Monday, January 24, 2022

One-on-Ones Resistance

To be a truly effective boss, the most important thing you can do is build a trusting relationship with each employee. By far the easiest way to do that is through routine one-on-one meetings. Better-boss.com recommends that those meetings are scheduled, 30 minutes, weekly, and rarely missed, with the first half of the meeting spent on whatever they want to discuss and the second half for whatever you want to discuss. All posts about one-on-ones assume this strategy.


A 30-minute meeting is 1.25% of your time, assuming you work 40 hours per week. It is a drop in the bucket. Nevertheless, there are a great many organizations where a weekly one-on-one with your employees would be considered an absurd proposition. Here are three of the most common arguments people use to resist one-on-ones.


One-on-ones pull the employee away from "their work"

Whether you work in a highly functional organization or a dysfunctional one, there is too much work for the number of hours. We don't have time for a meeting every single week with no specific agenda or goal, just to "build the relationship." It's absurd to imagine.

My favorite version of this argument is that you, manager, don't have time for weekly one-on-ones. You've got 15 employees for goodness sake! That's 7.5 hours of your week, gone!! How can you possibly justify all that time spent? 


This argument is a lot of fun to challenge. Simply pull up notes from past a one-on-one and talk through each topic. Ask the nay-sayer "Was this one worth taking a few minutes to talk through? How about this one? And this one?..." Then go to the very next week with the very same employee. Invariably, they agree that there is no problem spending a few minutes on each individual topic. They agree that covering these details is highly relevant to helping the employee complete their work (therefore the conversation itself is part of "their work"). Then put the final nail in the coffin: this is a 30-minute meeting. A well-oiled weekly one-on-one will cover 8-10 topics a week for most fulltime employees. It is impossible to claim that 8-10 individual conversations would be more effective than getting it all sorted in a single 30-minute meeting.

The manager version of this argument is even more fun to respond to. What is the point of a manager, anyway? To make sure that the work gets done in a timely and effective fashion, right? To direct others' work, give feedback, coach them through any complexities they face, ensure changes are implemented smoothly, develop their abilities, check in on status of projects, etc. etc. Again, just turn to past one-on-one notes. Point out examples where all of this is happening every week under my management. Challenge the nay-sayer to produce evidence that other managers are getting anywhere near this amount of managerial work done. (Bonus: we can also talk about outcomes. How is my department achieving goals relative to others? How many personnel issues come out of my department relative to others? How well do changes get implemented in my department relative to others?)


One-on-ones are "too formal"

As the argument goes, the employee and the manager could never have a meaningful conversation if they are locked in a scheduled, private meeting together. This feeling comes from all over the organization: the employee, the higher-ups, or the manager themselves. You might have this concern. You picture "calling the employee in" for a meeting versus just walking up to their desk to have a chat. Obviously, you think, the latter is going to lead to a more relaxed conversation. 


Our intuition tells us that line of thinking is correct. Empirically, it is simply wrong. First, employees never have completely relaxed conversations with their boss. Walking up to their desk to chat may feel casual to you. To them, it is an alarm bell as they mentally scramble to shift gears and try to anticipate whatever it is that you want ("Was I slacking off? Did I forget to do something? Is this going to take two minutes or twenty?" etc.).

Actually do weekly one-on-ones for a few months as this blog recommends rather than just imagining them in your head. When it comes to formality and employees keeping their guard up, you will see that the opposite is true. The weekly one-on-one is a rare opportunity for the employee to let the professional mask slip a bit and relax into their real self. Assuming, of course, you genuinely make the meetings about the relationship, genuinely spend half the meeting (or more) on whatever is important to them, genuinely reward their candor and show candor yourself.


The employee doesn't "need" them

This argument usually comes from an employee, and usually a tenured one. They've had a lot of ineffectual bosses who don't do much more than get in their way (though the employee would never say it that way). They'll assure you that, while the one-on-one is likely a wonderful thing for some employees, they are doing just fine. They know how to do their job. There's really nothing to discuss.


This argument is a polite way of saying, "I don't need to be managed." Average bosses find themselves giving into this argument because, put bluntly, they really can't figure out what they have to offer these employees. 

Do not let anyone tell you that your employees don't need to be managed. Even the highest achieving employees benefit enormously from regular check-ins with their boss. Let's imagine an extreme version of the situation: it is the perfect employee and you as boss have literally no guidance you can offer. The weekly one-on-one is nothing more than them letting you know the things they are doing and you letting them know they are on the right track.

