No post today, on account of the holiday. We'll be back with new content on Wednesday!
Wednesday, May 26, 2021
Actions to take: Stop trusting your gut. It is far less accurate than you think, and it likely leads to choosing candidates for biased reasons. Read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman for a fantastic explanation of overconfidence in decision-making. Develop and adhere to hiring processes that are specifically crafted to minimize bias and fallibility in human decision-making.
Let's talk about radiologists for a moment, not bosses. Radiologists are quite literally experts at detecting abnormalities by examining medical imagery of the body. That's practically a definition of their job. However, experienced radiologists contradict themselves 20% of the time when they see the same image on separate occasions. A basic computer formula, which examines various factors and assigns a score, will predict abnormality with more accuracy than the doctor. This is true even when the doctor has access to the formula scores! Radiologists, using the formula information plus whatever information comes from their own expertise and examination, will make worse decisions than just having the formula information. (source: Kahneman, Thinking Fast & Slow, p. 225)
These are people who have spent years studying the science of viewing medical imagery to develop their skills. They go through expertly crafted, rigorous training to become radiologists. Let's be honest, managers go through practically zero training to become effective at choosing who to hire. Yet, somehow, every tenured manager I've met is convinced that they know how to pick the right ones. Take a mental inventory of the managers you know. How many would think they are "above average" at hiring effectively if asked? Certainly more than half. Probably all. (Which is, of course, impossible. By definition, half of us must be below average.)
Managers seem to be especially defensive when their hiring methodology is questioned, even lightly. They are convinced that their intuition about people is valuable, meaningful, and worth including in their decision-making process. To imply otherwise is met with incredulity, anger, or "proof" that they know what they are doing. Most managers simply cannot accept the (correct, scientifically proven) idea that hiring decisions should not be based on a general feeling about who they think is best.
After the session on interviewing bias in my personnel management course, one of my students chatted with her boss about it. It sounded like her boss was polite, but thoroughly dismissive of the idea that a manager cannot rely on their instincts about a candidate. The boss's reasoning: look at the people they have on their team. They has cultivated a hard-working department of people who do good work. "I hired you, after all" they said to my student.
Can you spot the is the huge problems with this manager's logic?
They have no information on people they didn't hire. If you have a decent set of minimum qualifications, everyone you interview can do the job. So, every person you hire confirms your belief that you picked the right one. It's right there in the boss's argument: "You (the person I hired) did the job well, so I must be doing something right!" But what about all of those people they didn't hire who could do the job even better?
Second, they are thinking about the people who are still on their team. If your work environment is any good at all, you recognize the bad employees after a few months. They self-select out when they realize their poor performance won't be ignored, or you eventually help them out. Of course this manager had a functional team. It says good thing about their on-the-job management, but it says nothing about their hiring ability.
Our brains are storytelling machines. We automatically attribute cause-effect relationships, even when none are there. If you have a functional team, it must be because you are good at hiring. Every manager thinks this way.
In fact, humans carry around a host of unconscious biases that influence our opinions about a job candidate for reasons that have nothing to do with the work. This is insidious. A totally well-meaning manager might be (probably is) unintentionally discriminating against people who could do the job extremely well, simply because they don't fit the manager's assumptions about what the "right" candidate is like.
How, then, do we avoid these traps in our hiring processes? That is a subject worth a dozen or more posts. I urge you to start doing research on hiring and interviewing processes that minimize bias. Here are a few starting places:
- If the pitfalls of human cognition are of any interest at all, read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It will teach you to stop trusting your brain.
- Research "behavioral interview questions." Go beyond simply looking up sample questions. Find information about how these interview questions are the most valid and reliable for choosing the best candidate. Understanding why and how they work will help you use them effectively.
- Research and develop best practices for rating candidates during the selection process. This is a richly studied area of organizational psychology and human resource management. Implementing effective rating processes will discourage or prevent various cognitive pitfalls.
- Look for training on bias and bias reduction in the workplace. If your organization is large enough, your HR department may already have training modules on the topic.
Average bosses think they have the best method for selecting great employees. Almost all of them are being misled by irrelevant information. Better bosses know that human cognition is eminently fallible. They take steps to mitigate bias by researching and sticking to scientifically proven selection methods.
