The ONE Question Every Leader Should Ask Regularly


“Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

– John Watson

As I was walking this morning on the beautiful bush track near my home, I reflected on how little we know about what is going on in the lives of the people we meet each day.

I had just bumped into my friend Ian*. Ian is successful, positive, funny, and runs a management consultancy which has enjoyed many years of growth.  They are now encountering some very challenging times that has required making some employees redundant. When you probe a little further you find out that he has two disabled children who he loves very much, but who can be incredibly demanding on his time. He is also been caring for a very sick parent and not surprisingly his marriage is under strain. If you hadn’t met Ian, and asked how he was going, he would probably say “fine thanks” – but he is fighting a hard battle. Casual conversations rarely tell the whole story.

In my presentations I explain that when I was the Joint Managing Director of a business in 2000 I went through a 5 year episode of depression that my psychiatrist described as the worst he had ever treated. What used to surprise me (but no longer does) is that after I share this story, people come up and tell me about the struggles going on in their lives.

I’ve learnt that often behind the cheery façade are daily battles for most people.

Why is this insight essential to leaders?

In volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) times employees are under continual strain to do “more with less”. In addition to their work challenges, often they are coping with many other things in their private life. Their minds are distracted with a million different things.

How do we as leaders ensure that our employees sustain the will and skill to excel? How do we best help when a Gallup engagement poll covering 142 countries tells us that only 13% are actively striving?

I will get to the ONE question I promise – I just need to explain why it is so important 🙂

Evidence of the scale of this disengagement comes from Medibank research that shows that stress disorders and depression now account for 34% of lost productivity through absenteeism and presenteeism, and yet 86% of those affected would rather suffer in silence than discuss it with their work colleagues. Many of your team are fighting hard battles but you may not know about it.

A startling fact about employee engagement

Since the 1970’s Gallup have been researching and reporting on employee engagement. They can now accurately predict whether an employee is engaged by asking them just 12 questions – known as their Q12™. Of those 12 questions the one question which is most correlated with engagement is this:

“My supervisor or someone at work seems to care about me as a person.”

The greatest positive predictor of engagement is a manager or colleague who cares!!

Is this just theory?

Back in 1995 when I led a culture change business, I was asked by Chris Rex, the current CEO of Ramsay Healthcare to help them define their values. After a 3 month process which involved around 20 focus groups in most of their hospitals The Ramsay Way was launched.

It is summarised as “People caring for people”.

Many organisations have these type of statements but Ramsay made it part of their DNA. It is an important factor in their recruiting, training and development, and even when assessing acquisitions. They take their caring very seriously. This caring approach has delivered very impressive financial results which can be viewed below.

Over a 16 year period the ASX100 on the Australian stock exchange has had a total return to shareholders of 241%, whilst over the same period Ramsay has returned 3201%. What is just as impressive is that Ramsay has an absenteeism rate due to injury of less than half of Safework Australia’s target for healthcare employees. Not bad for an employer of over 30,000 employees in 5 countries.

Caring is profitable and delivers sustainable rewards.

So what is the ONE question that every leader should ask regularly?

“Are you OK?”

Sometimes it is just a reassuring glance or pat on the back that shows this. Sometimes it a quick chat and sometimes it is a rich R U OK? conversation:

  • Break the ice – then ask R U OK?
  • Listen without judgement
  • Encourage action
  • Follow-up

It may lead to: “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Related: Further information about how to ask R U OK? 

Ramsay Healthcare has championed R U OK? in their workplace since 2010 and have twice won the Australian Human Resources Institute R U OK? Award.

Caring and compassionate leadership is good for people and good for business.

*Not real name

About Graeme Cowan

Graeme Cowan is a speaker and an author who shows leaders how to build their and their tribe’s resilience, mood and performance. Master your mood and you master your life. He also helped Gavin Larkin and a small team to start R U OK? –

To inquire about Graeme speaking at your conference or in your workplace please email

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