Line managers: the art of conversation

Author Nigel Purse on how to use the art of conversation to enable successful flexible working arrangements.

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In June 2014, new legislation came into effect in the UK giving all employees with 26 weeks’ service the right to request flexible working for any reason. Given this change, it is very likely that one of your team will request some form of flexible working. While HR covers off on the legal side of things, managers can play a vital role in kick-starting and maintaining a successful flexible working arrangement by ensuring that they have the right types of conversations.

Why it isn’t just a matter of signing off on paperwork…

The success of flexible working arrangements relies on the trust and openness shared between the manager and the direct-report – trust that the employee will remain engaged with their work and maintain their level of performance; and trust that the manager will provide the support and tools required to ensure the arrangement is a success.

Trust is an elusive concept often assessed subconsciously. Since we perform best when we experience positive emotions created by the quality of our social relationships, it is helpful to know that there are things we can consciously do to increase the level of trust in a relationship.

In the workplace, trust is primarily developed through how we treat and interact with each other. But in our busy working environments, amongst all the jargon, processes, KPIs, email and social media, it is easy to forget a simple truth: the power of authentic, two-way, human conversations, which go beyond day-to-day practicalities, to build trusting relationships.

It makes sense then that identifying effective ways for managers to improve their ability to have meaningful conversations should be a priority. I believe that there are two particular conversations that managers can learn to have prior to or at the start of the arrangement with the employee which will pave the way for freer, more productive conversations later on.

Establishing a trusting relationship

This conversation is about creating a space to better understand and know each other in terms of who you are, what you do, how you like to work, and why. It’s about listening to and sharing stories, insights and points of view. For it to work, you must come in with the intention and courage to talk about who you really are, what drives and matters to you most, and be genuinely interested in the other person. Start by defining a time and protected space to talk. Then initiate with a proposition like:

“I’d like to meet up to talk about how we can build a really effective working relationship.”

Sincerity and integrity must underpin this first step so it is important to phrase questions in an appropriate way – for example:

“What would you like to know about me and how I work, to understand where I’m coming from?”

“What do I need to know about you, your motivations, style, preferences so I can help you be your best and we can work together really effectively?”

Of course you don’t need to agree on everything discussed to build familiarity and feel valued – revealing and acknowledging differences will do the same thing. The great thing about this conversation is that it provides a platform for the relationship to continue to be developed through the insights, references points and mutual interests it reveals.

Agreeing mutual expectations

For a flexible working arrangement to be successful, clear expectations on both sides is essential. Managers must know how to have a conversation which agrees mutual expectations, based on mutual understanding and dependency. It raises the conversation beyond simple objective setting by focusing on mutual aspirations, addressing what each person wants to achieve and – importantly – why. This will help to identify who else within the organisation is critical to the staff member’s success.

Here are some examples of how this conversation could shape-up:

  • “Tell me about what you are seeking to achieve and why”
  • “What has lead you to need more flexibility?”
  • “What type of flexibility do you need?”
  • “So what expectations should we have of each other?” (e.g. deadlines, time in office, response times, communication).
  • “How can we hold each other to account for meeting these expectations?”

Attention to detail = lasting success

Flexible working may mean that a manager sees less of their employee, but I profoundly believe that no amount or type of digital communication can substitute face-to-face interaction, so it is critical that these conversations are held in-person.

Integrity is important both during the conversations, and afterwards. Maintaining a trusting and open relationship is contingent on ensuring our actions following them is congruent with what we have said. Managers should follow up on the conversation with their employee at regular intervals to check if the expectations are being met and if the arrangement has provided both parties with any new insights about themselves and how they like to work.

By using genuine conversations to build trust and openness with employees who work flexibly, you can be sure that it will lead to a less stressful and more productive and collaborative working arrangement.

Nigel Purse

Nigel Purse is the co-author of the book ‘5 Conversations: How to transform trust, engagement and performance at work’ published by Panoma Press. For more information, visit www.5conversationsbook.com

5 Conversations - Book Cover

Top image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/marcwathieu/

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