When asking team members a question, they’ll usually assume you’re looking for a specific answer, which limits the insight and support you can offer your people. Broaden your conversations by asking a simple open-ended question: how’s it going?
Why We Do It
If you ask your people “how’s it going?” questions regularly, you will open up dialog around ways to identify and fix problems in their jobs, your team, and your entire organization. Establishing a personal connection through regular, relaxed conversation will encourage team members to share more candid feedback. They will be more likely to share their observations and opinions on what needs to change in their work life.
Recognizing your team members as people, not just workers, changes their perception of the job. It increases their appreciation of you because you are taking an interest in their personal lives, not just the professional tasks at hand. If you approach these open-ended conversations with sincere interest in the person, they will recognize it and value your interest in them. This simple “how’s it going?” action demonstrates your respect for them and your willingness to help.
Additionally, establishing this rapport with team members will encourage them to actively come to you with ideas and problems without waiting to be asked. Eventually, you may not even have to start the conversation. Your team will be constantly raising valuable feedback to you without any prompting whatsoever! You are creating a positive feedback loop with your people.
How We Do It
Expect a few rounds of seemingly useless banter like this. The goal of this action is to increase your rapport with the person and make them more receptive to giving you candid feedback. If you’re only asking for task updates, you’re going to get task updates. If you consistently demonstrate that you are genuinely interested in the person and want to make their life better, you will eventually hear responses that give you opportunities to improve things.
Therefore, when you get a cold response to “how’s it going?” dig a little deeper:
You: Hey, how’s it going?
Them: I’m almost done with TASK-123. It should be in QA’s hands in an hour.
You: Awesome, thanks for the update! How is everything else going?
That followup prompting indicates you are not trying to tap your team member on the shoulder for a task update. You are wanting to make sure they’re okay and have everything they need. However, do not be disappointed if your direct report responds to the follow-up question with a similarly cold response. Again, this is going to take time. You won’t get everyone to open up the first time around. Keep trying.
If you’re getting nowhere and this exercise is starting to feel futile, consider sharing how things are going with you. Give your direct report an example to riff off of. If you demonstrate some openness—vulnerability, even!—the person you’re talking to is likely to do the same.
You: Hey, how’s it going?
Them: I’m almost done with TASK-123. It should be in QA’s hands in an hour.
You: Awesome, thanks for the update! I’ve been on sales calls all morning. Wish there was an easier way to get customers, hah. Doing anything fun this weekend?
If you say something like the above, it should become pretty clear to most people that you have no specific goal in mind for the conversation. You are asking about your team member’s satisfaction, describing an aspect of your job you wish was different, and then changing the subject to something that is not related to work. It’s small talk, but it’s also setting an expectation of how you’d like to interact with your team member. You are signaling that you have an interest in them as a person, not that you see them as an interchangeable resource on a project.
Uncovering Valuable Feedback
If you stick with it and regularly ask your team member how things are going, they’re going to eventually give you something worth talking about. If they describe a frustration with work, try to relate to them. If you’ve experienced a similar frustration, tell them about it. Lead with relating to their current experience. Then—and only then—start asking questions to dig into their frustration. Examine their problem and see if there is something you can do to reduce their frustration.
Perhaps they need new equipment (“My computer takes 10 minutes to do all the number-crunching in this Excel sheet. Did you know my computer is 6 years old?”). Maybe they dislike a process that needs revisiting (“I have to follow Steps X, Y, Z to appease our HR Director, but I could skip Step X and save 30 minutes”). Or, sometimes, maybe all they need is someone to commiserate with (“I know this unsavory work is necessary, it just sucks.”).
You Must Act Once You Receive Feedback
When you do uncover something valuable to act on using this process, it is critically important that you act on it. Action may vary from acknowledging a problem that can’t be fixed, purchasing tools that reduce your team member’s frustrations, or asking for their ideas on how to improve an existing process. If you open up a meaningful dialog with someone but then fail to act on what they need, you are chipping away at the rapport you’ve worked so hard to build. Asking for input and then discarding it is one of the fastest ways to erode trust and respect. You will be seen as an ineffective leader, and that would be worse than never checking in with team members to begin with.
