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Small talk, big payoff

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in Leaders & Managers,People Management

You're busy—too busy for small talk. You're friendly enough with employees, but you prefer to stick to business and steer clear of chitchat about weekend plans or personal news.

Yet managers who share stories about their families or hobbies forge a special bond. While they may not become close confidants with their employees, their willingness to shoot the breeze can increase goodwill and mutual understanding.

Some leaders find that engaging in small talk breaks down barriers. They build rapport with employees by revealing other dimensions of their personality and discussing the world outside work.

"Even if we chat about the Phillies, a week later the employee might come into my office with an idea," says Bill Merritt, president and chief executive of InterDigital, a developer of digital wireless technologies in King of Prussia, Pa. "It starts with my being visible and accessible, and that promotes a return visit."

When you chat amicably, you foster trust. As long as you allow employees to openly discuss their interests and opinions (rather than, say, dissecting what you thought about a movie without hearing what others think), you create a better working relationship.

"Once you establish that comfort level, people tend to be pretty candid with you," Merritt adds. To maximize small talk, retain biographical details about your staff. If an employee mentions a son who qualifies for a state debating tournament or a sister who plans to run a marathon, follow up later to find out what happened.

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