Monday, May 24, 2021
Actions to take: Schedule your one-on-one meetings for 30 minutes. The first 15 minutes is for whatever they want to discuss. Some employees will not use that time at all. Allow it to happen several times, but give them at least three opportunities during each week's meeting. If it continues to happen, ask an open-ended question to explore why.
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. All posts about one-on-ones assume this strategy.
The advice from our one-on-ones length post helped you deal with employees who routinely run long for their half of the meeting. Some of you read that and said to yourselves, "That is not going to be my problem." Some employees are talkers, some are not. With the talkers, I cautioned you not to cut them off in the first meetings and not to schedule longer meetings. With the reticent employees, don't force them to come up with things right away and don't schedule shorter meetings. Let's get into the details.
Employees who are reticent during one-on-ones tend to fall into one of three categories:
- Inexperience: Inexperienced employees may have trouble figuring out what to talk about in these meetings, even with your explanation that they should bring any topic that is important to them. "Inexperience" covers 1) people who are newish to the workforce and 2) people who haven't had jobs that require reporting on the work. Broadly speaking, most blue-collar jobs fit this description. Many part-time positions fall into this category as well. These employees are most likely to see the one-on-one (and anything else that doesn't fall into their primary duties) as a distraction from "their work" rather than part of "their work."
- Introversion: Introverted people, and people who otherwise have a tough time adapting to new social situations, are likely to bring few or zero topics to their first several one-on-one meetings. They are most likely to have anxiety about the change. Inexperienced people may not know what they should talk about. Introverted people will have ideas, but may be paralyzed with worry that they'll bring the wrong thing to talk about. That said, once you break through, introverts often excel in one-on-ones. Compared to most interpersonal interactions in the workplace, a one-on-one is about the easiest place for an introvert to express their opinions. They will start to utilize the meeting to its fullest once they feel safe and comfortable.
- Protest: A few employees will be so against the idea of one-on-ones that they will try to do something about it. Almost all of them will jump to the most obvious "solution" to convince you not to do them anymore. They'll think, "hey, if I never have anything to talk about, the boss will see that these meetings are a waste of time, and I'll get out of it." This form of protest is transparent, but it will work if you're not prepared for it. These employees are the only one where you may need to leverage your status as "the boss." That's for later, however. The first solution for your protest employees is just like the others.
Because we manage behaviors, not thoughts, you can (and should) address all three of these issues in the same way.
I recommend doing almost nothing for the first several one-on-ones. These meetings are all about relationship-building. Instruction, even the kindest coaching, comes from a place of power. In the first weeks, we want to avoid using any amount of managerial authority. So hold off a few weeks before addressing it directly.
Here is what you can do in those first few one-on-ones. As always, pass the meeting to them with whatever question you typically use. When they say they have nothing, double check in a way that makes it clear they can take a minute to think. If they still have nothing, go ahead and take over the meeting with your list of topics. Feel free to stretch your 15 minutes to fill the time as much as you like. Wrap up with at least 5 minutes left, and ask a third time if anything occurred to them that they want to cover. Using this method, you will be giving your employee three opportunities every week to talk to you about whatever they want.
Though it is the same action, it works for different reasons with each type of employee. The inexperienced employees won't be used to preparing in advance, but they are likely to 1) see you modeling the behavior and 2) think of things during your half of the meeting. Introverted employees often need assurance before they will stick their neck out. Asking three times every week shows that you really mean it when you say you want to talk about whatever they want to talk about. For the protest employees, you are subtly reinforcing the notion that employees are expected to use their half of the meeting for something (and you are setting yourself up to say this directly down the road).
If your employee is still bringing zero topics to the meeting by the fourth one-on-one, then it is time to address it. Make your final topic a conversation about their part of the meeting. I encourage you to probe in an open, exploratory way that avoids judgment. Here is a potential script to open the topic: "There is one last thing I want to cover. For these past four weeks, you haven't brought anything to your half of the meeting. When we're four weeks in and you haven't had anything at all to discuss, it starts to feel like you don't have any interest in creating a working relationship with me. It seems pretty unlikely that that's true, so can we have a conversation about what the problem is? What are your thoughts?"
At this point, be prepared to engage in a positive, helpful way, whatever they throw at you. You will likely get some form of "I don't know" or "There just isn't anything to talk about." If one of your protest employees is very bold, you might get, "These meetings are pointless."
