Have you ever seen the show Undercover Boss? It’s the one where CEOs disguise themselves and work on the frontline to find out “how things really work and what their employees truly think of them.”
While that may make entertaining TV, leaders don’t need to go undercover to learn what employees think. All they really need to do is ask.
But leaders may need help from internal communicators. We play an important role in coaching leaders on how to ask the right questions to get to the heart of what employees think. Here’s how:
Create a safe space
Leaders rose to the top of their organizations by quickly getting to the bottom of every problem and immediately developing solutions. But when leaders seem to have all the answers, they discourage employees from asking questions.
Coach leaders to pose specific questions that only employees can answer, based on their perspectives or experience. For example, to a group of customer service reps, leaders can say, “What are you hearing from customers?” Or to a meeting with manufacturing employees, leaders can ask about challenges employees experience on the factory floor. These guided questions create a safe space where employees can contribute to big picture conversations by providing insights or offering ideas.
Ask the right way
For many leaders, the only question they’ve ever asked employees is: “Are there any questions?” But that normally kills conversation rather than opening it up—whether in a company-wide town hall or a small-group coffee chat.
Most employees may not feel comfortable questioning leaders for fear of appearing ignorant, no matter how transparent the culture or how intimate the meeting. So make sure your leaders are asking the right questions in the right way.
Discourage leaders from posing questions with simple yes or no answers. Instead, guide leaders to ask open-ended questions that solicit input in areas where employee feedback can really have a difference.
For example, when discussing topics like strategy, leaders shouldn’t just tell employees: “Here’s our strategy. Do you agree with it?” Rather they should ask employees: “Here’s our direction. What ideas do you have for helping us get there? How can you contribute?”
Here are five great questions to get the conversation started:
- What challenges do we face in achieving our objectives?
- What are some ideas you have for how we can address this?
- What can your team do to support our objectives?
- What’s your experience in this area—at our organization or in a previous role?
- What one improvement would you make?
Whether the topic is the corporate strategy or a change initiative, you can use these questions as your starting point. Then tailor them to fit your topic and brainstorm additional questions as appropriate.
Remember not to swamp employees with too many questions too soon. Employees still want to feel that leaders are knowledgeable and confident about the issue at hand. But after the leader provides a high-level overview, he or she can certainly open the discussion by posing a few intriguing questions.
If the setting is a large meeting, like a town hall, break employees into smaller groups and give them time to discuss the answer. Then the leader can ask a spokesperson from selected groups to verbally share a thought.
If the setting is a small group meeting like a coffee chat, the leader can call on each employee individually for an answer. Or if that’s too intimidating, employees can partner with another person at the table (or in virtual breakout rooms) to come up with a shared answer.
In both cases, be sure to collect the output and address it in a follow-up communication. Employees need to know that their feedback is genuinely considered by leaders when making decisions, whether it’s acted on or not.
Make it inclusive
No matter the question asked or how engaging the leader, there are some employees who simply don’t want to speak in front of others. Perhaps they’re shy, English might be their second language or there could be cultural impediments. No matter the reason, these employees still need to feel as if their voices have been heard.
Create opportunities for these employees to participate in ways that don’t require talking. Answering a poll (or a word cloud), writing a response in a web meeting chat, posting and responding on social media are all ways of “hearing” from employees without requiring them to voice their response.
Dialogue is a key ingredient in effective leader communication. Employees want to be part of the process, not just receive orders. By coaching leaders to ask the right questions, you create an environment where employees have a chance to talk through topics, voice their concerns and contribute ideas.