This perfect-employee circumstance doesn't exist. But if it did, the one-on-one is still absolutely worth the time. Think about the benefits that are coming from even this stripped-down version of the meeting. The employee knows for certain that the boss supports their work. If things start to get scrutinized by higher-ups or other departments, they can say the boss has approved it. The employee's work is more effective because they can more forward quickly and with confidence. The boss knows what the employee is up to. They might hear of similar initiatives across the organization and be able to expand the employee's work and recognition—or even just do this in-department with other employees. The employee's work is more effective because it can be tied into departmental, organizational, or other employees' goals.


Wrap up

All of these arguments come from the same place. People make assumptions about how your weekly one-on-ones will go based on their (poor) past experience. Better bosses are constantly fighting the ghosts of average bosses. When you meet resistance to your one-on-ones plan, don't let it get to you, and don't let it convince you. Be prepared to calmly respond, explain their value, and be firm in your certainty that weekly one-on-ones are the single most effective way to manage your team.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Managing in a Crisis

Actions to take: When crisis hits, do more communicating, not less. Do not allow your employees to set the tone of your communication relationship—the impulse will be to avoid conversation. Instead, redouble your efforts to check in frequently and keep them updated. When changes occur, stick to Announce Before you Implement, though likely at an accelerated pace. 


In challenging times, people tend to clam up. We are a self-preserving bunch. We want to protect ourselves from danger. That instinct can go unnoticed when times are good, but it becomes abundantly obvious when times are tough. Speaking your mind is a vulnerable thing to do. When there is a crisis, whether it is a global pandemic, recession, or something negatively impacting your particular place of work, your staff will avoid putting themselves out there. That means they will be a lot less vocal about their thoughts, concerns, and good ideas for how to pull through.

 

When things are tough, you need just the opposite. We need clever ideas from staff. We need to hear concerns about aspects of the plan we hadn't considered. We need to know how well people are managing their emotions and when they need a break. Even though we know this, we don’t act like it. Our team is apt to do less communicating. When everything feels up in the air, people will be giving off the signal, “Leave me alone with my thoughts.” There is social pressure to give people what they want. It is especially present when times are tough. With everything going on, the least we can do is let them be, right?

We must overcome that social pressure. The fact is, that is not what people really want. More than anything, people in crisis want to reduce uncertainty. When times are truly challenging, you will hear things like, “I don’t even care what will happen next, I just want to know.” Leaving people to stew in their thoughts is the last thing you need. Hopefully, this thought appeals to both the people-oriented readers and the business-minded. It is both good for the person and good for the organization to stop employees from endless rumination.

 

We’ve established that people will start pulling back. Instead of letting them set the communication lead, you must set it. Things aren’t normal, and there is likely to be a new standard of communication. It could swing one way (less talking, drop our usual routine of one-on-ones, put our heads down) or the other (more communicating, getting even more candid about our concerns, touching base more frequently to get questions out in the open). 

You have the opportunity to set the new normal. Stop by your employees’ desks daily. If you are virtual, set up a daily phone call to say good morning and see what is on their minds. Update them on whatever you’ve learned in the past 24 hours. Update them even if you have no new information: “You know that thing we were talking about 2 days ago? I haven’t heard back yet from my boss, but I’m going to keep pinging her about it until we know what’s up.” Have some questions for them. Try to draw out their worries. Get a sense for how secure or insecure they are feeling. It will change day-by-day and week-by-week. You need to know at any given moment where each of your staff stand. That way, you have a sense of how they are going to react when the next change comes, and it inevitably will.

 

Speaking of changes, how is managing change different during a crisis? The answer: it is the same, just faster. In the Announce Before you Implement post, we outlined how people react to change and the best process for making change as smooth as possible. All of that still applies. It’s just that now, everyone is on their last nerve and you have less time to work through thoughts and feelings. Do the same ABI process to the extent that you can:

  1. Announce the change before it happens
  2. Get opinions on the change
  3. Respond to those opinions
  4. And finally, go live with the change

In a crisis, there are times when you will have to do it all in a single day. It might look like this:

  1. 8:00 am email, “At 10:30, let’s discuss the following. I want to hear your thoughts on this. [provide details of the change].”
  2. Have that 10:30 meeting. Ask the team how they would execute the change. Get concerns out in the open. You may be able to respond here, but it usually more effective to acknowledge and note concerns for future follow up.
  3. In the afternoon, do a 2nd email (good enough) or meeting (better). To prepare, think on the concerns your team brought up in the morning. Figure out how you will address them. If they are things you can’t address, follow up with your boss or make plans to. If you know your boss won’t get back to you in time, make plans for a work-around or interim solution.
  4. Go live with the change.

