by Brian Bacon, Director, Engagement Services
Published May 7, 2024

There are many issues impacting companies today and, depending on the day, any one of them could seem like “the most critical and important.” Post-pandemic, the “most critical issue” became talent management – the ability to find, hire and keep good employees (which has remained an ongoing challenge). One area that impacts talent management tremendously is Culture – the work environment that can help (or hurt) with hiring and is critical to retaining employees. As business begins to slow down in many sectors, which employees to lay off – and how many would create the largest impact with the least adversity – becomes a primary consideration. As companies begin to lay people off, however, they still can have a hard time attracting and securing the right people to fill critical, available positions.

Due to the complexity AND emphasis on culture in today’s business, we are often caught in a “catch 22” situation – not knowing which crisis is the most critical and where to put limited, available resources. No matter what the “crisis of the day” might happen to be, the most critical and constant issue is PRODUCTIVITY – how to do more while having fewer effective or available resources. The key to increased productivity is having more effective managers.

Poor managers impact team engagement – and disengaged employees are less productive, work with less concern for quality or safety, and often have a reduced sense of belonging or “ownership” of their accomplishments. Managers are frequently ill-equipped to deal with managing people as many were promoted into their role due to past performance in another position rather than their “innate” leadership skills. As a result, their management style tends towards command and control – making themselves accountable for all decision-making and problem-solving – without involving their employees. While potentially effective in getting work done, the primary goal of a manager should be to help employees become as independent as possible. This is not only what a company should want but what employees desperately want as well – to feel they are successful and contributing to their jobs – allowing the company to reap the benefits of their engagement. Constantly going to their managers for assistance and direction does not provide this sense of independence and self-worth that productive employees desire…having a manager that constantly provides all the answers and direction undercuts an employee’s sense of accomplishment and security.

Rather than immediately providing direction and solutions when an employee has an issue, a good Manager will ask questions and provide the resources to help employees determine potential solutions that will create a culture where everyone’s contributions are valued – leading to increased employee engagement. When a manager takes a few extra minutes to ask 5 “What” Questions, employees become empowered to make decisions on their own and develop a strong sense of personal accomplishment.

5 “What” Questions:

WHAT is the issue or problem? Seeking the core issue forces an individual to slow down and very clearly define what the problem is – both to themselves and their manager – rather than reacting to a situation without identifying what “cause” is impacting the “effect.”

WHAT caused the problem? Identifying the reason(s) a problem has surfaced helps step individuals through a process of more clearly defining what the problem is (rather than focusing upon the symptom – the result of an ineffective action) by forcing more involvement, understanding, and engagement.

WHAT would you recommend doing to correct the problem? Seeking a SOLUTION rather than a PROBLEM encourages independence and validates that the employee has valuable knowledge, can solve the problem, and is important to the organization.

WHAT do you need from me? Rather than telling an employee what to do, this question puts them in the role of decision maker – which encourages empowerment while validating their value and worth.

WHAT can be done to prevent this problem from happening again? Asking how to keep a situation from recurring often elicits a thought process about what did (or did not) happen AND encourages recommendations for action from employees. This, again, validates their worth, value, and knowledge while potentially preventing future problems.

When managers delegate using the 5 “What” questions, work is distributed more equitably within teams as individuals develop and step up to take accountability. Employees are then empowered by this confidence to do their best work, and productivity is improved. McKinsey noted that by improving U.S. productivity growth by as little as 0.8%, an extra $10 trillion in output (productivity) can be unlocked. Managers hold the key to increased productivity if they can learn to start asking the right questions. A few minutes well spent now means many hours saved later with a subsequent increase in productivity.

The Employers’ Association has the knowledge, training, and resources to help companies increase productivity (quality, safety, and employee engagement). Please, contact me at [email protected] or 616-698-1167 to learn more. TEA is here to help…YOU and your team.