When I worked in retail, I practiced the management style that has come to be known as “management by walking around." I would come into the office early, go through emails, and get projects done so that I could go out into the store before it opened to talk to the employees who were doing all the stuff customers never see — putting out new product, taking markdowns, and cleaning up from the previous day’s business.
I learned four key things about communication that will get you the information that you need as a manager to make better business decisions.
1. Make it personal
I learned that before people trusted me with the business truth, they needed to know that I cared about them as a person and as an employee. This has to be genuine. People can tell if it’s just superficial concern.
When I headed out to see what was going on in my store, my first question when I met up with an employee was “how are you today?” or “what’s going on?” I could easily sense if things were going well or not. Sometimes, that question led to a personal response. You never knew when you might hear about a sick relative or that they had gotten engaged over the weekend
Most times, they assumed that I was asking about business, and would tell what they were working on and why it was going well or what wasn't going well. I learned more about the operations of the company by just asking “how are you today?”
2. Deal with it
When you ask how people are doing are doing, and they present you with an issue that's in their way (either personal or professional), you then become obligated to deal with their issue and follow up with a response.
If they share with you that they're frustrated with the resources they have to do their job or that a process is broken, you must find out the reality of the situation. The real learning for me was when I discovered that the employee was correct and there was an issue with a process or system. Nothing gave me more gratification than helping to correct a broken process, an equipment error, or a roadblock that I could help remove.
If they had a question outside my area of expertise, such as a question about benefits, I would direct them to the right person to ask, or even better, take their question to that person and have them follow up.
3. Encourage two-way conversations
I have worked with too many managers who like to do all the talking. They think they know the problem and the solution before they even sit down to discuss the issue.
If you really want to make better business decisions, you need to ask questions and actively listen to what people tell you. Then ask more questions to clarify what they mean.
How can you make sure you're actively listening? First, ask open-ended questions and listen to what the person is telling you in response. Don’t be distracted by your cell phone, your computer, or people passing by. Repeat back what you think you heard, and to gain clarity, repeat until you're sure of the issue. Then ask them what they think the possible solutions are.
4. Reward employees that ask you questions
This can be as simple as acknowledging that someone asked a great question or as complex as putting together a recognition process that publicly rewards employees for asking great questions.
The goal is to create an organizational culture where employees are curious and not afraid the challenge the status quo. The people in your organization who are closer to the customer or end-user often have the best questions about “why do we do things this way?” So listen to them.
I believe that every manager wants to get better results for their company, but they often get so caught up in the urgent that they forget the importance of simple two-way communication. What I had to learn as a manager was that it was less critical that I had all the answers and more important that I knew what questions to ask. It might take more time, but you will be rewarded with a more engaged culture, one conversation at a time.