“What is the most important thing I can do for you?”
Think of the power in this question for a spouse, friend, aging parent or new neighbor. It says, “I care about you” and that “Your happiness and success matter to me.” It is powerful because it is all about that person’s needs, not the asker’s needs.
The question is just as powerful at work for the same reasons. It avoids suggestion box syndrome since it is personal and one-to-one.
When a manager asks an employee this open-ended question for the first time, it may create confusion. “You mean me? What do I need?” is answered by “Yes, what do you need to do your best, to enjoy your work, to learn what you need, or to remove hurdles in your way?”
“Nothing really. I’m good. Thanks for asking,” might be the response. Everybody has something they need to remove pain or open doors, and everybody knows it if given the time, the prompt and the context to think. Here are some real-life examples:
“I am frustrated every day by lack of tools to do the job.” “The expectations are unclear.” “I see so many opportunities to improve service.” “Operations in the warehouse are unsafe and I worry every day about an accident.” “If I just knew how to use pivot tables my analysis would be more powerful.” “We have one team member who prevents forward progress, can you help?” “I am thinking of leaving for another job because of these issues.”
There are no bad answers. Small items are good and hairy issues are good. The point is not just the response itself, but the impact of asking, caring and working on an answer together.
You are looking for one issue or a related set of issues that deserve attention and resolution. Maybe no action is needed, just some listening and explanation. Another issue might be game-changing for both the employee and business.
Why ask for just one issue? Like the 80/20 principle, focusing on one item with the most perceived impact makes sense. Bigger discussions and broader topics are better for periodic reviews and career planning.
People’s real and perceived problems are a great window into how they work, what they value and what they expect. You will be surprised at the insights and depth of some answers, and disappointed in the shallow and self-serving responses of others. All are valuable.
Listen for the real issue. A person who begins with frustrations about others may eventually reveal skills and techniques they need to build. Problems with a poor manager may be a common complaint or could reveal a unique challenge. Expect very different responses from employees because you have asked how you (individually) can help them.
Managers must bring the right intent to the conversation: to discover and act on reasonable problems and opportunities identified. Use this question with an employee as often as it continues to produce useful conversations.