For all of these, say some version of the following, "As I talked about when I announced these meetings, your time really is for anything you want to discuss. To help you out, I'll describe how some of my other one-on-ones have gone. One of your coworkers brings a list of 5 or 6 work topics every week, and runs through them bang, bang, bang. It is usually clarification on something that came up, ideas for tweaks we should make, or questions about this or that project. Another person usually has one big topic that's been on their mind, and we end up discussing it for the full 15 minutes. A couple people like to chat with me about their hobbies outside of work, but more tend to keep the topics about work. The idea really is for you to talk about whatever will help us develop an understanding with one another. But do those examples help at all?"
There are nuances to how the meeting will proceed from there depending on what sort of reticent employee you have. You will need to consider your particular employee and prepare to respond to whatever tack you expect them to take. If you have more specific questions, feel free to reach out. I'll be happy to work with you on a plan.
Better bosses know that any significant change takes time before you start to see returns. As this blog has cautioned elsewhere, expect your first few one-on-ones to be a bit rocky. Keep them up, don't have too many expectations at first, and be compassionate in your coaching. By six or eight weeks in, you will be amazed at how much better you know your people, how much more willing they are to talk to you, and how much work is getting done in those short thirty minutes.
Wednesday, May 19, 2021
Actions to take: Get out of the mindset that positive feedback is a commentary on something an employee did well and negative feedback is commentary on something they did poorly. Instead, push yourself to think of all feedback as "advice to encourage effective future behavior." Review your feedback to see if your phrasing is emotionally charged in either direction.
Last semester, I gave one of my students the following feedback: "When you take your time and make sure you understand exactly what the question is asking, you provide detailed, insightful answers that address novel aspects of the issue others don't consider." Is that positive feedback or negative feedback?
The student frequently gave impressive answers with details that hadn't occurred to others. They also gave answers that missed the point of the question from time to time. I was giving this feedback at the end of their exam, which had examples of both. The feedback was neither positive nor negative. It was simply advice about how to be effective.
This ambiguity is what you want out of your feedback. Ideally, the middle step of the formula ("when you do X, it has Y impact") could be given after your employee did that thing right or after they did it wrong, with little to no tweak to the language. The only difference in phrasing positive or negative feedback is the last step on the formula. With positive, you finish by saying "Keep it up" or something similar, and you say "Can you work on it?" with negative feedback.
Why does this matter? Shouldn't negative feedback be a little negative to help make the point? Shouldn't positive feedback be a little positive to celebrate the win?
In short, no. You are not thinking of feedback. You are thinking of rewards and punishments, praise and reprimand.
When you are crafting feedback for your employees, always keep the purpose at the front of your mind. Feedback isn't a celebration of good work (Please do that too—just do it elsewhere with other words). Feedback isn't a reprimand for bad work. Feedback is advice for how to do the work effectively in the future.
Advice isn't emotionally charged. Effective work is effective work regardless of what happened in the past. If you make your positive feedback sound positive and your negative feedback sound negative, your employees will engage with the emotional element that you are adding to your feedback. They will anticipate either feeling good or feeling bad. That will happen somewhat no matter how you give your feedback, but you don't want to add to it. We should work to make feedback sound as routine and as emotionally mundane as any other everyday work communication. If feedback is an emotional rollercoaster for your employees, it will be much harder on them and on you.
Review several pieces of feedback that you've given in the past week or so. Ask yourself, "could this same feedback, phrased the same way (or with very minor tweaking), be given if the employee had done the opposite?" Reflect on your tone. When you are giving feedback after your employee did something right, is your tone celebratory? When you are giving feedback after an issue, is your tone darker or more serious?
If you find that you are committing these errors, here is a handy trick to help. When you are composing your feedback, imagine your employee doing it the right way in the future. Do this regardless of whether the prompting behavior was positive or negative. Spend two weeks doing it before every piece of feedback you give. You will train your brain to think about all feedback the same way, so your delivery will come out the same way.
By thinking about feedback as advice with no positive or negative emotional element, you are making feedback easier. You will have an easier time giving it, and your employees will have an easier time hearing it. We do easy things more frequently than hard things. You want to be giving feedback as frequently as possible, so take every step you can to make it easy.
