A team discussing employee engagement

3 Conversations You Need to Have With Your Team

If you manage employees, you need to talk to them. That’s a no brainer, right? Yet manager-employee conversations are more of a myth than a best practice in many organizations. Many of the managers we interview sheepishly acknowledge that they should have more regular sit-downs with their team members, but a variety of excuses (e.g., “Not enough time,” “Mired in my own work,” “Never get around to it”) stand in the way.

That’s too bad, because our research suggests that dialogue is at the heart of high engagement and sustainable performance. 

X marks the spot

Talking about the weather or the latest sporting contest won’t hurt, but as a manager you need to focus your conversations on what we call the “playing field” of the employee’s job — where organizational and individual interests intersect. If you’re not familiar with BlessingWhite’s X Model of Employee Engagement, check it out here. It illustrates maximum job satisfaction and maximum job contribution — and how they relate to employee engagement.

There are three types of employee engagement conversations that you can initiate around this model: performance reviews, career discussions and engagement conversations. Each plays a specific role in driving employee engagement and business performance. Don’t wait for your organization to mandate them. Perfect timing and order are less important than actually talking. Start now.

The performance review

This discussion is likely to be on your list already. The annual performance review may fill you, like many managers, with dread — but it doesn’t have to.

The performance review is primarily about what your employee needs to deliver to drive the organization’s success (and your own). It’s an opportunity to review results, provide feedback and confirm expectations. It’s also the time to talk about the development needed to achieve even greater success in the employee’s current role and upcoming projects.

Although performance reviews focus on maximum contribution (the organization’s side of our X model), remember that the greatest performance improvement results when an individual’s values and talents are taken into account. And although you’re on the hook to conduct one performance review every year with each employee, performance feedback should be immediate and year-round.

The career discussion

The career conversation is more about what your employee wants. Although it is heavily weighted toward the individual’s side of the engagement equation (maximum satisfaction), career development must happen in the context of the business. Your employee’s personal aspirations need to be fulfilled while addressing an organizational need. It’s not your job to develop free agents.

If you’re like many of the managers we’ve talked to, you may fear career conversations more than performance reviews.

Worries abound: What is your employee looking for? What jobs are actually available? What if you don’t have the answers? How will your team fare if this person takes another job down the hall?

Your goal as a manager in career discussions is to support not control.

Help employees clarify what they want, build on strengths, address career liabilities, identify development opportunities for future roles, network within the organization and take control of their career success.

The engagement conversation

The engagement conversation can shape and improve performance reviews and career conversations. It is a fact-finding approach focused on the employee’s drivers of satisfaction and contribution.
It is not a feedback or targeted coaching session. It is the time to discuss topics that will make you a more effective coach and help the employee better manage her own engagement.

Ask questions like these to shape the conversation around the employee’s relationship with work and with you as his manager:

Satisfaction: What type of assignment energizes you most? What do you like most about your job? What drags you down?

Contribution: What questions do you have about how your job fits with the company’s current strategy? What questions do you have about where you should focus your time and effort? What challenges do you face?

Talent Utilization and Development: What skills and knowledge would you like to use more? Where would you like to grow? Where do you think you need to grow to do your job better?

Working Together: What ideas do you have for increasing your satisfaction and contribution? What do you think you can start doing? Stop doing? Continue doing? What would you like me to start doing? Stop doing? Continue doing?

Two final reminders

In all three conversations, don’t forget to acknowledge the employee’s efforts and your partnership. What special quality or recent accomplishment can you recognize? What can you say to personalize your commitment to this employee’s success?

As tempting as it may be, don’t try to jam all three conversations into a one-time 60-minute time slot! If you’re not in the middle of organization-driven performance reviews and if your employees aren’t lined up outside your door requesting career coaching, schedule engagement conversations with your team members now. Start the dialogue.

About the Authors

Mary Ann Masarech

Mary Ann Masarech spent the first third of her career writing, designing, and marketing skills training for top-notch consulting firms. She acquired a broad base of instructional design and client experience building learning experiences in sales, negotiations, account management, customer service, selection interviewing and leadership skills. The programs she designed were all about the “how.” (When “X” happens, do “A, B, C.”) When she joined GP Strategies’ BlessingWhite division in 2000, Mary Ann began to explore worlds beyond skills: The internal workings of individual learners – expressed as personal values and goals, the puzzling workings of organizational culture, and the often complicated dynamics of trust and relationships at work. She quickly realized there was no going back. As Lead Consultant for BlessingWhite’s Engagement Practice, Mary Ann creates practical tools and strategies that clients worldwide apply to create successful businesses and thriving workplaces. Think of her approach as "research meets real world." She is passionate about great days at work – where individuals experience the highest levels of personal satisfaction, apply their skills to what matters most, and deliver their best work to drive their employers’ strategies. As lead consultant, she also works with senior HR and business leaders on how to take meaningful action on engagement survey results to drive organizational performance. She is co-author of The Engagement Equation: Leadership Strategies for an Inspired Workforce (Wiley, Oct 2012), has written numerous research reports and articles, and is a well-regarded speaker on the leader’s role in engagement and building a culture of engagement. Mary Ann's commitment to meaningful lives and meaningful work extends beyond her day job. She is a founding member of the Norma Pfriem Urban Outreach Initiatives, a not-for-profit that addresses food insecurity (serving 10,000 meals a year) and education of underserved adults and children. She is a graduate of Wesleyan University. She enjoys her mostly-empty nest with her husband, 2 cats and a dog, cooking, reading and running (not simultaneously) in her spare time.