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Mar 2, 2015

In Three Critical Conversations That Boost Employee Engagement, we described three types of conversations that provide managers with valuable information about how to bring out the best in each employee.

But, there are more conversations you need to have:

  1. The Expectations Conversation;
  2. The Aspirations Conversation; and, 
  3. The Preferences Conversation.

The Expectations Conversation

Just as you have expectations of your employees, they also have expectations of you as their manager. Think about yourself as an employee who has a manager. Aren’t there things you expect any good manager to do? Aren’t there things you WISH your manager would do, but they don’t?

These behaviors comprise the things you expect a good manager to do — or at least a manager who knows how to bring out the best in you, and with whom you would enjoy working.

Here is an example of how an Expectations Conversation might begin:

As that article I shared with you said, it’s important for managers to tailor their approach to each individual. I want to do that with each member of our team, so I’d like to get your thoughts on what you need from me so I can be the best manager possible for you.

Here’s an example of what I mean: one thing that I need from a manager is for them to get back to me with a timely response when I ask for something, and not require me to hound them. So that’s one of the things I expect from a manager.

So, what do you expect from a manager? Or to put it another way, what do you need from me to help you be your best?”

A more straightforward approach

If you think asking this question in this straightforward manner might be too direct for an employee, you can use a more indirect approach. You can ask, “What did you like best about your last manager?” or, “If you think about the best manager you ever had, what made them stand out?”

Referring back to a past situation will still give you valuable, actionable information. You are still learning about what works for that employee, but in a way that might feel safer to the more circumspect on your team.

Also, you are more likely to get useful information if you let your employees know prior to your meeting that you will be asking them this question, so they have time to reflect.

The Aspirations Conversation

Each employee has their own particular career aspirations. They also have advancement and professional growth aspirations within your organization.

Research by Gallup, Towers Watson and other firms has repeatedly shown that employees want to work for an employer that provides opportunities for professional growth and a manager who shows interest in their professional development. The Aspirations Conversation helps managers gather the information required to address these needs.

Questions you can ask as part of your Aspirations Conversation:

  • What are your career goals?”
  • “Where do you see yourself three years from now?
  •  “Where do you want to go in this company?”
  • What skills or areas of expertise are you interested in developing?
  • What professional development opportunities would you find most valuable here?
  • Are we adequately tapping your potential and what you’re best at? If not, what changes would you like to see?

As with the Expectations Conversation, providing employees with a chance to reflect on the questions ahead of time will help them generate more insightful, useful responses.

The Preferences Conversation

Each employee has their own unique blend of job characteristics they find motivating and those that lead to disengagement. Even though they have a unique blend, it will likely take exploration to help them articulate what this blend consists of, just as with their managerial expectations.

The Preferences Conversations enables you — and them — to identify this important information. Examples of preferences include:

  • Variety on the job;
  • Challenge;
  • Working on projects that make a big difference in the world (or at least in your organization);
  • Freedom in how they get the job done.

How employees get de-motivated

Examples of key de-motivators include:

  • Micromanaging;
  • Lack of feedback;
  • Difficult-to-access managers;
  • Tolerance of bad behavior or substandard work; and,
  • Turf wars and lack of teamwork

Once the manager has helped the employee identify and articulate their preferences, they can work together to modify the job in small, yet important ways to suit the employee.

So for instance, if Sue has a big need to make a difference, her manager would want to talk with her every now and then about the difference her specific contributions are making. Sue’s manager would also want to work with her to identify opportunities where she can be on a larger stage and make a larger impact.

If Sanjay values challenge and situations that push him outside his comfort zone, his manager would want to work with him to design as many of these opportunities into his job as possible. Sanjay’s manager would also want to check in every now and then to make sure Sanjay is feeling challenged.

Personalizing the Employee Experience

These three conversation types will give managers the information they need to personalize their management approach for each employee.

As Marcus Buckingham notes, great managers “play chess while mediocre managers play checkers” with their employees, while great managers tailor their approach to each individual, they don’t use a one-size-fits all approach.

This personalized, individualized approach is especially important with Millennials, who have grown up experiencing personalization and customization as a consumer (think of Starbucks and iTunes). This same desire for a personalized experience extends to work, although most employees never have the opportunity to articulate what a personalized work experience would look like for them.

The difference this can make

Engaging employees in these three conversations doesn’t just elicit information that will help managers customize an employee’s experience and therefore boost employee engagement and productivity.

Engaging employees in these three conversations, along with those outlined in Three Critical Conversations that Boost Employee Engagement also communicates, “I care about you as an individual, as a human being” — something employees hunger for and a feeling they don’t often get at work.

It communicates, “I care about how my actions affect you.” When employees feel like their manager cares about them, they are more likely to care. They are more likely to care about their manager’s goals, about doing a great job, and about making a valuable contribution.

Because it is so rarely done, engaging in Expectations, Aspirations, and Preferences Conversations can also become one of the most effective ways to differentiate yourself in your quest to attract, retain, and engage talent.

Putting this to use

To help make these conversations a regular part of the manager/employee relationship, invest time and effort in helping managers recognize the value of having these conversations with their direct reports in a more intentional, thorough, and ongoing way. You can provide inspiring examples by sharing success stories from managers who are engaging in these conversations with their direct reports and seeing the impact.

You can also share these articles to help your managers understand the impact customizing their approach can have:

Finally, if you have had success with such conversations, we invite you to comment and share what you have learned.

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