Unleashing the full capacity of your people

Leaders: Questions to Ask to Build Employee Relationships

Leadership Questions

The research we shared in a recent blog post identified e-mail as the preferred form of professional communication between employees. This sheds light on a consistent leadership gap: The lack of depth in boss/subordinate relationships. If you are a manager who is uncomfortable having frank, open conversations with employees about business issues, including interpersonal conflict, chances are good you are missing out on a key path to greater team productivity, and career success.

The disappointing e-mail research dovetails with complementary reports from TINYpulse, an employee engagement survey vendor. They found once again that “the number one thing employees like about their jobs is the people they work with.” Let’s take that one step further.

As the boss, you are the most critical person they work with, and therefore the key to retaining talent.

Not surprisingly, then, research continues also to support this conclusion:

Workers don’t usually quit the job; they quit the boss.

To raise retention of good people, you need to a have positive, open relationship, full of two-way communication, with every team member. Your goal is not to become best friends with everyone on your team. It is to forge productive, mutually respectful working relationships. That does mean getting to know each employee better on a personal level, because you need to understand their internal drivers and/or motivators. (You also need to be a good steward of what they tell you, protecting everyone’s privacy.)

Here’s another stat I borrowed from TINYpulse: 93% of workers believe being able to trust their immediate bosses is a critical factor influencing their contentment. Yet, “half of employees don’t trust their supervisors.”

If you don’t have strong working relationships, it is hard to build that trust. On the other hand, you don’t want to ask deep probing questions like a psychologist, and respecting privacy remains a concern. What sort of non-business questions can you ask that get an employee to open up and share inner thoughts? The following is a “lightly edited” (blogosphere term) list from TINYpulse’s article to give you some inspiration.

Who inspires you?

Encourage them to think broadly about this question. Is it a musician or artist? A politician? A family member? An honest answer to this question may very much reveal insights about your employee’s inner drivers. You may also be able to use this information to figure out how to adapt your own leadership behavior.

What was the best concert you ever attended?

You may have the same taste in music. Or you could discover musicians you should investigate. Regardless, musical tastes reveal a lot about a person’s likes and dislikes.

Where’s your favorite place in the world? Bonus follow-up question: If you could visit anywhere in the world you’ve never been, where would you go?

This question should help you get some insight into how your employee prefers to spend their personal time. Plus, if you find out that hardly any of your employees take long enough vacations to travel, it may be time to reemphasize your “take it all” vacation policy.

What are you passionate about?

You really need to know this! This answer could change the way you think about their role within the organization. If you know what they like doing, you can create occasional projects that play to those passions. It could also influence their career development plan.

What movies have you seen recently that you liked? Do you watch TV? What are you currently watching? When you have a chance to read, what do you reach for first?

Finding out what shows and books people prefer can provide fresh insights into what makes them tick.

What’s the coolest thing you’re working on right now?

Are you aware of how your entire team spends their time at work? Probably not. Not only will asking this question clue you in to each of the contributions the members of your team are making, it can also offer the chance for some well-deserved recognition. Plus, if they struggle to answer this question, you know you may have an engagement problem.

With whom would you most like to swap places with for a day?

This is another way of asking what each employee would prefer to be doing with their life. Perhaps you can create professional development plans that could redirect a person’s career.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever had?

Some may have the answer immediately. Others will have to mull it over. Be ready to share yours!

What are some of your pet peeves (at work or in general)?

You may need to probe a bit with the answers to this one, as some very important workplace conditions could come to light that you could address. Give them full permission to include any of your behaviors that may peeve them.

What’s your secret talent that no one knows about?

This could be work-related, or personal. Knowing a person’s hobbies offers great insight into how to engage and motivate them. Have your secret talent ready to share.

What’s the most helpful way for you to get feedback?

Everyone works differently. Some folks handle feedback well, and actively act on it. Others are more reserved, and might even personalize it initially. They may also require some help coming up with a plan to act on it. Until you ask, you won’t know how to give and receive feedback with each person. You may also have to run this exercise multiple times before your people relax, trust you and provide honest answers!

The goal is to get them talking in a relaxed way about themselves, and give you a chance to introduce yourself to them on a personal level. Build your relationships apart from specific tasks or job roles. This is building acquaintance and trust at the human level, person to person!

What questions do you ask that work well to break the ice when you have a chance to talk to employees one-on-one in a more relaxed setting?

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