United States: How You Ask Question Matters Getting Into The Minds Of Supervisors To Under Stand Employee Issues

Last Updated: December 8 2017
Article by Matthew J. Kelley

As a traditional labor practitioner, I spend a great deal of time with front-line supervisors, local human resources professionals, and plant managers asking them to tell me how their employees feel about workplace issues, union organizing attempts, new policies, proposals in collective bargaining, and leadership changes. The goal is to collect honest information, assess the situation, and advise the client on the root causes for the lapse in positive employee relations. When I talk with people, I must be careful to remember the acronym WYSIATI, both for myself and for the supervisors I interview.

WYSIATI stands for What You See Is All There Is. It is part of a theory, put forth by psychologist Daniel Kahneman, that our brains are broken into two systems. System 1 is the intuitive portion of our brain. It makes quick decisions, often with incomplete information. System 1 is very useful because it allows us to quickly assess risk and danger. For example, when you first meet someone, System 1 is working to give you an initial impression. Is this person dangerous? Is he friendly? Is he glaring at me because he wants to hit me or because I have broccoli in my teeth? The problem is we use System 1 as a crutch when we should really use System 2. System 2 is the logical portion of our brain. Unfortunately, our brains are lazy and System 1 is easy to access. We have to work harder to access System 2.

When we make decisions, System 1 only takes into consideration the things it knows, and uses those things to build a coherent story. System 1 does not assess the quality or quantity of that information before building the coherent story. Because the story sounds good in our minds, we believe it wholeheartedly. This leads humans to jump to conclusions based on incomplete information and, at the same time, feel very confident about those conclusions. This is one of the premises of Kahneman's famous book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Because people make quick decisions with System 1 based only on "What They See," they tend to believe that "Is All There Is." Individuals will intuitively take difficult, complex questions that would involve quite a bit of System 2 use, and substitute an easier question they can answer with System 1. For example, you might ask a supervisor if they know how employee X feels about a union organizing drive. This is a difficult question with many variables. The supervisor should think about previous conversations with the employee, disciplinary history, family history, personal issues, frustration about wages, conflicts with other employees, etc. All of these factors are relevant to answering the question effectively. Organizing drives are based upon campaign promises made by unions and designed to persuade employees. It is imperative to have as much information about the employee as possible when analyzing this question.

Frequently, when you ask the kind of question described above, what you get is the mental substitution of an easier question and answer. Often times, without thinking about it, a supervisor might respond, "Oh, he's pro-company, he's a good worker, and he always comes to work on time" or "He never complains about anything. He likes it here." My father worked for 30 years as a union sprinkler fitter. He was never late, did his job efficiently and skillfully, and did not complain to the foreman, unless it was because the other guys on his crew were not pulling their weight. My father is an ardent union supporter. In my mind, there is little correlation between absenteeism or industriousness, and union support.

The supervisor, in part, is using a dated stereotype, but he is also simply and intuitively substituting the easier question (Are they a good worker?) for the harder one (How do they feel about the union organizing drive?). The answer to the first question is much easier than the second one and System 1 can easily remember that employee X works hard and shows up on time.

By understanding WYSIATI, you can discuss issues with supervisors in a way that forces them to utilize System 2. Ask probing questions about the employee's interests, lifestyle, work habits, and family life instead of questions about union support. It is always more useful to ask focused questions about an individual rather than broader questions. The next time you need to communicate with supervisors about issues in the workplace or employee opinions, remember, What You See Is All There Is. Start with the basic questions and build towards the larger one. Do not trust the supervisor's snap reaction no matter how confident he or she is in the analysis. It isn't that the supervisor is lying, or even necessarily uninformed. Our brains are designed to provide believable, coherent stories with incomplete information.

This approach will focus your supervisors on their employees and get them thinking about the factors that inform the employee's decision. It also makes it much less likely that you will get a System 1 answer to a System 2 question. This approach also provides constructive feedback on the strength of your supervisory team. By learning what is important to your employees, you will also learn something about your supervisor's level of engagement.

If a supervisor cannot tell me anything about his or her employees, such as what they like to do, what sports their kids play, what parts of the job frustrate them, what parts of the job they like, it tells me the problem may lie with the supervisor. When we are engaged, we make connections. Connections build trust, and trust is the cornerstone of any supervisor-employee relationship. If a supervisor does not have that connection, communications training may be necessary to help that supervisor succeed.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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