Brass Tacks

Q. After a lot of failure and frustration, it has become clear to me that I have got to get to know my employees better if we are to be successful as a team. Any suggestions as to how to go about such a familiarization?

A. In order to lead effectively, a business owner or manager must establish and nurture fundamental, personal connections with his followers, the kind of linkages that arise only from a deep, intimate understanding of each of them.

While much of the required personal insight can be gleaned through observation and on-the-job interaction, you’ll gain the best insights through contacts that are deliberately designed and scheduled to obtain specific information.

The relevance and utility of the employee feedback you gain will be a direct function of the types of inquiries you make. Some bosses, especially those in very large companies, retain third-party counselors and “interviewers.” Often they will employ written questionnaires to facilitate the task. In my experience, however, such impersonal harvesting yields little usable fruit.

To gain meaningful insights into your key employees will require a series of regularly scheduled personal interviews with them. Be prepared to pose well-crafted questions directly to them. Your first few meetings with each employee should be structured to gain their confidence, allay their fears and give you the preliminary insights necessary to probe more relevantly in subsequent conferences.

Your followers have to be convinced that the only reason you want to know them more intimately is to be better able to play to their strengths within the company. Accordingly, all conversations should be postured positively and oriented to the personal and institutional plusses that can be better exploited for everyone’s benefit. Sessions that are perceived to be gripe sessions or witch-hunts will, at best, severely constrain the worthwhile feedback you get or, at worst, deteriorate into conversations that go nowhere and help no one.

A good leader wants to know how each of his or her followers truly feels about key issues that confront him or her and the firm. He wants to discern the very personal attitudes, observations and opinions about the forces that influence the team members’ individual and collective potential for achieving the corporate mission.

While, under the right circumstances, your team members might spontaneously share their innermost thoughts with you, it is more likely that such sharing will require a deliberate, focused effort on your part to ferret out their subjective observations. After all, most of us were told at a very young age, “Don’t talk to strangers!”

Lamentably, the majority of most workforces today see the boss as a “stranger.” As a consequence, truly revealing inquiries require detailed planning, careful preparation and delicate probing. You have to be aware of exactly what it is you want to know, and your approach to your followers has to be carefully structured to mitigate fears and to obviate their natural inclinations to hide uncomfortable truths or to “gild the lily.”

Keep in mind, that in order to make this kind of delicate exploration really pay off for everyone, you must be perceived by your followers as a leader who wants all team members to achieve their personal best for their welfare as well as that of the enterprise.

Your job is to get them to feel as if you are merely a facilitator and that they are addressing these questions to themselves in order to demonstrate to themselves and to you the good things that can be accomplished by them, individually and collectively, within the firm.

During these tete-a-tetes, make special effort to ensure that your followers don’t erroneously conclude that they will become immediately and personally responsible for justifying or acting upon their responses. The discussion must not imply performance expectations.

Frankly, the more transparent you can become in the dialogue, the better. You must studiously avoid the temptation to use these meetings as a pulpit to convey your desires, criticisms, opinions, preferences or biases. Your employees should be impressed by your sincerity, not your knowledge. As oxymoronic as it might sound, you must convince them that while “I’m the boss, I’m here to help.”

Paul Willax is a professor of entrepreneurship and chairman of the Center for Business Ownership Inc., Amherst, N.Y., and author of the book, “Brass Tacks Tips for Business Owners,” available at If you have a question or suggestion for his column, or to receive a free, weekly e-mail newsletter, “Brass Tacks Brainfood,” write to

Categories: News