Canaries in the mine – Why candid conversations really matter



I was talking with a CEO about his staff engagement survey that he runs on an annual basis. The recent results were poor and in fact, he and his team were rather shocked by the strong negative themes coming from the results. I asked about the company mission and how that was being communicated. His response was telling: “My senior guys and I are totally aligned with where we are taking this company. But I have a damp proofing of middle management that prevents the message getting down to the staff at lower levels”.


The hard truth is that someone manages that layer of middle management and is responsible for their engagement levels and their understanding of the corporate strategy. It doesn’t take an annual staff survey to hear about how they feel. I expect the reality is they are being spoken at rather than being engaged in a dialogue where they feel they are being heard and understood.

Happier staff made good business sense. Engaged people contribute more (no threat of stick required). The data shows that many companies don’t make a good job of keeping staff engaged.

Staff engagement surveys are an important tool to get information on what is going on in the company. Many versions of these surveys can be bought and some organizations choose to design their own.

There is another tool available to the manager that doesn’t have to wait for the annual refresh. In my own experience of managing teams, I found that a simple question as part of a candid conversation was a powerful assessment tool.

 “How happy are you at work – on a scale of 1 to 10? And what’s the reason for that score?”

It’s a question you can ask as often as necessary, and has the added advantage of being short enough to be posed in unexpected places like a shared cab back to the airport.

And here is where the ability to have a candid conversation comes into play. If you ask the question, you have to be willing to have a dialogue that could be uncomfortable. You may hear concerns about pay rises, job security or ill feeling between staff. You may hear a lot of viewpoints and feelings. You may also be surprised at some of the positive things you hear.

The real upside is you get to hear what’s really going on.

Many managers aren’t skilled at candid conversations. It requires a degree of courage and the ability to hold your ground when you hear comments you don’t like. It requires some degree of comfort with what can be ‘feeling’ conversations – another area of discomfort for many.

To be successful in candid conversations, be curious about the person in front of you and what’s really going on for them. We all share the human need to be heard and understood. Asking the question shows your interest, and your response – then or in an action later, shows the staff member they matter.

For the question to have an impact, and for staff to feel they can share, it’s important there is trust in the team. Without this, you will get responses to your questions that staff think you want to hear.

The “How happy are you” question can play the role of the canary in the organizational mine. It’s a way of getting at the pulse of what’s going. Not all responses require action but all responses need to be heard. Choosing to engage with your team on how they are feeling will ensure you aren’t in the company example at the beginning of this post.

Photo credit: Ryan McGuire 

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