Monday, May 17, 2021
Actions to take: Raise the bar for what you think it takes to be "done" communicating a change. With any important change, start by announcing the change in an all-hands staff meeting. Use the 4-step outline described below.
In the Announce Before You Implement post, step one told you to announce the change. But what does that mean, precisely?
You can only say that you have effectively announced a change when: 1) everyone who will be impacted knows the change will happen, 2) knows when the change will happen, and 3) fully understands the implications of the change. This is a high bar to clear. Most bosses don't even cover the first point fully, much less the second and third.
Announcing change is not a simple thing. Communication has not happened until the listener gets the message. Stop thinking that communication is done when the speaker sends it. Some bosses have an almost spiteful attitude about communicating with their team. They'll announce something once during a staff meeting (or worse, email it), and then the stance is, "hey, that's your problem" for anyone who missed the meeting or missed particular details.
Sorry bosses, but you don't get to push responsibility (or blame) down the chain. It is your job to ensure that your message has been communicated. If it is important, say it many times. You only get to say you have announced a change after you are confident that your directs have received and understand what you are saying.
There are two things you need to do to ensure that your employees got the message. First, provide the right kind of detail in the initial announcement. Second, follow up with each staff member.
The follow up is easy, provided you are doing weekly one-on-ones with your team. Add it to your list for the meeting after your initial announcement. In that meeting, don't ask, "do you have any questions?" Instead, ask, "What questions do you have?" For anyone who says they have none, probe at their understanding by asking them what aspects of their work will be altered due to the change.
It is more complicated to provide an initial announcement that guarantees your staff will understand the change. In fact, it is impossible to guarantee that an employee will understand. The following 4-step announcement outline will get you about as close as possible, though. I strongly encourage you to do this at a meeting with all of your direct reports. Hopefully you do a weekly team meeting, as that practice makes it very easy to address changes as they come up.
1) Bottom Line Up Front:
Provide brief, blunt highlights of the change. What's happening, how will it impact us, and when. Example: "Our meeting room booking process is changing. We will be required to learn a new software, and there will be a built-in system of priority booking depending on the usage. The new system goes live in five weeks on June 21st."
Giving the bottom line up front will get everyone's attention. They will know the headline, so everything you say from here on will have context.
2) Spend Time on Why:
You need to make your employees care about this change. They need to care at least enough to pay attention to the details and genuinely think about what it means for their work. We are all busy, with a thousand things pulling our attention.
The best way to make sure your thing gets some of that attention is to appeal to some aspect that your employees actually care about. Example: "I know learning a new software is a pain in the ass. But this is going to be good for us. We've been complaining about this booking system for a while. Tam, just last week you were in my office annoyed that our current software dropped your booking. Rebecca, we just had a discussion about how we should be giving priority for certain events..."
For the sake of brevity, I cut this part of the example short. Spend more time on this section of your announcement than any other. It is the most important step. If you make people care about the change, but you fail to adequately explain the details, it's going to be fine. They'll come after you to make sure they get those details. If you fail to make people care, they will not be motivated to follow up. They probably won't think about it enough to realize they need to follow up on some aspect.
It can be difficult to get back to the basics of “why”. When we’ve lived with a change or decision in our minds for a while, we stop worrying about why. It’s a done deal mentally, so we stop spending effort on it. Force yourself to go back and remember what it was like before you had this idea in your head. Spend time thinking about why it matters to make this change.
3) Describe the Change:
This is the easy part. This is what you (or whomever is instigating this change) have been thinking about for however long you have been working on the change. Go into detail on what it is going to look like. Example: "I have access to the sandbox version of the new meeting room software. Let me bring it up on the screen and go through some of the features..."
4) Describe the Change Process:
The change process is not the change. We overlook the amount of work necessary to plan an effective change process because we are so focused on the change itself. If you are constructing a new building, the change is the building. The change process is the construction. A good overview of the change process will ensure that your employees know:
- the timeline, including important dates (training due, "go live" date, etc.)
- who will be affected
- in what ways they will be affected
- how we will overcome those effects
- who will be responsible for overcoming those effects
- and when we will be "done" implementing.
We are all so used to feeling unprepared for changes that we assume that is the way it has to be. Follow this advice, and your employees will be saying, "let's get on with it already" while everyone else is frustrated that they never get any warning before changes happen.
