As a training professional, you know that creating effective content relies on knowing your user. Good training teams are constantly gathering data and conducting user research to adapt and grow with their audience. The same should be true for managers and our direct reports, even though it can be challenging to keep employees engaged and to support their professional growth. Our employees have dynamic lives, aspirations, goals, and needs. Selfishly, it can be exhausting to manage a team and difficult to stay energized and engaged over the long term.
As with most things, there is an upside: The same user research and design techniques used to produce content can also help you engage and understand your employees. Here is a quick guide to get started applying user research and design principles to your management.
Employee check-ins, like user interviews, are about listening and learning. Make time for these dedicated, private sessions and go into each genuinely curious and prepared. Define goals for yourself. Perhaps you and your employee struggle to communicate. Your goal could be to improve your understanding and build a relationship. Write questions to help you understand them as people, not just employees. Ask questions and take exact notes on what they say, not your take on their responses. Start with broad, foundational questions and move into specifics based on these answers. What are their motivations? What are their frustrations? What does their typical week look like? Most important: Listen. Just like in user interviews, you are there to learn, not lead.
Although challenging, watch how your direct reports handle work situations without jumping in to help unless it is needed or an issue of workplace safety. This is a difficult practice, but as training professionals we know that a safe place for problem solving is an effective learning environment. Make note of where you see your employee struggling, succeeding, or trying something new. Bring it up in check-in and listen to how they feel before you give advice. Be honest about what you are doing and why to make sure they feel safe and comfortable, not abandoned, in the workplace.
Create job stories
Ask your employee to create or articulate job stories for their career goals and larger project work. Formulating goals and motivations can be tough but incredibly instructive. Putting them into the job story format can surface important motivations and details. A job story can show how an employee can bring value to the team’s work; it can also help them articulate some concrete steps in their career path. Work collaboratively on these stories and track progress on them throughout the year and update or change them as your employee changes.
Identify user needs
Once you start listening and observing more, you are bound to notice some areas of need for your employee and your team. Document and discuss these needs. Look for commonalities across your employees, and across your organization. Identify themes and make connections. These are areas where you can really make some positive changes. Perhaps there is a need for professional development on your team; dig into that together and flesh out the issue.
Now you have set up a framework of listening, observing, and defining needs. It’s time to do some cool stuff! Encourage your employee to pitch creative ideas—no matter how unattainable they may seem. You will do the same. For example, how could you address a lack of professional development if budget and time were not issues? Think like a designer and start to sketch out ideas. Many amazing plans start as crazy ideas, so be sure to really consider everything.
Like all user research and design, we need to revisit our methods and ideas repeatedly. Focusing on your employee’s needs and goals will refine and change your check-in and management style to make you and your employees better connected. It will also open up your team to new ideas and possibilities.