Actions to take: During your employee's half of one-on-one meetings: explicitly hand over the meeting, do not judge what they choose to talk about, actively engage in the discussion, avoid taking over, and take notes where appropriate.
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.
This post describes exactly what to do during the employee's half of the one-on-one.
- Hand over the meeting with a question: When your employee comes into your office for their one-on-one, say the same thing every time. "What would you like to talk about?" or "What's on your mind?" or even a neutral statement like "The floor is yours." Pick one and stick with it. You must avoid leading the witness here. You want this to be their time to talk about whatever they want. Some employees will try to guess what is important to you and talk about that. You want them talking about what is important to them. When you roll out one-on-ones, I recommend that you even mention that you will be asking this same question. "I want to make it perfectly clear, when I say the first 15 minutes are your time, I mean it. I'll ask the exact same question every time you come into the room. It is just my way of saying that you have the conn."
- Talk about anything they want: The purpose of this meeting is to establish trust with your employee so that communication comes easier. It may feel like the point of the meeting is to get work done, answer work-related questions, talk about work-related projects, etc. That is the fringe benefit. Don't lose sight of the real goal: building a meaningful relationship. This means you will talk about anything they bring up. Now, we exist in a working environment, so most of your employees will want to talk about work. That is what will be important to them for their relationship with you. But not all. Some employees will want to talk about their families, or their pets, or their obsession with some particular TV show. That is what is important to that employee. You will talk about those things with just as much enthusiasm. Building a relationship with an employee means building a relationship with their interests.
- Actively participate in the discussion: You're having a conversation here, not having them deliver a 15-minute report followed by your 15-minute report. So discuss! Put energy into your side of the conversation. Think about what they are saying and respond. Dig deeper with follow up questions. Maybe they are telling you about that TV show obsession. Why are they obsessed? What draws them to it? What does it have for them that other shows don't? Match their level of candidness. What is your equivalent for their TV show obsession? Share a bit of yourself the way they are sharing themselves.
- Avoid taking over: However, that is a balancing act. The senior-most person in any conversation tends to do most of the talking. People defer up. Even if it is a casual conversation about their weekend, most employees will naturally allow a boss to take over the conversation. It is your job to stop this from happening. You should typically do less than 25% of the talking during their time.
- Take notes (on paper): Taking notes is a sign of respect in work environments. It signals interest--this is important, so I'm writing it down. In the end, one-on-ones are work meetings. You will still need to take notes on plans for follow up, project details your employee is sharing, feedback you've given, etc. Now, some topics are a faux pas to take notes on. For instance, writing down the name of an employee's spouse comes off as anti-social. You should remember it without the aid of a notepad. That said, writing down the name of their TV show obsession would be well appreciated, especially if you say you're going to check it out. (Do not use a computer to take notes. That body language signals disinterest, not interest. A future post will explain the psychology of that difference.)
For those of you who are worried that you will be delving into the personal lives of your employees every week, that is not the case. The vast majority of your employees will want to talk about work the vast majority of the time. That said, you can hear them out in the break room talking with coworkers about weekend plans, TV shows, games they like, and all sorts of other non-work topics. Be part of the team by doing a bit of that with the employees who want it.
Follow these guidelines during your employee's time in the one-on-one. Your team will see that you are serious when you say that the one-on-one is about them and about establishing a trusting relationship. Even the cynical ones will come around eventually. Your team will get more work done, more effectively, with this little bit of investment on your part.