Friday, January 8, 2021

One-on-Ones: the Most Important Thing You Do

Actions to take: None at this time. Wait for future posts that explain how to effectively conduct one-on-one meetings with your staff. 

This is the first in a series of posts on conducting effective one-on-one meetings with your staff. The bulk of this post explains why one-on-ones are so important. Future entries in the series get into the details of how.

As a manager, job number one is to build and maintain strong relationships with each of your employees. This isn’t a platitude. I mean it literally. If you are not spending more time on this task than any other, your priorities are off course. 

Managers, by definition, get their work done through other people. It is our job to steer the work of other individuals by communicating with them about that work. We do this by talking about the work, asking questions about their tasks, giving feedback on the effectiveness of what they are doing, coaching them to do more and different things, getting their opinions on changes to make, etc. It is not too much to say that management is communication.  

We can communicate basic things with anyone. You can get across some points even if you do not speak the same language. However, most of us are not lucky enough to work in a place where pointing and grunting get the job done. We communicate about some delicate, complicated stuff. In an effective environment, managers truly make sure that they know their employees’ thoughts and opinions. That is not an easy thing to do. It is not enough to send an email asking, “Does anyone have anything to add about this?” How many times have you gotten an email like that, had an opinion (maybe a strong one), and decided it is not worth it to give your honest thoughts? There is risk in voicing your opinion. Some people are comfortable taking that risk on a regular basis. Most people view it as sticking their neck out, at least a little. And they worry that their neck might just get chopped off. The only way to overcome that fear is by building a genuine relationship with each of your employees. 

The solution is to schedule regular (likely weekly) one-on-one meetings with each of your employees. There are other ways to build relationships. Most of them don’t get anywhere near the effectiveness of a routine one-on-one, or they are so time-consuming as to be irresponsibly inefficient.  

I did not come by this understanding easily. When I began as a manager, I had no idea how badly I was managing. People seemed to like me, and I didn’t realize that I could be vastly better at my job. Almost all managers are like this. At almost every job I’ve worked, I have been on my own until a major issue comes up. It has been perfectly normal to go a week or two without having any discussion with my boss. It is a typical management method. 

It is also extremely ineffective. As a boss, every time you need to touch base with an employee for any reason at all, it is a talk in their minds. Does your heart beat a little faster when you see that your boss is calling your office? Is this true even though you generally like them as a person? It is true for most people. Because of that, both employee and manager tend to only exchange polite small talk until some issue requires a real conversation. 

There is a different, better way. Once you establish a genuine relationship with your employees (and build a regular time in your week to discuss literally anything they want), communication dramatically improves. The flood gates will open. You will get a proper understanding of your employees’ skills, weak areas, ideas, ambitions. They will begin expressing their opinions on work processes in a safe, low-key environment. You will have a vastly better understanding of their work. When you need to ask an employee to change course, the conversation will be easier. When you make process changes, you will get less push-back. The entire team just starts functioning.  

When done correctly, the value of regular, scheduled one-on-ones cannot be overstated. I have done them and not done them. I have had bosses who do them and those who do not. I have done them with a team only to be told to roll them back. I have heard from colleagues who have experienced the same. I have seen firsthand exactly what happens while the manager is doing weekly one-on-ones, and I have seen how much the communication withers away when they are put on hold.  

Hopefully, you are fired up after reading this post. Hopefully, I have convinced you that this is a better, smarter way to manage. My recommendation is that you not change your managerial behavior at this time. Do not make a change when you recognize the problem; change once you have the solution. This blog will outline the process for conducting effective one-on-ones in great detail. Look forward to many posts on the subject. 

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