talk

I’ve spent nearly four decades in management roles, which means I’ve had thousands of coaching conversations throughout my career.

Now that many employees’ working conditions have been upended by the novel coronavirus, such coaching conversations are more crucial than ever. As the stock market makes historical changes almost daily, layoffs continue in hard-hit industries, and people around the globe are concerned for the health of themselves and their loved ones, employees need leaders who make a sincere effort to coach them and see things from their point of view.

A few times a year, I make it a point to ask employees what they wish their managers would do differently. The response has become overwhelmingly predictable. Almost always, I will hear feedback that falls into one of three categories: tell it to me straight, have my back, and let me help.

Now, more than ever, these three suggestions can go a long way in supporting employees as they face unprecedented obstacles at work.

Tell It to Me Straight

According to a study published in Harvard Business Review, employees prefer to receive corrective feedback over praise. Think about that: Your employees actually want to hear the constructive feedback you’ve been holding back.

Managers are often afraid to give constructive feedback, so they end up softening their criticisms in a way that’s confusing and ineffective for employees. Many assume managers intentionally sugarcoat their feedback due to fear of reprisal, but research shows this kind of inflated feedback is largely unintentional. Managers think they’re being clear when, in fact, they’re not.

This confusing, clear-as-mud feedback loop is damaging to a business and to employees’ growth. Do yourself and your employees a favor and tell it to them straight. By the way, when you share the difficult messages clearly and professionally, your employees will believe you more when you share the positive ones.

Have My Back

A recent Gallup study found that engagement is highest among employees who have some form (face to face, phone, or digital) of daily communication with their managers. What’s more, employees who feel as though their managers are invested in them as people are more likely to be engaged.

Perhaps this is because a boss who cares about what happens to employees inside or outside of work will also take special care of the things a manager can control — like how much money an employee makes to provide for their three children, the flexible work arrangements for someone with health challenges, or reasonable benefits and a good work environment for everyone.

Employees are willing to give their best when they know managers are watching out for them. That means they need to feel safe — safe enough to try new things and fail, to challenge someone else’s ideas, and to share ideas of their own. This can only happen if employees feel like you have their back.

Let Me Help

Employees want the ability to do what they do best, whether that’s accounting, engineering, HR, sales, or anything in between. In other words, employees want to be able contribute to the work they were hired to do. This holds true in both times of uncertainty and times of business as usual.

In a 2014 study, University of Pennsylvania professor Alexandra Michel found that employees tend to work more, harder, and better when given autonomy over their schedules. While it may be difficult to step back, stop micromanaging, and let employees do their jobs, it is crucial to their success and to the success of your business as a whole. Over the course of 12 years studying young and ambitious executives at two large investment banks, Michel found that bankers who were allowed to think independently and work without constant supervision felt more motivated.

Motivated workers are productive workers, so tell employees what problem you are trying solve, give them time to think about solutions, and then listen to their suggestions. With work conditions shifting due to coronavirus, employees may need to get creative about solving problems they haven’t faced before. Managers who are clear about their expectations and let employees come up with answers will find unprecedented innovation in processes and results, even in uncertain times.

A good leader needs to be vulnerable sometimes, whether that means letting go of the reins or asking for feedback on their performance from employees. Although it may be uncomfortable to solicit feedback, your employees will recognize that vulnerability and respect your willingness to consider their input.

If any of these suggestions sound scary, that probably means now is a good time to work on them. Constructive feedback can improve your business and leadership ability, especially if it falls into one of the three categories outlined above. Incorporating these suggestions will not only help you build better relationships with your employees, but it can also help your business thrive even in difficult circumstances.

Bill Bennett is CEO of InsideOut Development.

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