Wednesday, May 12, 2021
Actions to take: Use the list of topics in this post as a launching pad for preparing your topics with employees 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. 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. All posts about one-on-ones assume this strategy.
The best boss I ever had ran truly impressive one-on-one meetings. Every week, she had a boatload of things she needed to cover. She encouraged me to think critically about my work by asking probing questions about my plans and actions. She checked in on my progress and offered support if I was in danger of missing a deadline. She celebrated successes on things that went well. She got my opinion on various initiatives that had been announced. She asked after my wife's progress in her decision to switch careers. In short, she paid attention to the things that mattered and followed up on them.
In Your Time During One-on-Ones, we talked about how to prepare your half of the meeting. This post expands that one by giving you concrete advice on what topics to cover. With the following list of topic ideas at hand, you are sure to impress your employees as much as my boss impressed me.
- Feedback: Feedback can happen any time, anywhere, provided that your comment is not easily overheard by others. However, one-on-ones are an extremely convenient place for feedback. Your employee is virtually guaranteed to be in a good mindset to hear feedback, as these meetings are largely about their work already. You will have time to compose your phrasing in advance. And, assuming you do these meetings weekly, the behavior you are commenting on will always be fairly recent.
- Follow up earlier one-on-one topics: One-on-ones build on themselves. Invariably, you will discuss topics that require further thought or action. Maybe you or your employee plan to follow up with other employees or gather more information. Perhaps the easiest way to flesh out your half of the meeting is by checking prior weeks' notes. What topics or projects accidently got side-tracked? What things did your employee continue to work on without keeping you in the loop? These things happen; we're all busy. Check in on it.
- Ask for opinion on team announcements: It is common for a manager to announce something during a team meeting, ask, "Are there any questions?" and assume everything is good to go when no one speaks up. To be blunt, this is silly. People are vastly more candid about their opinion when you ask them individually than when you ask in a group. For all important team announcements, follow up with every employee in the one-on-one. You'll be shocked how much better you understand their concerns (or excitement!) about this or that initiative.
- Project status updates: After a few months of one-on-ones, your employees will give status updates during their time. Before they get the hang of it, make it part of your work to check in on how things are going. Deadlines get busted because managers fail to maintain their awareness of the ongoing status of the work. It is such an easy fix to spend 1 minute in this meeting touching base on progress.
- Deep dives into routine work: In an effective workplace, your employees are doing a variety of tasks that you yourself do not do on a regular basis. Occasionally, spend your half of the one-on-one by having your employee give you an in-depth understanding of one of their responsibilities (or by observing them while they do it). Done poorly, this can feel like an interrogation of the employee's abilities. If you give them a heads up the week prior, and if you make it feel like a natural, routine thing, then you will delight your employee with your genuine interest in their work.
- Check on long-term plans: The best bosses are never surprised when an employee puts in notice. That is because they routinely check in on their employee's long-term plans, goals, and desires. Once every few months, turn the discussion toward your employee's career aspirations. This conversation will naturally lead into developmental opportunities they can pursue in their current position. You will engender good will, and you will provide a natural opening for an employee to let you know when they are considering moving on. With this method, I have known up to a year in advance when an employee is likely to quit.
- Chat about personal life: One-on-ones are generally about work. That's what most people want to talk about with their bosses. That said, have a basic understanding of your employees' personal lives. You should know at least as well as the average coworker what is going on personally with your employees. When major events happen (e.g. a child's graduation, personal accomplishment, parent's health issues), it builds rapport to know about it and comment appropriately. From time to time, ask how the family is. Let the employee dictate how much they want to share.
With this list of topics in mind, it is virtually impossible for a week to pass without a half-dozen or more topics in your part of the one-on-one. Most importantly, these topics will be relevant and useful—they are things that matter to the work and to the employee.
The average boss, if they do one-on-ones at all, underprepares. It is evident to the employee that the topics are boilerplate or filler, and they can tell the boss isn't putting time and energy into the meeting. Better bosses know that one-on-ones are about demonstrating the importance of developing a relationship with their employees. Because they prioritize those relationships, they prioritize these meetings. That means bringing meaningful, useful topics to discuss every single week.
