“Well, that was awkward.”
Years ago, Gallup did a Twitter thread asking about the most awkward conversations people have ever had with a manager. As you’d imagine, there were some doozies — a good chunk were termination stories, which is inherently a bit awkward, but the stories ran the entire spectrum. Someone saw a manager call a 10-year employee named David “Phil.” Someone else saw a manager dead sprint out of a meeting because he couldn’t deal with the topic at hand.
Communication at work has never been stellar. It can be stellar, yes, but stellar’s not commonplace. There’s often a mix of absentee managers — called “the silent killer of companies” — and micromanagers, but not much in the middle.
In the post-COVID world of work, the role of managers is going to shift pretty dramatically, though, and much of that shift is going to happen around communication and the quality of conversations that the manager can produce with direct reports.
While quality conversations were important before, in the post-COVID world of work, they’re going to be even more imperative. Employees may be literally all over the map. Check-ins need to be less about deliverables and more about mentoring, employee development, and broader strategy. Mentoring, developing, nurturing of employees will be a mix of virtual and periodic in-person.
Plus: as automation gets more sophisticated, increasingly managers who just do the check-box, “update me on these tasks” conversations will be replaced.
At NLI, our research has consistently highlighted three techniques that help all managers increase the quality of conversations with direct reports and peers, that are especially helpful when emotions are high.
- Minimizing threat and risk
- Maximizing insights from employees
- Using a growth mindset and fostering a growth mindset in others
So what can managers do to improve their conversations?
First: Understanding Threat
If the last 18 months had a core theme, it’s threat. We changed the way we work. We lost jobs. We lost loved ones. We bickered about science daily. Every week seemed chaotic. And chaos creates a threat response in the brain.
Our brains perceive three levels of threat.
Level 1 threats do not seem to pose immediate danger. Your brain is aware of the threat, without yet feeling alarmed. An example of this threat is hearing, in passing, that a hurricane is making its way toward your home state.
Level 2 threats are those in your neighborhood. Your heart rate and stress hormones increase as you prepare to either run or fight. You may become hyper-alert and feel a bit alarmed, significantly degrading cognitive resources. This is the hurricane making landfall. It’s near you.
Level 3 threats are upon you. Your brain and body are in full-on panic mode; you’re making decisions entirely reflexively; and you are actively recruiting every bodily resource to fight or flee. Minimal complex thought takes place. This is the hurricane coming right towards you.
The post-COVID threat baseline in workers is so high that managers have to interact in a way that reduces threat intentionally. That’s because when you’re at a high threat level, neutral or even positive statements can be interpreted as threats. The result is that…
You want to keep your direct reports in a Level 1 state. This involves clearly communicating about what’s happening with them, their responsibilities, but the overall business as well. A manager’s elevated threat state only worsens his or her team’s threat state, and ultimately leads to poor decision-making.
Studies have also shown that ambiguity can feel more threatening than an actual threat. The working world we’re entering right now has a lot of ambiguity for millions of employees. Your direct reports might already be at Level 2 just because of the ambiguity about working styles, reporting, potential layoff waves, etc. It’s important to be clear with them, check-in frequently on topics other than just task work, and minimize those threats.
As a manager, you want to bring your employees to have insights of their own, as opposed to telling them what to do and micromanaging them on tasks. When employees generate their own insights, it motivates and engages them. It also saves time for the manager.
Andy Grove, a founder of Intel, always said that the goal of a good manager is to make themselves unnecessary. While that’s terrifying to many managers (and our brains), it’s also very true. And if you move your employees to generate their own insights, they can act in your place on certain topics, which frees up time for bigger picture discussions and actions.
To help employees generate insights, ask questions — but not about the deadlines, or the pace of work, or specific bullet items. Ask bigger questions about how projects connect, how things are flowing, roadblocks and challenges, etc.
Ask about solutions, not problems.
Working through the “why” and “how” of issues instead of the more basic questions moves employees towards insight faster — and when you have limited time with them, across distance, this should be your goal.
Other ways that managers can support employees in generating insights, as we mentioned in an October 2016 Harvard Business Review article:
- Let them take breaks between meetings and find some alone time. Encourage an empty conference room or, even better, leave the office and take a walk outside. (Walking might in fact spur your next insight, according to scientists.)
- Allow some downtime on a regular basis — even small doses can have a big impact. Encourage them (and do it yourself!) to turn your devices off for several hours a day – or several days a week if you can. This way your mind will be truly free to wonder, and your brain won’t miss the next light bulb moment when it happens.
- Remember to take a break from any decision-making process. And once you are taking it, focus on something else. Exercise is a foolproof way to take your mind off work, so put a daily workout on your calendar the same way you would schedule a meeting with a client or boss.
All these help employees (and you) find quiet signals — also called “weak activations” — in the brain, which create more A-HA moments and insights.
And overall, asking questions about solutions, i.e. having a real two-way synchronous conversation on the business and the strategy and the long-term, increases reflection and raises a sense of status and autonomy in our brains. Telling? That decreases both. It’s about real conversations and moving employees to insight, as opposed to task-based check-ins.
Understanding Growth Mindset
In a few weeks, you might be sitting next to people you haven’t seen in 15 months except on video calls; in other cases, you might have a new teammate in Poland who was an elite find for the organization — and you may never meet him, but now you’re in the trenches together.
Things are vastly different. You need a growth mindset to help get through that, and manage stress.
The good news: growth mindset can be developed over a short period of time, and you can inspire your team to constantly learn and develop new skills. We talk often these days of “up-skilling” or “re-skilling,” but many of those programs have very low success rates. Instilling a growth mindset in your people over time, through small repeatable actions, is a better approach — and an essential need for managers post-COVID.
Employees and managers alike can grow through quality conversations. Try opening a dialogue with a direct report by discussing where they see their career in three years, or bounce some executive-level strategy off them and get their take. If you have a mix of in-person and virtual, adopt a “one virtual, all virtual” rule which means no people can be together, even if they’re in the same office. It cuts down on exclusion, clique-y behavior, side conversations, etc. and helps to make the at-home people (the virtual ones) feel less left out. Work on having quality meetings as well: memos to open and parallel processing review (everyone works on the same document for 10 minutes, then comes back to discuss it). Quality conversations and meetings help teams grow.
So, above all, focus on the quality of your conversations
When you increase the quality of conversations across an organization, the benefits are tremendous — including increased motivation, faster solutions to problems (and thus fewer “fire drills”), managers with higher EQ, and teams that can embrace a growth mindset.
We know from research that the brain responds and reacts differently in different types of conversations. In fact, in late 2020 research from Yale, we learned that activity in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is involved in control of cognitive processes, was much greater when people talked with someone from a different socioeconomic background than with someone of similar status. Mix up your teams. Experiment with their diversity. Give people from different silos opportunities to have conversations. It might also spur your next great product line.
Managers should aim for the highest tier of conversation with employees — it’s often called the “transformational conversation” level — where insights can happen. This does involve a bit of small talk on the front-end, but the conversation should be structured around goals, bigger-picture issues, long-range project planning, roadblocks, and how the employee is feeling about his/her career amid all the shifts in the work process.
If managers focus less on back-end logistics and more on high-quality, insight-reaching conversations, then post-COVID organizations will be primed for the future of work.