By: Archana Ramesh

I was recently talking to a group of 250 leaders at an aerospace engineering company about their latest engagement pulse results when one earnest leader raised his hand to pose a question. 

“So, from the last survey, I dug into the data and figured out the areas I needed to improve for my team. For the last few months, I have been really focused on making progress in those areas. But when I look at the latest round of results, the scores haven’t improved, and I am pretty disappointed. I feel like the work I did is not having an impact, and I am not sure what to do about it.” 

I could hear the frustration and hopelessness in his voice. Frankly, his experience is echoed in what we hear from many leaders and managers who want to drive change using survey feedback but aren’t seeing the impact they expect from their efforts.

My response to his question and to the common challenge leaders face is: If you don’t understand what’s going on, ask your team. Don’t rely on the survey data to tell you everything you need to know. The survey is not the conversation—it’s the start of the conversation.

Many employee survey programs miss this critical component of sustainable, agile action-taking: conversations. Speaking to leaders and managers across hundreds of organizations, we found that even the best action-taking efforts lose momentum when we rely too much on the data rather than the conversations that are fueled by the data. What if we spent 20% of our energy after a survey coming up with a simple, focused plan for change that we commit to? We could then spend the remaining 80% of our energy on frequent check-ins, course-correcting as needed, and celebrating successes along the way. In reality, most action plans are quickly surpassed by other priorities because there isn’t a simple mechanism to hold the team accountable for progress. The missing ingredient to more effective and sustainable action taking is conversations.

Why conversations matter

So, why conversations? Research shows that checking in and having conversations in the workplace are critical to productivity and well-being. Conversations build understanding and belonging, and help employees feel heard. They enable leaders to address issues before they become problems. Frequent conversations help managers keep their finger on the pulse of their teams—gaining a well-rounded and timely view of any concerns. Practicing the habit of frequent conversations fosters a culture of open, honest dialogue that sets the stage for driving continuous improvement across the organization. Yet few organizations have mastered the art of having conversations that are meaningful and propel progress.

5 ways frequent conversations drive action

So conversations matter, but what is it about ongoing conversations that make them the catalyst for action?

How do they propel our action-taking efforts? Let’s take a look:

  1. Conversations signal that we want to take action on feedback, and provide a forum for understanding the data at a deeper level.
  2. Conversations, done well, can provide clarity and focus. Are we on the same page on what we need to solve for?
  3. Conversations make the process inherently collaborative. No one person owns taking action alone.
  4. Conversations are self-correcting. If you check in regularly, the plan evolves over time, and accountability to take action naturally occurs.
  5. Conversations can occur and have all of the above benefits regardless of whether a survey goes out or a manager has a big-enough team to get their own report.

Common barriers to having frequent conversations

People give many excuses for avoiding important conversations. But at the heart of it, there are two key issues we commonly see: 

Managers aren’t always clear on how to facilitate a good conversation 

We know that effective management requires a combination of hard and soft skills. Those soft skills—like facilitating conversations—can be harder to assess and are in fact some of the biggest skills gaps organizations face. LinkedIn research found that communication skills are the No. 1 in-demand skill for employers in the U.S. and not always in great supply. This is exacerbated by the fact that first-time managers on the front-line manage nearly as much as two-thirds of the workforce. Yet over half of these managers aren’t adequately trained for these roles. More often than not, managers are promoted into their roles for excelling as individual contributors but aren’t always equipped with the skills they need to be successful as managers. Working with technology clients, I often encounter stories of engineering managers who’d much rather spend their time solving technical problems than managing people. It’s understandable; they likely have a decade of experience sharpening their technical skills, and much less time building their people-management muscles. What motivation do these managers have to use their weaker muscles when they can default to something they know they are good at? 

Feedback can feel awkward or intimidating

Personal feelings, like anxiety, can make it uncomfortable to both give and receive feedback. Because so many people equate “negative” feedback to criticism, they naturally avoid those discussions. Some managers take feedback about their team personally, seeing it as a poor reflection on their leadership skills. Others may feel overwhelmed and intimidated, thinking it’s up to them to resolve all the issues that have been raised.

As a result, many managers avoid conversations about things that feel uncomfortable. Unfortunately, both managers and employees in these environments might instead resort to counterproductive behaviors like complaining to others, doing unnecessary work, or getting angry.

Just ACT—build your conversational muscle

Like anything you want to get better at, having quality conversations in the workplace takes practice. As anyone who has tried to master an instrument or a sport will tell you, repetition is key. But in order to practice, you have to simplify the skill into bite-sized elements that you can repeat over and over. The more you do it, the stronger the muscle gets. Before you know it, you have built a habit, a way of working that involves less planning and heavy lifting. It becomes part of your team’s routine.

To simplify the often-intimidating task of acting on feedback, we came up with a simple, three-step framework we call ACT. The ACT Conversation™ guide serves to facilitate frequent, ongoing conversations between managers and their teams. The three steps of ACT are:  

Acknowledge where we are. 

Start by thanking the team for their feedback, and acknowledge where the team is doing well and where it can improve. This is an opportunity to build psychological safety by providing a forum for discussion, deeper understanding, and acknowledging lessons learned. By transparently surfacing lessons learned to date, the team can grow together rather than defaulting to fixed-mindset triggers that cause defensiveness.

Collaborate on where we want to go. 

Action taking is a team effort. But success starts with choosing a manageable thing to improve. It helps to deconstruct what the team needs to start, stop, and continue doing to improve outcomes. Align on the single most impactful focus area for the team after discussing results with them, and commit to improving it.

Take one step forward together.

Commit to when you and the team will check in again. This signals that this is not the end of the conversation. Remember: keep team commitments to one manageable, bite-sized thing to change.

By practicing these conversation prompts, managers can enable better quality conversations, and strengthen their people-management muscles that lead to better team outcomes and sustainable action taking. 

Looking for a good way to remember ACT? Check it out our ACT Conversation Guide infographic below or download it here

Turn Feedback into Action Infographic