Then the assistant asked “what’s your favorite vegetable?”
The other day my hairdresser’s new assistant asked me what my favorite vegetable was. I thought she was asking in some context related to hair, but she told me she had a series of questions she was using to open conversations with the salon’s customers and thus improve her communication skills too. That was a first, and it worked as we went on to talk about other topics and got to know one another.
The link above will take you to a Fast Company piece on using 10 questions you can use to get to know your team better… you might even learn they love artichokes!
When you hire a new team or inherit someone else’s, your first instinct as a manager might be to assess the situation for the best way to move forward–and fast. But if you aren’t careful, you’ll create more problems than solutions for you and your new team. Before you start diagnosing your team’s challenges and look for ways to improve, it’s crucial to take a step back and get to know your new direct reports.
The key is to learn how to support your team in the most effective way for them, not just for you. To do that, you have to listen first, diagnose second. Just as in relationships outside the workplace, the better you get to know someone, the better you can collaborate. That takes time, but there’s one way to jump-start the process: These 10 questions can help you quickly take the pulse on your new team members and their hopes for you as a manager.
1. WHAT ARE SOME FEATURES OF YOUR BEST WORKING RELATIONSHIPS WITH PREVIOUS MANAGERS?
Knowing what qualities your team admires in a manager can help you quickly adjust your style for each direct report. You may learn that they crave autonomy, or that they prefer more active support. This can help you graduate from instinctively providing the management support you prefer to intentionally providing the management support they prefer.
Plus, asking your team to describe traits they’ve admired in previous managers–rather than in the abstract–also ensures their answers are grounded in specific, real experiences, which may prove more actionable for you.
2. WHAT ARE SOME FEATURES OF YOUR WORST WORKING RELATIONSHIPS WITH PREVIOUS MANAGERS?
Learning about the bad side of your team’s past management experiences can be just as instructive as hearing what worked. Whatever created friction with previous managers is usually something to avoid, adjust to, or just keep an eye out for. And because it’s sometimes harder to articulate positive feedback than negative feedback, you may find you learn a lot more by asking this question than you do by asking about positive qualities (even though both are important).
3. HOW TRANSPARENT DO YOU PREFER MANAGERS TO BE?
Some teams prefer the full play-by-play as it happens. Others would rather skip the details and just be kept in the loop only as necessary. While some teammates love to follow every step of whatever changes might be happening, others find that distracting and even demoralizing. As a leader, you’ll be privy to information others won’t be. So finding out what level of transparency your team expects from you is an important factor in how, what, and when you communicate to your team.
4. HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO USE OUR ONE-ON-ONE TIME?
Every one-on-one meeting is different. While one team member may come to you with a list of updates and specific actions they need you to take, others may use the time to brainstorm solutions to a certain problem, while still others may arrive with no agenda at all. You can certainly find out your team members’ preferences by experience, but asking this question up front encourages them to think more intentionally about your time together, and how you can best support them.
5. HOW DO YOU LIKE TO RECEIVE PRAISE?
You expect your team to do great work–so how do they like to be celebrated when they do? Here, too, everyone you manage will be different. Where one person might love public recognition, another may cringe in the spotlight and prefer one-on-one or even written praise. Check in with them early on to avoid inadvertently embarrassing your direct reports.
6. HOW DO YOU LIKE TO RECEIVE CONSTRUCTIVE FEEDBACK?
Feedback is essential to your direct reports’ growth, and it’s your job to help them improve in big ways and small. But depending on the person, feedback can be something they dread or something they hunger for. It may be something they prefer to hear in real time, or something they’d rather get after the fact so there’s time to reflect on it. There are many ways to deliver critical feedback. If you’re not sure what the best approach is for your direct reports, just ask.
7. ANYTHING I SHOULD KNOW ABOUT YOUR WORKING STYLE?
Working styles are highly individualized. Some people prefer meetings in the afternoons and thinking time in the morning. Others value getting home early enough to put their kids to bed. Where one direct report may crave structure, another may seek opportunity in chaos. What does it take for your team to do their best work? Ask your direct reports to self-reflect so you can identify what it takes to help them feel happy and productive.
8. WHAT EXPERIENCES MAKE YOU HAPPY AT WORK?
Which environments, situations, or projects get your team riled up? Do they enjoy projects that draw notice from elsewhere in the organization, or would they rather focus on work that makes an impact outside of the spotlight? Do they prefer to collaborate, or to keep their heads down to get the job done? Knowing these preferences early on helps you figure out which projects, staffing, meetings, or even desk areas best align with the types of things that make your direct reports happiest at work.
9. WHAT EXPERIENCES MAKE YOU STRESSED OR FRUSTRATED AT WORK?
On the flip side, what drains them? What makes one person jazzed can cause serious stress for another. For instance, too much socializing can be challenging for more introverted types on your team; too much solo work can make your more extroverted direct reports feel isolated. Knowing what triggers stress in the people you manage can help you avoid potentially frustrating scenarios before things get out of hand.
10. WHAT ARE SOME THINGS YOU’RE HOPING I CAN HELP WITH?
As a leader, you may have a mental list of your strengths and be ready to share them with your team. But the strengths you see in yourself may be different from the strengths your direct reports see in you–or the ones they need from you.
For instance, if relationship-building comes naturally to you, you may take it for granted (“that’s just who I am”)–but someone on your team may see and admire that quality in you, and hope to learn from you in that area. On the other hand, if you know you’re a strong presenter, you might be inclined to teach others that skill, too, when unbeknownst to you, what they really want your help in is running more effective meetings and setting better agendas. Asking this question helps you understand the delta between the help you’re preparing to offer and the help your team members are hoping to gain.
Needless to say, while these questions can be helpful, they’re just a humble start to getting to know your team. They’re not enough to replace your long-term efforts to build strong relationships with the people you manage. That takes time, but with this 10-question “intake form,” so to speak, you can get a running start on a process that might take other managers weeks or even months to begin.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ximena Vengoechea is a design researcher, writer, and illustrator whose work on personal and professional development has been published in Inc., Newsweek, and the Huffington Post. She currently works at Pinterest as a qualitative researcher.
I’d really like to ask Zimena about her job at Pinterest, perhaps that will be a future column … enjoy your day, and eat your vegetables!