The start of a new year brings hope and reflection. A frequent part of looking back is the granting of awards, for the best – and worst – of the previous twelve months.
Few things in life combine modesty, jealousy, and pride in a delicious soup of mixed emotions like awards do. Losers whine over the criteria or dismiss the award’s importance. Winners, too, often demur, downplaying the value for modesty’s sake, all the while lapping up the attention and praise.
Within one’s own circle, awards are often viewed with skepticism. An insider’s perspective brings more questions than fawning recognition. What exactly is being rewarded, who decides, based on what criteria, and even what is the purpose of the award? So many eyes roll at the presentation of the employee of the year award in your company. Motives are pondered with each “best of” award in your industry. These honors often seem to carry all the credibility of an anonymous online review for a movie or a vacuum cleaner.
But despite all the handwringing, some awards manage to rise above the din. In the performing arts, the most exclusive club is those who’ve pulled off winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award. This EGOT club numbers only 21, sixteen if you exclude honorary awards, and fewer than half of those as performers. The list includes Helen Hayes, Audrey Hepburn, Mel Brooks, and Whoopi Goldberg. This rare group of stars who’ve mastered recording and performing on stages and screens big and small are the few who claim the coveted EGOT.
When it comes to getting feedback from your team, there’s the similarly named though entirely different HIGOT. It’s not an award, but rather a query. Its motives too are often questioned, its arrival never welcomed. And it too is almost always is accompanied by a rolling of the eyes. And that’s what this is all about.
This is Leading Smart, the show about Managing in the Brainpower Age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace. I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.
This episode continues the series on communication as a leader. This time we explore genuine requests for feedback. This is Episode 229 – How’s It Going.
As I’ve noted before, my career has twice featured the car stereo business. The most recent time was with a small firm lead by an ambitious twenty-something. He’d grown the business from his garage into a strong position at the high-end of the industry. But having never worked for anyone else meant his leadership skills remained a work in progress.
One key struggle he had was leading by example. He was rigorous in his management of others and their time. The store opened at nine, but lord help those who weren’t there promptly at eight. Time off was controlled on a very tight leash, with early dismissal for personal reasons usually denied. He docked paychecks at the slightest violation.
Yet he imagined himself exempt from similar scrutiny. He often strolled in after ten. And he would frequently disappear for hours during the day to tend to personal business. He never saw the hypocrisy in his behavior, despite all pleas from those close to him.
To compound it, he would call into the shop, via the speakerphone in his truck, from wherever he wandered. Usually, the call was to berate the team for delays in projects or sales figures that lagged expectations. Combined with his in-person demeanor of micromanagement and petty grievance these calls were toxic to the team. Everyone dreaded them, and would often wave them off with “tell him I’m busy”.
His most common greeting, the one that scraped like fingernails on a blackboard, was “how’s it going out there?” Yet he repeated it so often it got the nickname of “HIGOT”. How’s it going out there. We all dreaded the HIGOT. “Did you get the HIGOT?” “Oh, god, I just got a HIGOT”.
The problem was not the question itself, but rather its many subtexts. Everyone knew he didn’t want to know “how IT was going”. “Get to the point” they wanted to yell, “what is today’s petty issue? A job that’s late? Flagging sales? What’s under your skin today?”
Further they resented the tone, especially the “out there”. It sounded to most as if it came from on high, “how are you little people doing, ‘out there’ in the shop?” They felt demeaned and wondered aloud if he had the faintest idea what they actually did for a living.
But most important was the total disingenuousness of the query. He didn’t really want to know the answer. Even to the more specific questions. What you replied was unimportant, he merely wanted you to know that… he was watching. Ready to pounce on the slightest misstep.
The HIGOT, to this day some twenty years later, still bring chills down my spine. And I was his partner in the business. I can’t imagine the nightmares it caused in those beneath him.
Then how do you as a leader get more insight into the team? How do you take the temperature, and find out what’s really going on? As we discussed last time, you can’t rely on a survey to find out. You can’t really expect good, straight answers from your direct reports. So how do you find the answer to the HIGOT? “How IS it going out there”?
Turns out the best way is simply to ask directly and listen carefully. Here are a few steps to doing that well.
The first step is deciding who to talk ask. As we’ve noted, talking to your direct reports won’t help. They have many complex reasons to be less than frank. You have to go further into the team.
You can’t just talk to the superstars either. Their view tends towards rose colored glasses. Life is good, they’re getting things done, everyone looks up to them, and they’re probably being recognized, both socially and financially for their contributions. Sure, you can ask, but like their performance, their answers will be skewed to one end of the curve.
The same is true at the other end. The bottom is often filled with Eeyore’s, people who see only problems. Certainly, it can be helpful to find out why they are having issues, but if what you’re looking for is a team-wide status, they too are at one end of the curve.
No, the best place to turn for a dose of reality is the middle of the team. The solid performers who do great work and get nowhere near enough attention. They can be gold mines for real, honest feedback on the project, the vision, the mood, the culture, and the leadership — yours and your direct reports. They have every reason to be open, and often relish the opportunity to be heard. In fact, they are often flattered, even motivated, by your attention.
So pick a handful of people from the middle of the pack, and ask them.
Which brings us to: how should you ask? A face-to-face visit is best. You get clear feedback and can read the body language. But more importantly, they can see you and read your language as well. You’ll be less threatening and can allay their concerns about your motives or possible retribution for their honesty.
