Updated: Feb 24
In a recent conversation with a client, they informed me that they were overwhelmed by long personal answers to the question, “How are you?” Overwhelmed, because my client, being German, has been used to a very short, polite, and positive response to this question. Now, in the bustling city of Kolkata and managing 35 employees, it's fair to understand the source of the overwhelm.
As the conversation continued, I asked my client why they chose to say, “How are you?” as opposed to other phatic expressions like “Hello” or “Good morning” or a head nod? Pretty much any of the short forms of greeting that includes social pleasantries but do not seek or offer information of intrinsic value. They responded that they wanted to know about the employee’s wellbeing - one cannot get a full gauge of wellbeing from a simple “Hi there” - but they felt a degree of discomfort with the “cultural nuances”.
I don’t want this article to be about cultural differences between the West and how the rest of the world interacts with employees. The truth is, checking in with your employees – intentional checking in, not the tick box kind and listening to the myriad of responses – shouldn’t be cultural. As leaders, we need to think beyond cultural simplicity. After all, our cultures have a way of distorting the truth.
So, what is the function of greeting?
Although people greet each other casually these days, the true sentiment behind it is courtesy and opportunity to demonstrate our respect towards the person. It generates goodwill, establishes, maintains, and manages bonds of sociality between people.
For instance, when a speaker utters the common greeting in English, "Hi, how are you?", they don't necessarily seek specific details about the other person's state, but instead use this ritual expression to negotiate the social relationship.
What is the intent of “how are you”?
It is an overused expression, but asking is better than not asking anything at all. This is one question every leader, who wants to understand their impact on a team needs to ask – but with intent of intention. This question is key to creating fulfilling workplace experiences as it fosters feelings of safety within the relationship, feeling appreciated for contributions and, personal and professional growth throughout workplace relationships.
It’s true that some leaders feel uncomfortable asking about their employee’s well being, or more specifically, how they are doing. Uncomfortable to ask and uncomfortable to hear the responses. “What if they tell me something too personal?” or “What if I am not in a position to give them help with the situation they are going through?” or “What if I cannot relate with what they are going through?”.
All these questions are valid. But leaders who think like this miss a salient value about being a human being – we all want to be seen.
Most of the time, we just need an outlet, vent or vocally walk through the challenges of whatever the issue may be, but we need someone to ask, and then listen. Our individualistic culture represents an obstacle to meet people and pursue new opportunities. Connecting with others increases the chances of meeting people who can lead us to a new and exciting job, experience, sometimes life. In this new era, where the paradigm of professional work is changing rapidly, it is increasingly important to build networks. Helping others and receiving their help is a way to get a meaningful professional life.
The fact is, the line between personal and professional life has been blurred. While some people insist on keeping their personal lives separate from the workplace, for others, there is often very little difference. The pursuit of the coveted state of perfect balance between both worlds is just an absurd source of stress and frustration. This balance cannot be achieved without extreme self-sacrifice. There is no right or wrong debate about this. Leaders should continue to ask about their employees´ wellbeing and sometimes, this could be that the employee needs a safe space to voice the personal, which is interrupting the professional. The pendulum swings both ways, just like there are times when one cannot switch off their professional life when home, the same is true for personal life.
The world currently has a lot of social pressure for people to pretend that everything is good, and we act like anything is fine. This is why when you ask someone how they are, the automatic answer is fine. No one wants to be the outlier who says, “I am actually having a terrible afternoon” because of the pressure to perfect the professional image.
As humans, we cannot feel positive all the time. We experience challenging emotions. Feeling stressed or depressed is hard. Pretending that you are not, is much, much harder. We make our jobs twice as hard by acting okay. We lose potential for connection and commiseration with others by not talking about it. In the end, we all live one life. And we should attempt to live it connected to many people.
Your effectiveness as a leader is determined by your capacity to create these experiences for each of the people reporting to you. At the same time, doing so challenges you to be both courageous enough and vulnerable enough to ask important questions, and act on the answers to help your team thrive. It’s about creating a realistic environment where they can voice how they feel.
Do your employees feel seen by you? Do they feel heard? Do they feel respected? While you may believe you have created a culture of safety in your workplace or teams, focusing on these fundamental and impactful questions with your team will enhance it. Understanding what each person needs to feel seen, heard and respected is the right way to go. And this often begins with, “How are you?”
Quick Tips on Listening:
Þ Often, asking is the easy part. Listen, really listen to what they say, what they don’t say, and the context in which they're saying it. Keep listening. And then listen some more. Act, if there is a need to. Often, we all just want someone to listen to us.
Þ Get curious about the person's experience and ask questions in a way to understand them more. For instance, “What are you worried about?” ”Where is the challenge?” After understanding the situation can you then get to the point where you have compassion or empathy. How do I show them that I hear them through validation like “I can see how that may worry you” or “That sounds hard”.
Þ Employees can only control what is within their realm of control. How can they present the things that matter to them in a meaningful way to you if it gets to a point of them not being heard?
Þ There are various ways to ask someone about how they are. One always doesn’t need to use the clichéd term, “How are you?”. They can try out new and alternative ways of asking that question.
“What’s going good in your world today?”
“Are you having the best day ever, or just close to it?”
“What has been the highlight of your day, so far?”
And, if it’s Monday, you could ask: “What was the highlight of your weekend?”
The role of the leader is to serve the people they lead. This involves asking and listening about their welfare – beyond the socio-pragmatic function. Asking someone how they are can help them feel that they matter and someone is there to listen to them talk about themselves.
Are you brave enough to begin the conversation?
Faith Kayiwa Nababi is a Leadership Consultant and Intercultural Coach at Tailormade Consultancy, a global service agency that empowers executives to make the best strategic decisions; create value and purpose for the people they lead; and catalyse conscious change.