Additionally, you should act quickly. If an ineffective tool—or the absence of an appropriate tool—is hurting your team member, find a new one quickly. “Quickly,” by the way, does not mean next week. It means right now. Most software can be delivered immediately.
Physical goods can either be picked up at a store on your way back from lunch or shipped to your office within a day or two. Implementing a process change may take a while at your organization, which makes moving quickly all the more important. If you can expect a month of process review to make a change, start the clock now, don’t wait.
Include the Team Member in Making the Change
To ensure your team member is in agreement with the plan of action, ask for their help. This approach to making change has several benefits:
- You are encouraging team members to make things better for themselves.
- Team members are actively buying in to your plan to make the change.
- You are delegating important work, giving team members an opportunity to shine.
- You are giving team members autonomy in how they approach tasks that are personally valuable to them.
Alice is a project lead on a software development team. She is responsible for maintaining client relationships and ensuring the client’s product expectations are met. She regularly asks team members “how’s it going?” as a way to start conversations. More often than not, this results in an exchange of pleasantries before talking about work-related tasks. Sometimes, however, Alice’s open-ended question uncovers useful information that helps her team members or the company in general.
For example, here is one of Alice’s conversations with a software developer on her team, Bob. Bob is trying to finish up work on a Friday afternoon. The team is required to deliver a software update to their client before ending the day, and—unbeknownst to Alice—this sometimes turns into missed personal plans.
Alice: Hey, how’s it going?
Bob: Good, hoping to head out in a bit to see a movie. Just stuck on one last task. It’s a real bear.
Alice: Need some help?
Bob: Eh, I’ll figure it out soon. But this seems to happen a lot on Fridays. I’m not sure why we commit to shipping app updates on Friday evenings.
Alice: Oh? Do software updates typically take a lot of time to release to the client?
Bob: Yeah, a lot of people have plans most Friday evenings, so they try to push their features into the update as quickly as possible to leave on time. Great for them, but if you’re one of the last guys around, you’re stuck cleaning up the mess.
Alice: Wow, I had no idea. Well, we should talk to the team next week and figure out what we can do to fix release days. That’s not fair if you’re having to clean up after other people. I’m sure we can find a way to help everyone get out on time for their plans without leaving someone else holding the bag.
Bob: I hope so, I don’t think anyone is being malicious or anything. They just have things to do. To be honest, I’ve cut out early before and left other people here to figure stuff out too.
Alice: Hmm… Do you think things would go differently if we shipped on, say, Tuesdays? Or at least, would you prefer that to staying late on a Friday?
Bob: Well, it wouldn’t fix the problem, but it at least wouldn’t interfere with weekend plans. Not much goes on on Tuesday nights, so I think people would be more willing to stick around until we shipped the release to the client. I think we still need to figure out some sort of process for pushing features into the final product in a way that doesn’t hold up the release, though.
Alice: I agree, we need to spend some time figuring out how to fix the root problem. For now, though, we can at least help with being stuck here late on Fridays. I’ll call the client first thing Monday and inform them we need to move their release day to Tuesday. Then we can work on identifying the root problem with release days. Hopefully with a little less stress. 🙂
Bob: Awesome, I appreciate it!
While Alice does not yet understand the full scope of the problem, she was able to propose a change that helps alleviate an undesirable symptom for the software developer (working late on Fridays). Bob’s outlook for future release days will be a little bit more positive, all because Alice asked a simple question that uncovered a pain point that affects her entire team.
Bob has to clean up this mess one final time, but ends the week with less frustration than he would have otherwise. He has hope for a better future and believes he and Alice can get the entire team working toward a better solution for handling releases.