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3 Conversations Leaders Need to Master to Keep People Engaged

Today’s leaders know that retaining high performers will always be critical to organizational success. When those high performers feel empowered, engaged, and enthused about their company and its culture, they will want to stay.

Creating and sustaining an organizational culture that inspires this mindset requires attention and dedication on the part of every leader. To pave the way, we offer three pertinent conversations that, when mastered, will help leaders at every level communicate this engaging message to their direct reports: You are trusted, valued, and needed by this organization.

The One-on-One Conversation

The purpose of one-on-ones is for managers and direct reports to get to know each other as human beings. It’s a great opportunity for both parties to speak openly without interference or judgment. These regularly scheduled conversations are meant to continue year after year, indefinitely.

At least once every two weeks, managers hold a 20- to 30-minute meeting with each team member. Our company puts a twist on our one-on-ones that we have found to be empowering for people: the manager is responsible for scheduling the meeting, but the direct report sets the agenda. This is a time for people to talk to their managers about anything on their hearts and minds. It’s their meeting.

In the old days, most business leaders had a traditional attitude of “Don’t get close to your staff members. You can’t make hard decisions if you have an emotional attachment to your people.” Our research shows the opposite is true: when people feel known, heard, and valued by their manager, the idea of leaving rarely comes to mind. One-on-one conversations create a trusting camaraderie between managers and direct reports that translates to employee engagement, feelings of ownership, and, quite often, genuine, long-term relationships.

The Stay Conversation

At first, this may sound like a meeting that would occur after a person had already given notice—but by the time that happens, it’s usually too late. Stay conversations should be held when someone begins a new position and then again as often as necessary—at least every two years. The benefits go both ways: When an individual is asked to discuss their feelings about their job and their future, they feel seen, heard, and included. And when leaders identify the positive factors that make someone want to stay with the organization, they can take steps to reinforce each of those factors.

To start a stay conversation, let the person know you are going to ask them a few simple questions to help you understand the reasons they enjoy and stay in their current position. One question experts have raised in this conversation is “What are the factors that could contribute to your doing the best work of your life?” You might also ask about any frustrations they may have felt in their role and how they were resolved. And it never hurts to ask about the person’s long-term plans with the company: “Where do you want to see yourself in five years?”

Many employees leave jobs because no one asked them to stay. The simple action of inviting a person to participate in a stay conversation may be all it takes to boost their engagement—after all, their leader is taking the time to consult with them about their future with the company. It may be the first time this has happened in their career.

The Coaching Conversation

Everyone benefits when a leader has elements of coaching in their skill set. Not only do regular coaching conversations give the leader-coach continual opportunities to build trust with their people, they also enhance the team member’s engagement and provide them with a greater sense of empowerment and an increased desire to remain with the organization. Fortunately, the four communication skills necessary for an effective coaching conversation come naturally to most great leaders.

Ask questions that encourage communication. Before starting a coaching conversation with a direct report, make sure there are no distractions keeping you from being present and focused. Use well thought-out questions to seek information and draw out opinions or ideas that will help you understand exactly what the person wants to communicate.

Don’t ask questions that can be answered with “yes” or “no”—this guarantees a short, nonproductive conversation. In contrast, open-ended questions encourage communication: for example, “Can you tell me more about that?” Clarifying questions such as “When did this happen?” or “How did that make you feel?” check for understanding. And prompting questions such as “What would you like to see happen?” or “What do you want to accomplish?” promote deeper thinking.

Listen with the intent of being influenced. Today’s workers want managers who care about what they think. Open your mind to the person’s ideas and perspectives. Resist the temptation to interrupt—allow them time to think before they speak. Pay careful attention to nonverbal clues such as tone of voice. Restate what you believe the person said, or wait and summarize the full conversation at the end, so they know you heard and understand their point of view.

Share information about yourself and what you know. Leaders who share information can help people make better decisions for themselves, their department, and the organization. As a leader, sometimes telling your truth can be uncomfortable—but remember, people without accurate information will often make up their own version of the truth, which can be more negative than reality! Before sharing information, think: Will what I have to say help them succeed? Will this problem resolve itself if I don’t say anything?

Express confidence to engage and empower. Toward the end of a coaching conversation, let the person know you appreciate them and have their back. When a leader expresses confidence in someone it builds trust, increases engagement, and gives the person feelings of belonging and empowerment.

When leaders create an environment where everyone feels seen, heard, included, and valued, the organization stands an excellent chance that their best and brightest will be around for a very long time.

About the Author

Dr. Ken Blanchard is the cofounder and Chief Spiritual Officer of Blanchard®, an international management training and consulting firm. Ken is the coauthor of The One Minute Manager, as well as 65 other books with combined sales totaling more than 21 million copies.

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