Don’t make a big deal out of the conversation, or the process at large. Definitely don’t announce a big “listening tour”. This turns a casual chat into a production and ends up being more about you than them.
Don’t announce the visit, don’t schedule a meeting, the better to make it seem more casual. Surprise is best as it avoids canned answers and undue pre-meeting stress. And don’t ask their manager for permission. Just let them know you’re doing it… or perhaps that you’ve just done it.
The key element is to play down the importance. This isn’t a big deal, this is just someone checking in to see how things are going.
What many leaders don’t understand is that a crucial element is where the meeting happens. In pre-COVID days, I would have strongly recommended a visit in person in their workplace. Just a random, unannounced visit to their office or cube. “Hey, got a few minutes to chat?” Then sit and have a nice conversation, on their turf. Or at least neutral turf like a hallway nook or a conference room.
The last thing you want is to call them into your office. There, you have a home field advantage. You are comfortable, this is your turf, you feel at home. They are stressed, even panicked, and feel like they’ve been called into the principal’s office. You’ll never get the candor you’re looking for. And they will always wonder “what was that all about” long after it’s over, no matter how genuine you seem.
In the world of remote work, where in-person is impossible, the workaround is more surprise. Just do a remote visit with as little warning as possible. “Hey, do you have time for a quick Zoom?” Don’t schedule it, just make it feel serendipitous. Perhaps say: “I was just thinking about you and wanted to check in.” Most will be flattered that a much more senior person cares about what they think.
One important signal of respect is to not time limit the conversation. Don’t say “I’ve got 15 minutes for you” or “I have a hard stop at 10” or other signals that say “my time is more important than yours.” Just let the conversation happen. If they cut the answers short, draw them out. If they ramble on say “I know your time is valuable, I’ll let you get back to work.” Any signal otherwise makes the entire conversation seem like a waste of time. Like you were just going through the motions.
Again, the keys are to listen carefully, and to make it as casual as you can.
But what, you ask, do I talk about? The trick is to ask real targeted questions. Questions you genuinely want to know the answer to. Nothing as vague as “how’s it going”, unless as an ice breaker, but more like “tell me about your job”. Or “what are the parts of what you do that you look forward to?” Or “what frustrates you?” Then turn to the project. “Do you think we’re headed in the right direction?” “Are you excited by the project?” “Do you believe in the vision we’ve laid out?”
Try to avoid people issues, let them bring those up. Don’t ask “how am I doing?”, that’s too much about you. And nothing as sharp as “what do you think of your manager?” Few know how to answer those questions directly or honestly to your face. Get there through the project, or the work, or the frustrations. Let them bring up roadblocks. If those are people, maybe you can ask “what are they doing that isn’t helpful”. Or better yet: “how can they be more supportive?”
Another thing to avoid is specific commitments. Don’t promise action on issues in this conversation, you may not know all the dependencies. And you’ll risk either having to backtrack or worse losing track of the issues. Just promise to investigate. Commit only to follow-up, either by you or your team. Remind them and yourself that the mission of these conversations is not problem solving, it’s fact finding.
It sounds cliché, but key to these conversations is listening really well. Don’t go in with a script, just some ideas about things you want to cover. React in real time to them, and their responses. Let the conversation go where it goes. If you don’t cover everything, that’s fine, get it from someone else or at a later date. Again, the key is casual, relatable, and attentive. With practice you will be able to make this easier and more genuine.
If you must take notes, do them afterward. Writing things down in the conversation increases the gravitas, and makes people check themselves. How many times have you watched someone take notes and thought “I wonder what they’re writing?” Remember, you want honest feedback, not a word-for-word transcript.
When you’ve listened well, thank them for their time, assure them you’ve heard them, and disappear. Again, don’t promise action, this was about listening. You’re simply grateful to hear what they’ve said. If you do it right, they will be grateful to have been heard.
Finally, what do you do with this feedback? After a few, perhaps as few as a half-dozen, as many as a couple dozen, of these visits, you’ll have a really good feeling for how the team is doing. You’ll know if your vision is being heard. You’ll know if people are in good spirits. You’ll know if they believe in the project.
And you’ll know if you have problems. Maybe they don’t believe in the vision. Maybe you have a problem manager in the group. Maybe there aren’t enough people to get the project done. Maybe the project itself is in deep trouble.
That is where you build action items. You don’t solve the small items that you heard, you let your directs deal with those. No, your action items are the larger problems. How do I get this project back on track? How do I coerce the vision into something more tenable? How do I coach or even remove that problem manager? Those are your action items.
These kinds of visits are the real way to get feedback from your team. Whether you do them remotely or in person, they are the true and genuine way to understand what’s really going on. You hear it directly, unfiltered, and from the people actually effected by any changes you might make.
You should do this at least every six months or so, but the best leaders make a habit of it and do it all the time. Because the best way to know “how it’s going out there” is to constantly ask.
In the next insight episode, we’ll wrap up the series on communication with a look at a controversial issue. One I’ve wrestled with, and frankly struggled with, for years. It’s about cursing in the workplace. I hope you’ll listen… carefully.
Until then, reject the HIGOT and ask the right questions from the right people in the right place to find out “how it’s going”.
Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my web site CLWill.com.
If you like the show, please share it with someone else. Referrals are the greatest source of new listeners. I’d also love your feedback. I’m “theCLWill” on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s it for this episode. The next episode is another of my conversations with leaders. We’ll talk with Donn Denman who was an early Apple employee. We talk about Steve Jobs as a leader, and about his current job at Google. I hope you’ll listen. Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.