Organizational Performance through Employee Motivation (Not Skill vs Will!)

Part 1 of a 4 part blog series discussing employee motivational challenges. This is an important topic in our organizational transformation work related to Strategy to Execution.

If I had a dollar for every time someone suggests training as the solution for an HR issue, I would be a rich man. However, there is a barrier to performance which is lying below the surface. This less obvious challenge, which people rarely admit to, is around motivation. It is critical to understand how this phenomenon, which can quickly make productivity plummet, plays out so that it can be addressed.

Here are some simple questions to determine if motivation is the root cause of a performance problem:
• Could the employee do the job if they had to? (E.g.: Their life depended on it!)
• Does the employee perform the job at standard or above when they are being observed?
• Does the employee do the job well at times and poorly at other times?

If you answered yes to these questions, then your employee has the ability to do the job. However, they are not always choosing to ‘do’ the job and you are probably dealing with a motivation problem. And you are not alone! A recent national study showed that less than 1 in 4 non-management employees are fully engaged. [http://bit.ly/1Lk0xSm]

Motivation is too often assumed to be solely about the employee lacking a desire to succeed (E.g.: Lacking will). Many of us were introduced to this view of motivation by Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership training program where one learns that direct reports have either a “skill” or “will” issue preventing them from performing. Situational Leadership has helped 10s and 1,000s of leaders pay more attention to the needs of the work force and, thereby, improve overall performance. http://www.kenblanchard.com/Solutions/Situational-Leadership-Development/Situational-Leadership-II

At the same time, additional approaches to employee motivation are needed. I have rarely discovered a deficiency of employee will due to a lack of desire or inclination to work hard. Very few people wake up every morning and say to themselves: “Today, I want to do a very poor job at work.” The vast majority of our workers want to do well.

Rather, if an employee is not willing to perform a task, there is often times a missing component on the part of the employer. The most common causes of employee lack of motivation are that the leader has not explained to the employee the importance of the work, has not aligned work to employee values or has not aligned the rewards being offered.

In all these cases, the quickest way to get the employee up and running again is for the leader to figure out the specific barrier(s) to motivation and address them. There is no need for the leader to dive into the complex, murky topic of the employees’ “psychological maturity” as Situational Leadership training would suggest. Rather, the leader needs to carry out the much simpler tasks of:
• Explaining the importance of the work
• Aligning employees with work which fits their values and
• Making sure that the employee is motivated by the reward system

We will explore each of these motivational issues in my upcoming blogs.

What motivational issues do you see with your workforce?

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

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