A couple of months ago I started to change my standard first-thing-in-the-morning question to my team from some variation of “how are you?” to “what are you working on today?” I do still ask how people are and see if they did anything fun over the weekend or whether their daughter is feeling better after that fever, of course, but I now add a specific question about what is on their to-do list for the day. I used to think that was a rude or prying question to ask my team, even those I directly supervise, as if I was implying they weren’t working hard enough.  I figured by checking in with folks in a general way I was giving them the opportunity to tell me what was going on, and if they had conflicts they wanted my help in resolving.

I was wrong. I’ve learned that by asking general questions about how someone is, or even about one specific project we are working on together, I set a course for the conversation that may steer it away from where it needs to go. We start at “how are you,” and end up ten minutes later never having made the pivot from talking about weekend happenings to work. While a daily check in with staff is about honest human connection (which may include talk of weekends, baby poop, and what’s on Hulu) it can be an effective management technique. But as opinionated as I am, I know that no one seeks me out for my parental or cultural insights: being helpful to my team means understanding what work someone is doing, and offering support and guidance. I will share my wisdom about baby poop only when asked.

I’ve been learning more and hearing more since I started asking “what are you working on today?” For example, I’ve found out that something I thought was finished was still lingering on someone’s plate, and that I was the one who was holding it up. I’ve found that someone I thought was overwhelmed with work was actually chomping on the bit for more to do. I’ve found that some folks can benefit from being asked that question because it forces them to slow down and say “yeah, what AM I doing today?” and make plans, rather than just reacting to what their email throws at them.

Who knew? “What are you working on today” is a useful tool in the management toolbox.

Well, apparently, the Harvard Business Review knew, and maybe I would have known it long ago had I bothered to read more management literature. I now get the HBR Management Tip of the Day by email, and I read today’s after taking a walk around the office to check in with staff. The tip is about asking the right questions, and Right Question #1 is “What are you doing today?” The next one is “Why are you doing the work you’re doing?” Hopefully it won’t take me another decade of management to work up to asking that one.

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