Do you know your people? Do you really understand what makes them tick and motivates them to come to work every day? Conversely, do you know what would make them leave your organization?

A defining attribute shared by great leaders is the ability to garner followership, and one way to gain followers is by truly getting to know people. Great leaders understand the value in taking time to connect with their employees. There are many ways to engage with direct reports, but one effective technique is to ask employees the following three simple thought-provoking questions:

  • Why did you originally join our organization?
  • What keeps you here?
  • What would make you leave?

These questions can set the stage for an incredible dialogue aimed at evaluating the satisfaction level and motivators of employees. Weaving in the questions as part of a casual conversation in an informal setting (e.g., a coffee shop) can set the stage for an honest and productive discussion. The conversation itself sends a signal to the employee that the leader is interested in them and their satisfaction. The key is to set the stage for honesty by coming from a place of truly caring. When this conversation is done effectively, the leader can learn if the organization has met the expectations of the employee, why they remain at the organization and what would cause them to leave. It also allows the leader to get ahead of any unforeseen issues that might be festering and to administer any coaching that is be needed to retain the person.

The power of this conversation is highlighted in the following example from an executive coaching client who used the questioning technique with a high-potential middle management employee who was two levels below the executive in the organization. When the executive asked the employee what made them originally come to work at the company, they replied, “The opportunity to be with a growth organization.” They went on to say that the reason they stayed was “because of the people on their immediate team, who worked together well to achieve goals.”

When the executive asked the manager the third question, they admitted that they were “not as happy as they had originally been due to the communication style of their new leader.” Probing further allowed the executive to uncover that the employee was, indeed, starting to contemplate an employment change. The discovery process also helped the executive to find out more about the development needs of the employee’s new leader and confidentially provide the required coaching.

This conversation helped build trust between the executive and the manager. The result was that the employee promised to allow the executive the time needed to rectify the situation, which did happen, and the employee stayed with the organization. The conversation created a win for all: the company, the employee and the new leader who received coaching from the executive.

Taking the time to know people helps to gain trust and followership. Asking these three questions in a caring manner can help engage and retain great people.

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