Actions to Take: Make one-on-one meetings your primary method of connecting with your staff. Interact with your staff in other ways as well. Do not trick yourself into believing that these other ways can replace one-on-ones.
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.
Bosses who do not do routine one-on-ones with their staff claim that they are achieving the same benefit through other means. It is possible to develop rich, meaningful relationships with employees without the use of one-on-ones, but I am skeptical that most bosses are managing it as well as they think they are. Let's explore two other methods for managing your people.
A popular method is known as Management By Wandering Around (MBWA). MBWA sounds good: you meet employees where they are, maybe chip in on the work, and keep the conversation casual. If it is your primary method of interacting with your staff, however, it just doesn't work out. You occasionally need to talk about something specific with your employees. Given that, MBWA is only dressed up as a casual drop-in. You and your employee both know that you're just paying lip service to the idea of chatting before you get around to talking about that thing you need to address.
Imagine your boss unexpectedly swinging by for a chat. How does that strike you? For many employees, this would be nerve-wracking. For almost all of us, it would be distracting at least. You are deeply involved in some task. Suddenly, your boss pops in, and you have to shift gears. Ironically, the harder you were working, the more off-kilter you will be. Or maybe you are in the middle of a task that can’t be stopped. Maybe you work at a customer service desk. Now you have to divide your attention between your boss and your work, doing both poorly. On top of that, you are getting more and more tense, waiting for the boss to finally come around to the topic they really came by to talk about. MBWA sounds good in theory. It is great to do when you genuinely can keep it casual, when you genuinely don't have that thing you need to address. As the primary tool for having discussions and building relationships with your employees, it falls woefully short.
The other main argument against one-on-ones comes from the manager who works alongside their employees. They get plenty of quality time shoulder-to-shoulder. A regular meeting would be formal and stuffy. Again, this seems compelling. In practice, this method is deeply flawed. The manager thinks they are getting the benefits of a strong relationship when they are not. Imagine going on a first date. You decide to do something deeply involved: the two of you work for a few hours volunteering at a homeless shelter. Your second date, you plant vegetables at a community garden. You keep doing dates like this. The work is engaging, so you really only chat about the task in front of you.
Even after 5, 10, 15 of these dates, would you say that you have a strong relationship with this person? Would say that you have a clear understanding of their likes, dislikes, plans for the future, and so on? For managers who work next to their employees, the one-on-one is the dinner date. It is the time to focus on the person, not on the task. It is the time when you get to talk about what is actually important to each of you, not just what is in front of you at the moment.
A major problem with both of these approaches is that you occasionally need to have private conversations with your staff. If your primary method of interaction is one of the above, then you are telegraphing the message, “Better get nervous!” every time you ask someone to your office. Not a great way to start any complex or difficult conversation.
As a manager, you need to do both of these things. You need to get out of your office from time to time. Shoot the breeze and just see how things are going. It will keep you from seeming like an ivory-tower boss who expects employees always to come to them. You need to work shoulder-to-shoulder with your employees. You need to show that you're willing to get your hands dirty with the hard work and be part of the team.
Both of these activities are vital to your success. However, better bosses know that they are no replacement for routine one-on-ones.