Building manager-employee relationships often feels more difficult than building other relationships in our lives. We must seek to be professional while also establishing trust and openness in the workplace. As CEO coach Kim Scott notes in Harvard Business Review, “You need to care personally, without getting creepily personal or trying to be a ‘popular leader.’ You need to challenge people directly and tell them their work isn’t good enough, without being a jerk or creating a vicious cycle of discouragement and failure.”
In order to build good relationships with their employees, managers must work to find a careful balance. Whether you’re a newly graduated Master of Science in Management degree holder or a seasoned CEO, these strategies will lead to relationships that benefit you, your business, and your employees.
Maximize Feedback Conversations
While many employers look forward to feedback conversations as little as employees do, executive coach Monique Valcour argues that some managers use feedback delivery as an excuse to “blow off steam” rather than to genuinely seek to establish a dialogue with the employee and create a powerful coaching opportunity. “It’s essential to create conditions in which the receiver can take in feedback, reflect on it, and learn from it,” says Valcour in a Harvard Business Review article. It does no one any good to avoid these important conversations out of fear of awkwardness or confrontation. Nor does it help anyone to come on too strong. Managers must find a balance.
Coaching does not avoid the conflict or the difficult questions, nor does it make assumptions about who in the situation was “right” or “wrong.” Instead, as Valcour points out, coaching “deepens self-awareness and catalyzes growth,” which also helps the manager better understand their employee, and vice versa. Valcour presents three elements that comprise “powerful, high-impact feedback conversations.”
- Managers must have an intention to stimulate growth in the employee, instead of solely seeking to prove the employee wrong. If intentions are in the right place, managers will increase the employee’s motivation to improve. To ensure that the manager’s intentions are where they should be, Valcour suggests reflecting on “what you hope to achieve and on what impact you’d like to have on the employee,” prior to the conversation.
- Be open. The manager must allow him- or herself to be honest and true to their own feelings. Don’t start the feedback session feeling defensive or uncomfortable, because the employee will feel that energy and match it. Being open will invite the employee to be open as well, which will further improve the manager-employee relationship.
- Involve the employee. Don’t allow a feedback conversation to become a drawn-out punishment where you whale on the employee with everything they have done wrong. Instead, welcome the employee into the problem-solving process. Engage them with questions that give them the opportunity to share their own ideas or to explain what they are taking away from the feedback conversation.
Giving tough feedback can be an intimidating challenge, but if handled well, it can become an opportunity to grow closer to an employee and inspire growth that will benefit both employee and manager in the future.
Kim Scott points out that many managers believe that the only way to build strong workplace relationships is by having the best office party on the block, or by focusing on making work “fun,” neither of which guarantees a wholesome relationship with your employees. Instead of spending the company budget on parties and dinners, Scott suggests that “one of the best ways to build a good relationship with your employees is to make sure they feel heard.”
Leadership coach Christine Riordan, quoted in Harvard Business Review, suggests making listening a priority. She says, “You have to put it at the top of your list and acknowledge that it’s a skill that’s important in your role as a leader. It has to be an active decision.”
A willingness to listen may also involve an adjustment in mindset. If you are intent only on being heard or if you are unwilling to change yourself and recognize that you may not have all the answers, then you are not actually listening. Analyzing your mindset may require further self-evaluation. Address in yourself the qualities that may hinder your ability to listen, and do your best to keep those qualities in check.
Listening also involves paying attention to body language. Employees may sometimes say what they believe their superior wants to hear, but their body language can say otherwise. Respond appropriately to that body language, and you may learn more from your employee. Listening not only builds trust between you and the employee, but by listening to them, your employees will be more likely to listen to you.
Have Career Conversations
As an employer, you need to understand that your employees’ current positions aren’t likely the destinations at the end of their career paths. As Scott says, “helping employees achieve career goals will certainly help you build better relationships.”
Russ Laraway, founder of Candor, has developed a career conversation methodology that determines three conversations for managers to have with their employees. First, “listen to the employee’s life story to learn what motivates them at work.” Second, “ask employees about their dreams of the future to learn what skills they need to develop.” Third, “together, develop a career action plan that is focused on the employee’s motivations and life goals, rather than a narrow and uninspiring focus on the next promotion.”
Having these crucial conversations helps your employees feel like you genuinely care about them, and not only what they can do for the company. Career conversations can also increase employee motivation and focus employee skills.
Don’t be intimidated by the need to build relationships with your employees. It may take more effort than more organic relationships in other areas of your life, but as long as you view your employees as talented individuals with worthy goals and ideas, you’ll build relationships that will benefit both your business and your employees.
If you’re eager to put these ideas into practice in your own leadership, learn more about the New England College Master of Science in Management Online. Students in this graduate management program can learn how to overcome the challenges of the current business climate and to foster more cooperative, goal-oriented relationships.