The most Feared words in the Office: “How are you going?”

In a recent workshop, I asked all the leaders to spend some time getting to know people during their work week. When they came back to the follow-up session, they all reported that their staff looked suspicious and confused when they simply asked how they were and tried to have a normal conversation.

If you are a manager, here’s one of the most nerve-racking things you can do to your staff. Just walk up to them and say ‘How are you going?’

It seems innocuous enough. You might even be genuinely interested in their weekend or their wellbeing. But the reality is that the vast majority of employees think that if you are talking to them, then there’s a problem.

I have dealt with so many organisations, whose staff believe that the only reason management talks to them is when something is wrong. Is this the truth? I am sure it isn’t - I am sure the truth lies somewhere in the middle of what management thinks and what the staff think. Whether this is actually true or not, though, is inconsequential. Their perception is their reality.

The vast majority of staff think: ‘no news is good news’. If no-one’s talking to you, then things must be ok.

Why does this happen?

There are two reasons:

Firstly, leaders in general, don’t talk to their staff enough. And the staff are actually right - they hear more about the bad than the good. If they do a good job, they are doing their job, right? No need for praise when someone just ‘does their job’. But, if they do a bad job, there is a flurry of activity. Now, even if you don’t actually get angry at the team member, there is a still a flurry of activity trying to rectify the situation. Therefore the bad gets more attention than the good.

Secondly, humans are hard-wired to be more sensitive to negatives than positives. This is a throwback to our evolution. As a survival machine, I couldn’t afford to miss a threat - like a predator - but I didn’t see an apple tree, it wasn’t going to kill me. So we learnt to become hypersensitive to negatives.

So, here’s what you need to do:

1) Just talk

This seems like a waste of time to a lot of people, but you would be surprised at how much you find out by just having a normal conversation with someone. They might bring up work or problems they are facing, and that’s ok, but that shouldn’t be your agenda. Your agenda should be learning about your people, and in particular what they like and what motivates them. It’s a chance to build rapport - and we tend to trust people with whom we have a good rappport.

2) Praise the good - a lot

To combat our natural tendency to remember negatives and not positives, we need to make sure that positive feedback outweighs negative. Make a set time each week to go through the team’s accomplishments and give them a verbal pat on the back. Do this without any negatives at all. Save them for another time.

3) Analyse the negatives

When there is some negative feedback to deliver, force your staff to analyse. When we wwitch on the analytical brain, it dulls the noise from our emotional centre. Ask ‘how’ questions - these make us analyse. Avoid ‘why’ questions, because this analysis actually switches the emotional brain on and makes us ruminate.


These are three simple things that you can do to help your people see that management isn’t all about dealing out punishment and bad news. Next time you ask ‘How are you going?’ you might be greeted with a smile rather than fear.



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