The Best Question You Can Ask to Keep Employees Engaged


A great workplace culture does more than merely share timely and relevant information with its employees -- it goes to great lengths to listen to them and digest that feedback.

Employee surveys can be useful tools, but by themselves they’re not enough to truly know what your people are thinking. There’s no survey, assessment, or digital app in the world that can take the place of a manager finding a few moments of quiet, pulling one of her employees aside, and asking,

"Hey, how are you making out around here? What kinds of dragons have you had to slay today? Do you have all the tools and resources you need? Are you seeing any challenges on the horizon that you’re going to need help with? What can I do to support you?”

Better communication = better engagement

And once her employees start to open up, the most important thing she can do is to shut up, listen, take notes, and then take action.

In researching my new book On Fire At Work: How Great Companies Ignite Passion in Their People Without Burning Them Out I got a rare opportunity to visit with J.W. “Bill” Marriott. (Marriott hotels are #53 on Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work for in 2015.) Mr. Marriott emphasized how vital two-way communication is to keeping his employees fully engaged.

"Every morning we have departmental stand-up meetings at our hotels,” he told me. “These meetings give managers the opportunity to fill in their staff on those important things that impact their jobs, on their responsibilities, and on what they will be focusing that day.”

During these stand-up meetings, the hotel general manager and the staff work together to identify what Bill calls the ‘theme of the day.’ “What needs work? Where are we slipping a little?” Then it’s all hands on deck to work on improving those areas. “Along the way,” he continued, “the GMs ask for input as to how things are going. What do our guests need?”

Because employee input is so highly valued within the Marriott properties, these meetings always end with a simple but profound question managers ask their employees:

"What tools do you need to get your work done or to do your job more effectively?”

You can't cater to their every whim

It’s this final open-ended question that allows employees to express their wants and needs. But the key to keeping employees engaged is not dependent upon catering to their every whim.

"A manager doesn’t have to give their employees everything they ask for,” Bill Marriott explained. “But they do have to listen to them and respond. If housekeepers ask their supervisors for more linens on the third floor, a supervisor must try very hard to accommodate that request immediately. But if they ask for something that management cannot deliver for them, the supervisor should at least tell the employees why their request can’t be met or a timeframe for when that request will be handled.”

Marriott punctuated the significance of this principle when he concluded, 

Employees tend to stay in a job when they feel as if they are being listened to and their requests and opinions are valued.”

ON POINT: When was the last time you asked your people what they needed to perform better in their jobs?

This originally appeared on Eric Chester's Chester On Point blog