I recommend doing this even if the change already happened. You might find out on Tuesday that “effective Monday, we were supposed to switch to X method.” Fine. Not ideal, but fine. Still take the time to go through the ABI process. Even if the time between step 1 and step 2 is 30 minutes, give your team that 30 minutes to think about the change. Pick a “go live” time for your team, even if it’s just a few hours later. (Yes, I am telling you to be a little delinquent here. You’re a manager, and that means you get to pick what you’re in trouble for. I’d rather be in trouble for being a few hours late than for being ineffective.) In addition, address the elephant in the room: we have technically been doing it wrong based on this new communication. Make it equally clear that, in your eyes, the team is not at fault.


If you follow this process with confidence, your employees with see you as a bastion of stability. They will see that it is really not so complicated to swim with the changing tide (or whatever metaphor you prefer).

This is, of course, not meant to be a comprehensive plan to managing during stressful change. It is a quick reminder for what needs to be most present in your mind during times of upheaval.


Note from the author: if you enjoy this blog, please consider sharing your favorite posts with others.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Ask Behavioral Interview Questions

Actions to take: Aside from basic factual questions, such as scheduling, use exclusively behavioral interview questions during your hiring processes. 


Last week's post about how interview questions fail ended by describing two goals. Your interview questions need to: 1) separate good candidates from great candidates, rather than good from bad, and 2) give us real information about the candidate's on-the-job effectiveness rather than relying on the candidate's ability to sell themselves. 

Behavioral interview questions are the easiest, most reliable way to achieve these goals. With these questions, we ask a candidate to relate a specific experience that actually happened to them. It almost always starts "Tell me about a time when you…" Examples:

  • Tell me about a time when you disagreed with the team's plan. What was the situation, what did you do, and how did it turn out?
  • Tell us about a time when you had to solve a complex problem on your own. What did you do, what resources did you consult, and what was the end result?
  • Tell me about a time when you had many competing priorities and not enough time. What challenges were you faced with, how did you navigate them, and what ultimately happened?


Behavioral interview questions are the only questions where we learn about candidate's actual work behaviors rather than the candidate's opinion of themselves. Virtually every other interview question hands the reins over to the candidate. How do you define "success"? What would you do about an angry customer?  What is your greatest strength? Rather than judging the candidate's effectiveness ourselves, these questions say to the candidate, "You judge your work, and then tell us about it." This kind of questioning doesn't screen for excellence. It screens for bravado. 

Behavioral questions succeed where others fail. Past behavior is highly predictive of future behavior. The way someone did something is likely to be similar to how they will do a similar thing in the future. This fact is well established in psychological literature. The effectiveness of behavioral interview questions is similarly well established. 

But you don't need scientific studies to understand the success of behavioral interview questions (though it is nice to have them). Just think about how you want the decision-making process to go during an interview. Do you want to hear a series of factual examples about the candidate's work, then judge for yourself how effective those behaviors would be in your work environment? Or do you want to let the candidate self-assess, then describe their opinions to you?


If you are not already using behavioral interview questions, there is good news. It is a simple matter to add them to your lineup. To create them from scratch, just take a list of the knowledge, skills, and abilities of the job, and form questions around the most important ones. For instance, independent problem solving might be important for the job. A behavioral question that screens for independent problem solving might run thus: "Tells us about a time when you had to make an important decision without guidance from superiors. What was the decision you faced, what factors did you consider, and what was the outcome?" 

You can also transform just about any interview question into a behavioral question with very little work. "What is your greatest strength?" becomes "Tell us about a time when you had to use your greatest strength at work. What was the situation, why was your strength particularly useful for that situation, and what was the result?"


When you shift to behavioral questions, your hiring process gets a lot easier. Gradations between candidates will become clear. Bad candidates' answers will lack content and the weakness will be obvious. Excellent candidates' answers will have a level of detail that can't be matched by average candidates. Excellent employees have a deeper understanding of their jobs and a more nuanced rationale for their on-the-job decisions. By asking behavioral interview question, you will be able to tease out those nuances. An easier hiring process means better hiring decisions, and better hiring decisions mean a stronger workforce.

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