It’s been almost two years that we’ve been looking into people’s homes on Zoom. Life and work have changed, and people have a variety of feelings about those changes. Some people miss working in person and can’t wait to go back to the office. Some people love working from home and never want to go back. What’s important is the ability to talk about how we feel and what we need from work – with the people we work for.
Most people suffer in silence, concerned to ask for what they want or need at work. Managers find out their employees are unhappy when they come across employees’ resumes on the internet.
The world has changed and how we interact needs to change to. Your manager may not be able to allow you to work from home all the time, but she certainly won’t if you don’t tell her what you want.
We need to cross the line, having conversations that perhaps we haven’t had in the past.
Managers, in addition to checking in on work progress, talk about how employees are doing and what they need going forward to be satisfied and do their best work.
Questions to ask during regular check-ins:
I’m not a fan of asking, “How are you doing?” It’s a vague question, and vague questions produce vague answers. But many employees will go their whole career without being asked how they’re doing. It demonstrates caring. It’s a place to start.
Here are some better questions to ask employees:
What’s changed for you in the last 18 months?
What have you learned about yourself in the last 18 months?
What has changed about what you need from work, if anything, in the last 18 months?
What would you tell me if you weren’t concerned about how I would react?
Managers, even if you ask these questions, employees may not feel comfortable answering. Managers can lead by example by talking about themselves. Share how your life, needs, and desires have changed. Share your own constraints. When managers show vulnerability, they convey it’s ok for employees to do so as well.
Also, tell employees that you really want to know the answers to the questions and assure employees there won’t be negative consequences for speaking candidly. Projects won’t be taken away. Careers won’t be impacted. You’re just talking. If employees never want to come into the office or travel, or want to work part-time, yes, jobs and careers may be impacted. But a conversation is just that, a conversation.
When my son started pre-school, I attended new parent orientation. I had never sent my son to school and I had lots of questions. I asked my questions at the orientation; I was the only parent who asked questions. The mom sitting next to me wasn’t even sure she qualified for the program. Her child was enrolled in a parent-tot program; parents had to attend with their child and couldn’t send a caregiver. The mom worked full-time and couldn’t attend herself. Even though she wasn’t sure her child could participate in the program, she didn’t ask any questions. It was just me asking all the questions. By the end if the evening, I could feel the other parents’ eyes on me, wishing I’d shut up so they could go home and relieve their babysitter.
One of managers’ and employers’ biggest complaints is the inability to hire critical thinkers – employees who question. I hear this complaint all the time. Yet we often find the people who ask questions irritating and bothersome. “Why do they have to look for what’s wrong? Why do they have to question?”
Questioners are often seen as boat rockers, challenging the status quo. They are ‘difficult’.
We can’t have it both ways. We can’t hire people who think critically, who don’t question.
I’m not talking about people who can’t make a decision and are constantly asking managers to validate their solutions or employees who use managers as google rather than doing their own research. I’m talking about squelching the counter-point-of-view.
If you want employees who identify and solve problems and create new products and ways of working, then you need to reward those who question.
One of the reasons employees may not ask questions is the fear of appearing as if they don’t know. Who likes to admit they don’t know something at work? Not knowing makes us appear less valuable, less reliable. It takes strength to admit, “I don’t know.” Managers and leaders need to model the behaviors they want to see. We need to ask our own questions visibly and regularly. We need to admit when we don’t know. We need to be willing to be wrong and to let others see it.
There is an old workplace adage, you get what you reward. Does your organization have an award for the employee who asks the most questions? If not, create one. Do you recognize employees publicly who are willing to point out inefficient processes and costly systems? Do you have a reward system in place for employees who fail trying to fix a problem or create something new? If we get what we reward, what are we rewarding?
There was way too much guessing at work before most people began working from home. Without visual cues, figuring out how to work with people is even harder. You may find yourself thinking, “I’m going to miss this deadline. I wonder what the consequences will be?” Or perhaps, “She said she wanted input on this project. I wonder if she really meant that, and how much feedback is ok to provide?” Or maybe, “He asked for a proposal. Is he expecting something elaborate, or will a one-pager do?”
We often don’t know what others are expecting from us, so we guess. The problem with guessing is that we may do more work than we actually need to, and not in the way the other person wants it. Even worse, when we don’t work according to others’ expectations, they aren’t likely to tell us. Instead, they tell others and make decisions about us that aren’t positive.
I’m a fan of asking lots and lots of questions, preferably at the beginning of anything new. Anticipate all that can happen, get in front of breakdowns, and set clear expectations by asking questions. The people who participate in virtual and in-person training with me get an entire box of questions to ask. And the homework is to go ask more questions of the people they work most closely with. Asking questions will always be easier than recovering from violated and often unstated expectations.
If you want fewer breakdowns and frustrations at work, ask the following questions of the people you work with:
What do you want to do, on this project, and what do you want me to do?
What does a good job look like?
What will be different in the organization when this project is finished?
How would I frustrate you and not even know it?
How often do you want to receive updates from me?
Do you want to receive all the details or just big picture information?
Do you want to receive the information in bullet form or paragraphs?
It’s never too late to ask questions like these. It’s ideal to ask the question at the beginning of a piece of work. But asking in the middle or even towards the end is fine too. People will appreciate that you asked, whenever you ask.
Ask more. Assume less.
Career tips you won't get elsewhere. Sign up to get a free tip card.