Monday, May 10, 2021
Actions to take: Continue doing one-on-ones and providing frequent feedback at every level of the organization. You are not excused from managing when you are at the top, and your direct reports are not excused from being managed. One-on-ones in particular become more important the higher you go, as you are more removed from direct observation of your employees' work.
You will sometimes hear the claim that there is a difference between "leaders" at the top of the organization and "managers" who supervise the front-line staff. I was just recently in a discussion where someone said, "Many great leaders hire managers to handle the day-to-day guidance, measuring, and coordinating to ensure and report on progress along the way." The implication is clear. The head of the organization has more important things to do than management--they leave that for others.
It is true that heads of organizations have more responsibilities than managing the people below them. My claim that a manager can do most of their job through one-on-ones does not apply to C-suite employees. However, too many people at the top of their organizations seem to think that they have graduated from management into leadership.
I do not dispute that a new set of skills is required to effectively lead at the top of an organization. My assertion is that leaders need to lead in addition to managing.
Leaders still have employees. The CEO of a company supervises the VP of Sales, Marketing, Production, etc. The County or City Manager of a government supervises the Deputy Managers and the heads of Finance, Law, Communications, and so on.
Those employees still need management. No matter how high you climb in the organization, you are not special. You don't get to say, "The people at the bottom of the organization need feedback, coaching, and guidance on their work. I, on the other hand, am responsible, so it would be an insult to try and manage me." The people at lower levels of an organization have just as much pride in their work as the people at the top. They are just as responsible for their duties, just as committed. The people at the lower levels benefit from guidance, coaching, feedback, and regularly communication with their boss. The people at the top get exactly the same benefit.
The feedback formula described in this blog works just as well for the CEO speaking to their VP as it does for the evening shift supervisor speaking to a cashier. The feedback formula is structured for one responsible adult speaking to another responsible adult. Positive feedback is not a praising pat on the head. It is information describing how to continue doing effective work in the future. That kind of communication is valuable and necessary for everyone in the organization.
One-on-ones, if anything, are more important the higher you go in the organization. Frontline supervisors have the benefit of directly observing the work of their employees. Move even one level up, and that awareness is dramatically reduced. A regional director, almost by definition, is rarely even in the same physical location as the managers they supervise. It becomes nearly impossible to maintain a clear understanding of your employees' work without the benefit of regular check-ins. Speaking for myself, the vast majority of my bosses have had next to no clue what I did with my time, much less how well I was doing it. The one exception was the boss who did weekly one-on-one meetings with me.
The benefits of feedback and one-on-ones apply equally at all levels of the organization. A weekly meeting with direct reports will dramatically strengthen communication and provide a convenient place to hear about your employees' work, provide feedback, course correct, answer questions, etc. Casual, frequent feedback will encourage better, more effective work and provide employees with certainty about their actions. These outcomes are just as important to C-suite employees as they are to frontline staff.
The average executive thinks they are exempt from being managed or needing to manage their people, even while they claim that people below them need active management. Better bosses realize that this point of view is elitist. They have the humility to understand that good management is good management no matter your position with the organization.
Wednesday, May 5, 2021
Actions to take: Adapt the script below for your own purposes before you transition to giving small, frequent feedback to your team.
Better-boss.com advocates for casual, frequent performance feedback using the following formula: 1) ask if you can provide feedback; 2) provide feedback using the format "when you do X, it has Y impact"; 3) finish with a question asking them to change or an affirmation that they should keep it up. Feedback is short, simple, and can be about any work behavior. All posts about feedback assume this formula and strategy.
In the second post about rolling out feedback, I promised a script for you to use when you announce this change. This post makes good on that promise.
The following is a complete script that one might use to explain the change from infrequent feedback on major accomplishments and issues to frequent feedback on the details of work. I strongly encourage you to take the two following pieces of advice.
First, do this live, ideally in a staff meeting with all of your direct reports. Hopefully you have regularly scheduled all-staff meetings already on the books. This is an ideal topic for one of those meetings. Less ideally, you should call a meeting solely to roll out feedback. That is still better than the worst option, which is to put this in an email. Live communication is best for announcing any important change.
Second, adapt this script. This is written in my voice based on how I naturally speak. It is written with certain assumptions about how my team expects me to talk. If you use this script as-is, you will sound weird to your team. Instead, take this script as a model. Even if you rewrite it sentence-for-sentence just making little changes, it will sound much more natural.
