Wednesday, March 3, 2021

The First One-on-One

Actions to take: In your first one-on-one, be prepared to do most of the talking. Spend most of your time on casual, personal topics rather than work. Ask one or two "softball" work questions to build their confidence in communicating about their work. Wrap the meeting by reinforcing the idea that they should talk about whatever is important to them each week.

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. 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.

New things are awkward. Do you remember the first time you had to give a speech in front of the class at school? What about the first time you attempted a new sport, like skiing? How about the first time you had to deliver a performance appraisal? 

Your first one-on-ones will be awkward. Your employee may not have very much to say. Despite the fact that you prepped them by announcing in advance, they will not have a very clear idea of how it is supposed to go. For that matter, neither will you if it is your first time doing them. This blog entry will help you get through your first set of one-on-one meetings with the following recommendations:

  • Do most of the work: Be ready to lead the meeting for 25 of the 30 minutes you've scheduled. One or two of your employees might surprise you by being ready to lead their half right off the bat. More will have nothing at all when you ask what they would like to talk about. Be mentally prepared to jump right in and take over the conversation and minimize awkwardness. Do not make apologies for their behavior (e.g. "Don't worry about it this time") or say anything else that implies that they've done something wrong. These meetings, especially the first, are about building a relationship. The last thing you want to do is make you employee feel judged right after they stepped into your office. Instead, just launch into your planned topics when they say they don't have anything. 
  • Make it personal: In the first meeting, keep significant work topics off the list. Spend the bulk of your time sharing about yourself. Even if you have worked together for years, odds are good that your employees don't know much about you, or they have vague notions that they're not certain about. Potential topics: talk about your work history, how you ended up in your position; share about your family; talk about your hobbies; anything that is both casual and important to you. During each topic, open the door to let them share similar information about themselves by asking questions. (Caveat: you may have an employee who loves shop talk and has zero interest in personal matters. Use your judgment to individualize the experience.) 
  • Toss a softball: If you do talk about work, make it a softball question that they will have an easy time answering. Ask about something you already know they have well under control. This will give your employees a chance to successfully communicate about their job. It will show them that one-on-ones are not about playing gotcha. There are no secret traps. It really is just a relaxed 30 minutes to check in on whatever is important that week.
  • Mention future meetings: At the end of the meeting, throw in a little light disclaimer. Say that you'll usually have more work topics to cover, but that chatting about casual things has been fun too. Reinforce the fact that they should bring whatever is important to them to next week's one-on-one. Thank them for their time, and that's a wrap.

It can't be helped that new things are awkward. One-on-ones are no exception. The average boss discards new managerial strategies when they don't see immediate results. Better bosses know that there is a learning curve and will stick it out until they are proficient. 

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