Whether in business, sports, or the arts, effective managers turn a group of people into a high-performing team. This is more art than science, though there is a well-established body of academic research into the types of tools, methods, and approaches that explain why some managers are more effective than others, and vice-versa.
A key challenge for modern managers is to remain in touch with their team members’ thoughts, problems, and motivational states, particularly when they manage large, distributed, and virtual teams and in-person contact is infrequent and uneven with different team members. On the upside, we have never had as many means to communicate with people as now–there’s no shortage of channels and technological resources to connect managers and their teams–so the main question is what questions to ask, and how and when.
Here are some concrete suggestions for remaining tuned in to your teams, whatever the circumstances, and being able to measure morale, engagement, and the overall “temperature” as often as needed.
Create psychological safety
No question, or method of checking in, will really work unless you first create a climate of safety in your team, which means making people perceive that they can speak freely and without repercussions. Without sufficient safety, your team will not express themselves openly, and they will likely tell you what you want to hear, rather than what you need to hear.
Meet people where they are
The best way to ensure effective communication with your team is to pay attention to their individual preferences. If someone prefers in-person contact, then try to arrange that. If people prefer Teams or Zoom, then opt for that, and respect whether they want to have the camera on, show their real background, etc. Don’t impose your own preferences or criteria on them; instead, make them feel comfortable and at ease. Even if that means communicating via email, text, or WhatApp, consider what people prefer and try to stick to it. The same goes for alerting them in advance, keeping a regular structure, or being more casual and spontaneous. Fairness is not treating everyone the same, but as they deserve. The only general rule that applies is that everybody has their own preferences, and you should make an effort to find what they are and adopt them.
Ask meaningful questions, and listen
Go beyond simple chitchat, etiquette, or icebreakers, and truly ask people how they are feeling. You may want to include the following questions in your check-ins:
- How motivated are you at the moment?
- What are the things you like and dislike about the projects you are working on?
- How are you finding the collaborations and dynamics with others?
- Is there anything you would want to change about your job right now?
- What’s your energy/enthusiasm level like?
- How are you finding team morale?
- What could I do to make your job better?
Open-ended questions work better than guided questions that seem to be fishing for an answer, almost in rhetorical fashion. Don’t seek praise or compliments, listen more than you talk, and don’t make it about you.
Act on the feedback you get
If you want people to be open with you, you need to give them an incentive. This starts with ensuring there are no bad repercussions when they report something negative (back to the first point), and ends with positively reinforcing them for taking courageous risks, speaking up, and telling you what is wrong. When they do so, they deserve actions from you. Trying to make things better, changing things to address their comments, and monitoring whether things improve will all reinforce their willingness to be open and candid. And if your action is to address the issue with a follow-up discussion, do so.
Make use of good tools
There are plenty of validated tools for capturing your team’s sentiments, from employee engagement and climate surveys to more frequent “pulses”, 360-degree feedback (and the simpler alternatives of 180s or upward feedback), and even AI-based sentiment tracking tools, such as natural language processing. Your organization may have access to some of these tools, and they can offer a great complement to what you are doing already, especially if you follow the other points above. Many solutions are simple and affordable and don’t require company-wide license. Consider that the best scientific tool to evaluate team engagement is just nine questions long, and free.
A final consideration is to make your team aware of how you are feeling. Getting a sense of your own morale, engagement, and mood, understanding where your mind is, and what keeps you up at night will model the very behaviors you are trying to elicit in your team and establish openness and candor as foundational coordinates for team effectiveness.