Feedback Rollout Script:
With this next agenda item, I'm going to explain a pretty significant change to how I've been managing you.
Starting three weeks from now, I am going to make a tweak to how I comment on your work. I am going to start giving you each more feedback about the work you are doing. We are all used to getting feedback on major things that happen, good or bad. We will keep having those conversations. In addition, though, I am going to start giving feedback on your everyday work, the small things. It might sound like this, "Hey Ben, when you turn in your part of a project ahead of time, a couple things happen. It helps your coworkers, because they get to see what you've done and match their work with it. It also means I get to report that we are ahead of schedule on projects, which everyone likes to hear. Keep up the good work." I am making it a personal goal to give each of you at least one piece of performance feedback every week.
You are probably wondering where this is coming from. Just like you all, I'm always looking for ways to get better at my job. I've been learning about things I can do as a manager that will make a real impact. The best management resources I've found all spend a lot of time on feedback. They talk about how the average employee barely gets any feedback about their work and doesn't really know what their boss thinks of the things they are doing. That's certainly been my experience throughout my career. You all may or may not admit it in front of me, but I bet you feel that way too.
I've learned that bosses who give a lot of small feedback are far more helpful to their teams, and their teams get a lot more work done. Rather than storing it up for the evaluation or only talking about stuff that is big enough for an evaluation, the most effective bosses give feedback on all sorts of work behaviors, the little details that make things run smoothly.
Because it is small stuff, it isn't so intimidating to get feedback. That's the idea anyway. Look, I know what it's like when the boss comments on your work--I'm an employee too, after all. Going forward, "feedback" from me is not a big deal. It isn't going to be about me judging you. My goal with this kind of feedback is to help. Most of the time, it will be me saying "Yes, that is an effective thing you did. Keep it up." When you do something well, I want you to hear about it so that you know it's worth doing. From here on out, try to think of feedback from me as advice, not as a judgment.
While we're on the subject of what feedback isn't, feedback is also not about me just saying "good job." You are all doing great work. But my goal with feedback is about telling you what is effective. I will be working to make these comments meaningful and instructional. When you get feedback from me, I will be telling you something I think you should continue doing or something I think would be more effective if you changed. I won't be patronizing anyone with platitudes. I'll be giving you information about how to do your best work.
Based on everything I've learned recently, employees benefit from having a manager who gives frequent feedback about small things. Once I thought about it, that made a lot of sense. Let me ask you this: if you are doing something that I think isn't effective, when do you want to know about it? Do you want to know right away, or do you want me to wait until I've seen you do it wrong 4 or 5 times? (engage in answers) On the flip side, if I see you doing something and think, "Yes, that's a good way to go about it," do you want to know that too? (engage again)
The idea of getting more feedback from your boss is scary for most people. I know that. Once you see it in action, I'm hoping that anxiety will fade away. So let's talk a little more about what it looks like.
When I see you doing something effective or something I'd recommend that you change, the first thing I am going to do is ask you if you'd like some feedback. This is another change from how it usually works. Like I said above, feedback from now on is advice for you, not judgment. If you're not in the right mood to take advice on your work, that's no problem. I'm not ready for advice sometimes too. To make sure I'm not getting you at a bad time, I'm going to ask, "Can I give some feedback?" Please say "no" if that's the honest answer. Another nice thing about giving feedback about small stuff: it's no big deal if we miss one or two. The opportunity will come around another time.
If you say yes, I'm going to phrase my feedback like this, "When you do X, it has Y impact." You'll always hear that structure in my feedback from now on. I know it seems a little silly to be so formulaic about it. I'm going to do it this way because I want to make absolutely sure I'm explaining why the thing you are doing is effective or might need some changes. I'm not saying "Do this. Don't do that." I'm saying, "Here's what happens when you do this." It's up to you what you do with that information.
Then, I'm either going to tell you to keep it up or ask you to work on it.
All together, here's what it sounds like:
- Hey Ben, can I give you some feedback? When you make eye contact with various audience members throughout your presentations, it keeps them engaged. Keep it up!
- Hey Ben, can I give you some feedback? When you make "the ask" very clear at the top of your email, it saves me time. Thanks for that!
