Just making conversation

February 2008 » Columns
Perhaps the most common advice for any kind of management or leadership position is to initiate and reinforce communication among the staff or project team. To accomplish this, managers are taught to ask questions of their staff and, whenever appropriate, to discover some of their personal goals and motivations. The purpose is clear: By engaging in meaningful conversation, managers are able to monitor and evaluate the employees’ capabilities and attitudes while promoting teamwork and moving projects forward. Many recommendations regarding communication do not, however, emphasize the information-gathering tools that are necessary to rise above simple conversation and engage in a real transfer of knowledge. Put simply, there is a dramatic difference between asking, "How’s it going?" and asking for specific details about progress, resource shortages, or training.
Jason Burke, P.E., MPEM

Perhaps the most common advice for any kind of management or leadership position is to initiate and reinforce communication among the staff or project team. To accomplish this, managers are taught to ask questions of their staff and, whenever appropriate, to discover some of their personal goals and motivations. The purpose is clear: By engaging in meaningful conversation, managers are able to monitor and evaluate the employees’ capabilities and attitudes while promoting teamwork and moving projects forward. Many recommendations regarding communication do not, however, emphasize the information-gathering tools that are necessary to rise above simple conversation and engage in a real transfer of knowledge. Put simply, there is a dramatic difference between asking, "How’s it going?" and asking for specific details about progress, resource shortages, or training.

One of the reasons I have seen for this is that in order to ask the right questions, there must necessarily be an ulterior motive. This doesn’t imply that managers need to be skulking around the office, with staff afraid to engage in conversation. It means having a set idea of the type of information you are seeking and a list of questions that will painlessly reveal it. For instance, if the manager is interested in monitoring task progress, "How’s it going?" will generally result in the non-informative, "Fine," "OK," or the more cynical, "Same as the last time you asked." Some better questions would focus on specific deliverables, deadlines, coordination with other staff, or scope changes.

It should not surprise your staff that you are interested in what they are doing; after all, they are your employees. They should be accustomed to you stopping by once a day or so for some kind of feedback. The key is to have specific reasons for doing so, and to guide the conversation so that you get real answers. Occasional chit-chat is fine, but it doesn’t directly address the issues.

Consider the various forms of information that are the focus of different levels of management. A project manager is often tightly concentrated on task progress and short-term problems. A mid-level supervisor, on the other hand, should be interested in overall progress on several projects, employee morale, training, and IT support. Principals are usually concerned with business strategy, client relations, marketing, and long-term opportunities. The questions and subjects of conversation therefore change accordingly.

A project manager should be asking direct questions:

  • How long have you been working on this task?
  • What is the next thing you will be working on?
  • Do you understand all of the goals of this task?
  • Do you know how this task fits into the whole project?

A supervisor might ask:

  • What is your overall workload?
  • Is the firm providing enough feedback and training for your work?
  • What problems do you have with software or hardware?
  • How are the project managers handling your task assignments?

Firm leaders will want to know:

  • How profitable are our recent projects?
  • How many new clients did we work for this month?
  • What are project managers doing to emphasize client satisfaction?
  • What new opportunities is our staff capable of undertaking?

These simple questions are really abstracts of longer conversations. Any given exchange may touch on only a couple of these topics at a time. But over a week or a month, by targeting specific information, a much more complete picture of short- and long-term progress is possible. It is simply not a matter of "management by walking around" and making small talk to gauge morale. Virtually every interaction that occurs up and down the corporate hierarchy is an opportunity to explore detailed aspects of projects and overall firm success. Management should not be bashful about accepting the responsibility of ensuring success through focused, but informal, communication.

Jason Burke, P.E., works for Allied Engineering in Bozeman, Mont.


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