Do your employees scatter when you walk into a room? Do their shoulders slump when you approach them? Do they succumb to nervous laughter or give terse, one-word responses when you attempt to spark a conversation?
It might be because you’re being a jerk boss—whether or not you mean to be. If you’re like most business leaders, you’re overworked, overburdened and overscheduled to such a degree that small talk may seem like a waste of time. Far better just to accost Tony in accounting with a direct “How much longer until this quarter’s numbers are done?” or channel your inner Don Draper than to beat around the bush, right?
Wrong, according to Todd Patkin, a one-time entrepreneur, now a speaker and author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety. “In the midst of the everyday chaos of running a business, leaders often don’t think about what they could or should say to motivate their employees,” Patkin says. And that leads to all sorts of problems, including decreased morale and productivity lag.
It’s easy to forget that as the boss, people really listen to—and care about—what you have to say. The more you talk to them in a non-confrontational, non-brusque, non-forceful manner, Patkin says, the more they’ll feel engaged in their work and confident in your leadership.
Read: Are You a Toxic Leader?
So, what can you do to engender this trust? It comes down to a few simple conversation starters, according to Patkin. “They’d never bring it up themselves, but there are certain phrases your employees really want to hear from you,” he confirms. “Some have to do with affirmation; others centre on encouragement, reassurance, respect, gratitude or trust. When you verbalize these things—which takes only a few seconds of your time—you will notice a big change in your employees’ motivation, commitment and productivity.”
As Patkin says, this need not take up a lot of your valuable time and effort. Simply train yourself to use some (or all!) of these simple phrases when talking to your staff. Then watch as their performance soars.
1. “I need your help.”
Top-down leadership is so passÃ©, says Patkin; today’s workers want to be part of the solutions that their companies create. And nothing makes an employee feel more valued than you reaching out for their assistance. “Rather than losing respect for you as a leader, they’ll appreciate that you treated them as valued partners,” Patkin explains. “And they’ll feel more invested in your company’s future because they had more of a hand in creating it.”
2. “How is your family?”
This small-talk staple is a surefire way to solidify the notion that you care about your direct reports as people—not just as revenue-drivers. Take a bit of time to get to know them. If John in marketing has a daughter who’s applying to college, ask him which schools she’s considering. Or if Susanna in HR just came back from vacation, ask to see a few pictures. “Showing genuine interest and caring is the greatest motivator I know,” confirms Patkin. “When you dare to get personal,’ your employees’ desire to please you will skyrocket.”
3. “What do you need from me?”
Few employees like asking the boss for the tools they need to do their work—whether the request is for printer toner or a deadline extension. By explicitly asking your employees, you send the message that you’re approachable, and that it’s OK for them to make requests of you.
4. “I noticed what you did.”
Most bosses ignore, or take for granted, the countless “little things” staff do to keep things running smoothly. It’s hard to motivate people to do these routine, sometimes tedious tasks (think: refilling the copier with paper) when that work is never acknowledged. “Your employees want to know that you notice and value the mundane parts of their jobs, not just the big wins and achievements,” says Patkin. “Phrases like Sal, I’ve noticed that you always take such care to keep the file room neat. Thank you!’ take about five seconds to say, but they can pay long-lasting dividends for your company in terms of morale and motivation.”
5. “Thank you.”
“People love to hear positive feedback about themselves. And, in most cases, they’ll be willing to work a lot harder to keep the compliments and thanks coming,” says Patkin. A simple “Thanks for staying late last night” or “Thank you for being so patient with Mrs. Smith—I know she can be a difficult customer” will stick in an employee’s memory.
6. “Hey, everyone. Listen to what Joe accomplished!”
There aren’t many people who don’t appreciate their good work being complimented in front of their peers. Telling your whole team when someone has scored a win—big or small—makes the honoured person feel terrific and tells everyone else that you do more than simply point out mistakes.
7. “What would you like to do here?”
It’s far too easy for most bosses to pigeonhole employees into the position they were hired for. It’s smart to check in every once in a while to ask what each employee would really like to be doing. Your staff will feel much more confident about their future within the organization—and you might find some hidden talents or skills.
8. “I have bad news.”
Your instinct might be to downplay or even conceal negative developments (internal or external). When bad news is afoot, better to bring it up than to hide it, says Patkin: “Your employees deserve to hear the truth from you as soon as possible. They aren’t stupid and will be able to tell when something is up’ even if you don’t acknowledge it. By refusing to share bad news, you’ll only increase paranoia and anxiousness—neither of which are good for engagement or productivity.”
9. “What do you think?”
“Employees who are told what to do feel like numbers or cogs in a machine,” explains Patkin. “To unlock buy-in and achievement, make your employees feel like valued partners by asking them for their opinions, ideas and preferences.”
10. “Here’s how our company works and where we stand.”
In too many organizations, sales doesn’t know what accounting is doing, and no one understands what’s going on in HR. Helping your employees to make connections will streamline internal processes, reduce misunderstandings and promote team spirit. “When you make a point of showing everyone how your business works’ and how their specific job descriptions fit into the overall machinery,’ you’ll find that us versus them’ thinking tends to decline, and that profit-minded solutions begin to proliferate,” says Patkin.
11. “That’s OK. We all make mistakes. Let’s talk about how to fix this.”
You shouldn’t take mistakes—especially those involving negligence, incompetence or dishonesty—lightly, says Patkin. “But when your employees have made an honest mistake, try to be as understanding with them as you would be with your own family members,” he advises. “Take a deep breath and remind yourself that the employee feels very bad already, and that yelling or lecturing won’t change the past. Instead, focus on figuring out what went wrong and how to keep it from happening again.”
12. “You deserve a reward.”
Yes, good working conditions, respect, gratitude and autonomy tend to make employees happier than more material things. But that doesn’t mean more tangible rewards—such as bonuses, vacation time, prime parking spaces, benefits and more—don’t have their place in raising employee engagement. After all, who doesn’t like these things?
13. “I know you can do it.”
Even the most self-assured individuals appreciate an explicit vote of confidence from their leaders. “Constantly challenge your people and push them to improve while reassuring them that you believe in them,” Patkin advises. “Everyone, no matter how capable or experienced they are, appreciates encouragement.”
14. “This task is in your hands. I’m stepping back.”
Too much micromanaging makes employees feel they aren’t trusted—and that’s a huge engagement-buster. That’s why smart leaders learn how to delegate, and communicate that to the people affected. “I know that’s easier said than done. If you have to, lock yourself in your office or go for a walk around the building to keep yourself from hovering!” says Patkin. “It may also help to remind yourself that you hired each of your employees for a reason, that you have faith in their potential and that if they do need help, they know where to find you.”
What would you add to Patkin’s list? What do you think are the worst things a boss can say to an employee? Share your thoughts by commenting below.