Here's The Phatic Expression You Should Never Say To Remote Employees

This article originally appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy, Founder of Leadership IQ

Deep and meaningful conversations are a hallmark of successful managers of remote employees. But while a lot of managers are talking to their remote employees, they’re not learning anything important during those conversations. A good litmus test of how productive your conversations with remote employees are is to ask yourself if your remote people are sharing with you their problems, bad news, struggles, challenges and all the other things you need to know to keep your people accountable and aligned. If the answer is “No, I’m not hearing about those kinds of things,” phatic communication, and especially the phatic expression “How’s it going?” is a likely culprit that needs to be eliminated.

“How’s it going?” is a question that managers ask their remote employees all the time, and there are many similar versions of it in most other languages and cultures. It seems harmless enough, but asking “How’s it going?” is actually one of the worst things you can ask remote employees. Linguists call it a phatic expression or a speech act; it’s small talk, a conversation ritual that doesn’t seek or offer any information of value. It’s aimless social intercourse, and it’s not even a real question. The purpose of a question is to elicit information, but the standard response most people give when asked “How’s it going?” is “Everything's fine.” There’s no information gleaned, we just sit there and nod our heads when we get the expected response, but nothing is actually being said.

We don’t typically ask “How’s it going?” with the expectation that the other person will give a detailed account of what's happening in their life. Just like saying “Nice weather we’re having” or “How about those Mets!” (both also phatic expressions), “How’s it going” is lazy communication. And most people know that, which is why they usually respond “Everything’s fine” and leave it at that. Phatic communication doesn’t extend an invitation to have a real conversation. Every now and then there will be an exception, like my neighbor who constantly violates the conversation ritual of “How’s it going?” Instead of giving the expected reply of “Everything’s fine,” he launches into a detailed report on his bad hip, his troubled marriage, his needy kids, and his lemon of a car. But most people just say “Everything’s fine.” And if “Everything’s fine” is what you’re hearing from your remote employees, it’s trouble.

If you're managing face-to-face employees (technically called co-located employees) you can often get away with phatic communications like “How's it going?” This is true especially if you’re good at interpreting and understanding other people’s body language. When you’ve got the luxury of observing body language and someone says “Everything’s fine” but their eyes dart uncomfortably away from yours as they answer, or they cross their arms defensively, or any number of other observable visual cues, you’re going to know that “Everything’s fine” isn’t the truth. And when you see those reactions, you can probe deeper until you’re having a real conversation about how things are really going.

Virtual settings don’t allow for the same kinds of communications, the “lazy communications” we get away with in the real world. Mangers of remote employees don't have the luxury of warning signs like body language, tone of voice, etc. which get lost when there’s no face-to-face interaction. When remote employees say “Everything's fine” there’s no way to tell if it’s true or not. This leaves managers unable to provide the help their remote employees need. And after having studied tens of thousands of remote employees, we know that most of the time when managers ask “How’s it going?” everything is NOT fine. Because even if the issues are small, remote employees endure a lot more emotional isolation and operational roadblocks than your co-located employees.

When remote employees have deeper conversations with their managers it builds strong connections and relationships. Employee motivation and engagement skyrockets and people stay aligned and accountable. Deep and meaningful conversations dig for the information managers need to be great leaders.

If you’re managing remote employees, you can’t ask the kinds of questions that presume everything is fine and allows people to just skate by. You have to make your questions much more probing; it’s a much more proactive method of communication. One of the best ways to deepen communication is to ask direct questions that encourage a two-way flow of information. Some of the questions I like to use include

  • “What's getting in your way of success?”
  • “What’s stopping you?”
  • “What’s holding you back?”
  • “What roadblocks are you facing right now?”
  • “What's frustrating you today?”

These kinds of specific probing questions force remote employees to give deeper answers that allow managers to intervene and provide the help their remote workers need. Ideally you want to hold frequent and authentic conversations using these kinds of questions at least once a week.

Managers of remote employees face lots of challenges that aren’t found in co-located environments, especially when it comes to communication. Eliminating phatic communication and replacing it with direct questions that probe for information will help to build the kind of strong relationships you need to have with your people to make these challenges obsolete.

Mark Murphy is author of the New York Times bestseller Hundred Percenters: Challenge Your Employees to Give It Their All, and They'll Give You Even More

Posted by Mark Murphy on 10 April, 2017 Forbes, Telecommuting | 0 comments
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