Should leaders ask this question?

I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on this…especially as it’s World Mental Health Day (week/month – depending on which State you’re in!)…

I was dumbfounded recently when a Team Leader stated they had been told by their boss never to ask this question. Once Pandora’s Box was opened, other Team Leaders chipped in that they also have been told never to ask this by their managers.

When I asked what the thinking was behind not asking the question, the answer I got was “my boss told me never to ask because when you do ask you just get an overwhelming waterfall of outpouring that takes up waaay too much time, then you can never get anything done. Best to just stick to talking about the tasks that need doing.”

The question we were talking about is “how are you feeling?”

Here we are on World Mental Health Day (week/ month), with ongoing general rhetoric about looking after our own and others’ mental health in the workplace, the recent R U Ok? Day campaign, etc, and yet I hear from multiple sources that bosses are telling people NOT to ask how their colleagues/team members are feeling – as it takes up too much time!

This all came out when I was running our Giving & Receiving Feedback/Having Difficult Conversations workshop. One of the things we advocate as an agenda item for 1:1 meetings, regardless of whether they are more formal meetings or the general, regular, day-to-day catch-ups, is to regularly ask the question “how are you feeling” (and then genuinely listen to the response!).

Everything we see, hear, sense goes through our system (our emotional centre) first. Our first response is to ‘feel.’ As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio says, “we are not thinking beings who feel – we are feeling beings who think.”

The reason we advocate having “how are you feeling?” as an agenda item is so the question does actually get asked – and asked regularly. And not forgotten about in the rush to get tasks done and KPIs met.

Why is it so important to ask this question?

Of course, the main reason we’re talking about this is that it has significant impact on improving peoples’ mental health – or at least arresting/ slowing the downhill slide. People feel someone cares. To expand on that, other great reasons include:

  1. If you have a ‘caring for each other culture’ where people routinely ask one another – genuinely – “how are you feeling” (and then genuinely listen to the reply!) you are MUCH less likely to get to the point where there is an ‘overwhelming waterfall’ of emotion. You catch the problem early, while it is smaller, easier – and less time-consuming! – to deal with, as you’re addressing the emotions before they build to the point of overwhelm. ‘R U Ok Day is a start, but we need to have ‘R U OK’ every day.
  2. One of the key foundations for people engagement, and one of the key drivers in retaining staff, is that people feel someone at work, particularly their manager, actually gives a cr@p! If a leader doesn’t ask how staff are feeling, whilst the manager may actually care, the perception is that the leader doesn’t really give a dam and only cares about KPIs/ revenue/ tasks, etc.

Gallup’s* Q12 is a 12-statement pulse survey that’s a critical foundation for measuring engagement. Most of those questions are around staff feeling someone cares, and 3 are directly related to that, including “My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person”. Others include “I have a trusted friend at work” and “at work, my opinions seem to count”.
(*Gallup are arguably the world’s most trusted authority on measuring people engagement.)

Apart from the fact that caring about the people around you is, well, simply the right thing to do, when people feel a boss (or others around them) genuinely care, they are much more likely to be engaged and be more productive and dedicated to their work.

When people feel a manager/organisation cares more about the tasks, KPIs, etc than the people, that’s when people disengage and leave…or worse, disengage and stay (Quiet Quitting). We see and hear this SO often. Even staff who have a great sense of purpose in what they do (e.g. in caring professions, looking after society’s most vulnerable, etc) disengage.

Obviously if a leader really doesn’t give a cr@p, then asking how someone is feeling is probably pretty pointless. People will be able to tell you really don’t care and are just asking it because you have to (our brains’ mirror neurons are also very good BS detectors!).

However, if you DO genuinely care, and are just concerned about the reaction you’ll get, the question is not ‘should you ask the “how are you feeling” question?’ The question is how often should you ask the “how are you feeling’ question. You may feel like you haven’t got time, but there’s a very high percentage chance that if you don’t ask the question and essentially demonstrate the behaviour that you don’t care for your people, you’ll soon have even less time because people will actively quit – or quietly quit!

So, as it’s World Mental Health Day (week/ month), now is a good time to start caring, and asking people around you “how are you feeling” as a routine part of your conversations. Put it on meeting agendas to make sure it happens – and continues to happen past the single World Mental Health Day/ week/ month event.

Footnote: when I talk about leaders, I don’t just mean people who manage staff. For one thing, I mean leaders at every level of the organisation, from frontline supervisors to the CEO/Secretary (senior leaders are also human beings with feelings – they just unfortunately rarely show those feelings and often bury them – which is a serious issue in itself). I also mean leaders in the context of self-leadership and standing up as a leader within a team. Ask your team-mates. Ask your boss – bosses are also humans with feelings!

We genuinely are interested to hear your thoughts on this – please contact us if you like to share your thoughts/feedback on this article.