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Do Employees Really Want Small Talk with the Boss?

Leadership small talk builds relationships

Career Conversations go better, and faster, if you start with small talk.

We wrote recently on this blog about the need for a leader to get to know their employees on a more personal level to better understand how to engage and motivate them.

I recently read a counter-argument on HBR.com from businessperson and author Kim Scott, who declares “small talk” a distraction from true leadership.

I was taken aback a bit by the strength of Ms. Scott’s dismissal of small talk as a leadership tool. I value it as a useful tool for breaking down barriers to trust and building more solid professional relationships. Such conversations do not dominant the day, certainly, but who is going to share their “life story” and “dreams” in any material way (see her advice below) if you haven’t set the stage with the small talk that helps connect to the person behind the tasks and the job? And getting the team away from work once a year to build stronger personal bonds and respect have great ROI, too. Those stronger, respectful relationships help bridge the gaps when conflicts arise over business issues.

First let’s establish where we agree:

“The relationships that you form with each of your direct reports are central to your ability to fulfill your three core responsibilities as a manager: Create a culture of feedback, build a cohesive team, and achieve results collaboratively.”

Now let’s explore where she goes from there:

“Your employees don’t really want to gab with you about sports or the weather or politics or TV. What they want from their boss is somebody who can help them grow professionally.”

The second half of this statement is great. I disagree with the first half:

  • Employees who are task-driven may align with this thinking, but even those employees often appreciate the lightened mood that comes from chatting about their interests outside of work occasionally.
  • And most people-oriented employees seek and cherish that chance to connect outside of specific tasks and projects.

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

Leaders need to internalize the reality that they may be more task-oriented than their followers, and that they cannot project their own motivation triggers (often called “drivers”) and preferred behavior sets onto others. The leader gains awareness of how others tick through a mix of purposeful “career conversations” and the more relaxed small talk through which emotional connections can be made. This balance is (as the author does state) critical. But at Bovo-Tighe, we see small talk as a bigger positive influencer than she does.

Here is one of its key strategic values to us: People want to believe that difficult business conversations do not threaten the value of the deeper long-term relationship between you as their boss. In effect, “small talk” injected into your daily routines helps build a more trusting, open, respectful relationship. Then, when difficult conversations happen, you have a reservoir of good feeling from which to draw to get through it with your long-term relationship intact.

Ms. Scott lists the steps to take through now-popular “career conversations” to establish a better professional relationship with employees:

  1. Listen to the employee’s life story to learn what motivates them at work.
  2. Ask employees about their dreams of the future to learn what skills they need to develop
  3. Together, develop a career action plan that is focused on the employee’s motivations and life goals, rather than a narrow and uninspiring focus on the next promotion.

As I said above, this is where a dismissal of small talk becomes contradictory: Don’t engage in small talk, yet ask them about their life story, about their dreams? How can you get an employee to truly relax and share their inner motivations and dreams if you haven’t established a baseline social relationship through day-to-day chats about weather, sports, music?

I get Ms. Scott’s desire to keep the non-work-focused socializing down to a dull roar. But an unbending, relentless focus on work and career can deaden a workplace. You need an occasional leavening of fun to keep employee engagement elevated!

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