What employees really want to say to the boss

Small talk is fine, but it’s just that—small. Bigger issues such as trust, respect, and productivity are far more important to your staff.

We all filter what we say, especially when we communicate with people above us in the professional food chain. (Show me an employee who tells her boss everything she’s thinking, and I’ll show you an employee soon to be unemployed.)

At times verbal restraint is a good thing, but when employees hesitate to speak it can keep their bosses from understanding what they really think—and, more important, what they really need.

Here are a few things most employees are thinking but will never say—not the stuff that might feel good but wouldn’t be constructive, but things with lasting impact:

“Give me an important task, and I’ll know you respect me.” Assigning a crucial task is a definite sign of respect. The more important the project-and the bigger the impact if the project succeeds or fails-the greater the respect shown the employee.

But why stop there?

“Give me an important task—and let me figure out how to do it—and I know you trust me.” For a leader it seems natural to tell employees how to carry out a particular task. After all, you know what needs to be accomplished and you have definite ideas regarding how.

When you assign a project without extensive direction or without outlining a series of steps, workers know you not only respect their abilities but also trust their knowledge, their creativity, and their judgment.

Respect feels great. Respect and trust feel awesome.

“Actually, I would like to work here for a long time.” Lost in job-hopping statistics is that many people don’t leave a job for more money; many leave because of a poor relationship with their boss.

Good employers don’t assume high employee turnover is a fact of employment life. Employees don’t start checking employment ads unless you give them reasons. Good employers find out why employees want to leave, and they address those issues.

Few people look forward to the upheaval and stress of starting a new job unless the old job—and, more likely, the old employer—is terrible.

“I appreciate that you stopped to talk, but can’t you see I’m falling behind?” Though especially true in production environments, it happens everywhere: The boss stops by to “talk,” monopolizing the employee’s time—and when the boss walks away, the employee is left scrambling to catch up on work.

Employees want their boss to talk to them, but they also have a job to do.

In some settings there’s an easy fix, especially if the job involves physical tasks: The boss finds a way to help out while they talk. Not only do employees appreciate the mini-break, chatting is more natural and a lot less forced.

Otherwise, smart bosses pick their spots. If nothing else they never interrupt a busy employee just because their calendar says it’s time to grace the staff with their inspirational presence.

“I don’t really care about your personal life…” Talking about nonwork subjects is a good way to establish rapport and a basis for a personal relationship, but what do you talk about with someone you don’t know well? Many bosses naturally default to talking about themselves.

How enchanting.

Employees—new employees especially—have no interest in your kids, your hobbies, or your vacation plans. They would much rather talk about how they’re performing, how they can earn opportunities, how they can advance.

“…and I can tell you don’t really care about my personal life.” Questions like, “How’s your family?” or, “Do you have any hobbies?” or, “How ’bout them Cowboys?” often come across as forced and insincere.

That’s especially true where longer-term employees are concerned. If in time a boss can’t get to know an employee well enough to have slightly meaningful conversations, maybe it’s time to stop trying and stick to work-related topics.

Don’t worry; often that will come as a relief to the employee.

“An occasional ‘thanks’ makes a huge difference.” Some employers act as if “thanks” comes in the form of a paycheck.

Some rewards can be more powerful than money. Good bosses find specific reasons to thank employees for what they do. They look for accomplishments, no matter how small, and express appreciation:

  • “Thanks for staying a late yesterday.”
  • “Thanks for working through that customer complaint; I know it wasn’t easy.”
  • “Thanks for letting me know about our database problem; who knows how long we would have kept having issues if you hadn’t?”

Saying thanks is easy-and it’s a great conversation starter.

Pay for work performed is a given. Appreciation and recognition should be, too.

Final thought: If you’re a boss, when you talk with employees always apply a 4-to-1 ratio: Make sure the employee speaks four times as much as you do.

When you do, you’ll be surprised by what you hear-and by the relationships you’ll build.

A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.


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