Actions to Take: Set up routine, standing times for one-on-one meetings with each of your staff. Communicate those times clearly, ensuring that your employees are well aware of when they are meeting with you. Also communicate those times on a calendar that the entire team can see (your own Outlook calendar is fine).
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.
I once had a boss who worked in the same building, several floors up. She had a habit of dropping into my office space unannounced "just to chat." I was caught totally flat-footed the first few times she did it. I couldn't think of a thing when she would ask what I had to talk about. I eventually learned to keep some evergreen topics on hand to pull out at a moment's notice, but they were never timely. It was more a case of me managing up than seeking genuine managerial advice from her.
One time she led off with, "So what's the most important thing on your schedule this week?" For the record, I think this is a great question for bosses to ask. It opens up the conversation and gives you a sense of your employee's prioritization. In this case, the circumstances made it dreadful. Imagine the scenario. Your boss shows up in your office unannounced, asks to speak with you with the door closed, and immediately asks what your most important priority is for the week. How could this be anything other than some kind of test? My mind was blank as I tried to figure out what important thing I was supposed to be doing that I had forgotten about. The seconds dragged on painfully as I stumbled through some kind of answer. It turns out that she meant it honestly and casually, but it absolutely did not feel that way at the time.
This boss's heart was in the right place. In retrospect, I see that she was just trying to build rapport. She was new to managing people that weren't in close physical proximity and came up with this as a strategy to overcome that obstacle. I suspect that she thought an "official meeting" would feel weird and stuffy.
Folks, schedule your one-on-one meetings. I do not care if you are not a meetings person or your organization is not a meetings culture. It is the most important element of a successful one-on-one with your employee. More important than doing them weekly, more important than having the employee go first, and more important than avoiding cancellations.
Think for a moment about the purpose of all meetings. Why don't we just talk about everything the moment it occurs to us? Meetings are a specific time, with specific people, to discuss specific topics. When you schedule them, you give people the chance to prepare. Once you get the ball rolling on routinely scheduled one-on-ones, some of your staff are going to truly impress you. They will come in with a list of five to ten topics every week. They will bang through those items with marvelous efficiency. You will start crossing things off your list because your employee covered them during their half of the meeting. These same employees will draw a blank, or maybe come up with one or two things to say, if you cold call them with an open-ended question about their work.
There are a few other benefits to scheduling. First, you are signaling their importance. Even if you work in a rabidly anti-meeting culture, something gets scheduled. I am willing to bet those things are the most important things, organizational imperatives that must be done. When you schedule one-on-ones, you are saying, "this is important enough, you are important enough, that I will carve out specific time to chat with you every week."
Scheduling also reduces fear. My anecdote above described two problems, broadly speaking. First, I was unprepared, and second, I was alarmed enough to totally misinterpret her question and assume the worst. (She was a perfectly pleasant human, by the way. Not in the least bit imposing or intimidating. But she was my boss.) When you schedule one-on-ones, your employees will know what they are. They be not guessing to themselves, "what's going on here?" They will understand that this is just the routine chat with the boss. They will be mentally prepared with topics, and they will be emotionally prepared for the interaction.
Here is the ideal setup for scheduling one-on-ones:
- You have set a standing time each week for each of your employees. I meet with Carolyn on Tuesdays at 3:00, I meet with Calvin on Wednesdays at 9:00, and so on. If something gets in the way, no problem, just reschedule for later in the week. Having a set time saves an enormous amount of work. Scheduling each independently is a hassle that will almost certainly cause you to miss them from time to time.
- That time is clearly communicated to the employee. The whole point is to give them time to prepare. If you are doing a standing, recurring meeting, then you are all set except for reschedules. If you are scheduling each one independently (which I do not recommend), you must communicate the time for the one-on-one at least a few days in advance.
- The calendar is visible to the rest of the team. It is generally good practice for the team to know when and where people are doing important tasks. Anyone who works customer service has a front-desk schedule, for instance. It helps avoid gaps in service. Just the same here, when your employees generally know how your time is committed, they are less likely to interrupt or cause scheduling conflicts.
- One-on-ones are not scheduled on Fridays. First, people do not like a lot of meetings on Fridays. More importantly, you have nowhere to go if a scheduling conflict arises. Bumping it to the following week (i.e. rescheduling this one for Monday, then have that week's meeting the same Friday) does not work well. People operate on a weekly basis.
That is all there is to the scheduling element of one-on-ones.
The average boss talks with their employees as topics occur to them, whenever is convenient for the boss. They don't schedule meetings because they want to keep things casual and not exert their "boss power" too much. Better bosses know that those average bosses are having the opposite effect, causing their staff unnecessary stress and having far less effective conversations because of it. Better bosses schedule one-on-ones.