- Hey Ben, can I give you some feedback? When you keep your cool with angry customers, a couple things happen. First, you stop the situation from escalating even further. Second, you make the interaction go as smoothly as it can, which means less work and frustration for everyone. I know it isn't easy. I'm impressed.
You've probably noticed that all examples were about good work. The word "feedback" doesn't just mean "bad news." In fact, I plan to only give positive feedback for the first several weeks until we all get comfortable with these interactions.
Here are a couple other details about feedback:
- No audience. I'm not trying to make an example of anyone, positive or negative. When I give feedback in this way, it is just for you, so these conversations will be just between us.
- Short. Feedback doesn't have to be a big, scary discussion. 30 seconds is all the time it will take, then you are right back to whatever you were doing.
- Casual. I've mentioned this a couple times, but it is worth repeating. These quick feedback conversations are not a big deal. They're just small pieces of advice. I don't want you staying up at night thinking about them or anything like that, okay?
After this explanation, I hope you all understand that this is a pretty different way to manage than you're used to. This is new for me too. Like any change, there is going to be a transition period where it feels a little awkward. I'll do my best, but please forgive me if I stumble through it a bit at first. That's part of the reason I won't be starting for another 3 weeks. I want you all to get used to the idea before it goes live. During next week's one-on-ones, I'll touch base and see what you all think, and I'm available any time to answer any questions that pop into your head over the next few weeks.
What questions are coming to mind now? (engage in discussion)
Note from the author: if you end up using this script as a basis for your rollout, I would love to hear about it. Send me a message in the contact form on the right or comment directly on this post.
Monday, May 3, 2021
Actions to take: Virtually all bosses should do weekly one-on-ones with virtually all employees. The argument that it is "too much work" is an indication of prioritizing the wrong tasks.
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.
How would you react if I said that you can do 75% of your job in 10 hours per week?
This blog is not about get-rich-quick-style managerial schemes. Good management requires hard work every day, plain and simple. However, the one sensational statement I am willing to make is this: if you are a manager, you can get 75% of your job done through effective weekly one-on-ones. If you have 10 employees, that's a 30-minute meeting, with about 30 minutes of prep and follow up throughout the week for each, or 10 hours of work for 10 employees. Even if you double the number of employees, 75% of your job done in half of a standard work week is still a great deal.
The biggest argument I hear against weekly one-on-ones is that managers don't have the time. That extra task feels like a huge burden for the already-overburdened boss. The fact is, everyone in this world has the same amount of time each day. These managers don't have a problem with time; they have a problem with priorities. To put it bluntly, they aren't managing effectively. When you put your time into the thing that matters most (helping your employees become more effective), every element of your team's work becomes easier.
One-on-ones replace other work, and they do it far more efficiently than any other means. Most bosses are backwards-thinking about managing people. They spend most of their time on "my work" and will "help my employees with their work" around the edges. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to manage. If you manage more than 3 people, your mindset should be, "My job is to make my employees more effective at their work. I will do other tasks with whatever time I have left over."
Managers who are overworked without doing one-on-ones are doing the wrong things. Once you fully accept the premise "My job is to direct others' work," your perspective on your work vs your employees' work completely shifts. The bulk of your work is almost certainly tasks that could 1) be done far more quickly or 2) be done by your employees. I suspect that you are doing a lot of work that your employees already do. You save the hardest or most important parts for yourself because you don't trust your employees to do them right. Spend your time learning how to assign work and follow it up effectively rather than doing it yourself.
There is mathematical proof that weekly one-on-ones are a smart use of your time. Let's say you have 4 employees. Let's say that you can make their work 10% more effective by engaging in weekly one-on-ones. Remember what you are doing in these meetings: giving feedback, coaching, checking in on work, nudging them in the right direction, clearing up vagueness about tasks or new directives, etc. A 10% increase is an extremely low estimate of how much you will improve their effectiveness. With 4 employees, a weekly 30-minute meeting plus 30-minutes of prep and follow-up throughout the week comes out to 4 hours of your time. A 10% improvement in a fulltime employee's work comes out to 4 hours of additional productivity per employee. You are getting 16 hours of increased productivity for a 4 hour investment of your time.
Once the figures are laid out, it is hard to believe how few managers focus their time on making employees more effective.
The average boss sees weekly one-on-ones as another task to add to their ever-growing list of things to do. Better bosses understand that one-on-ones are about getting work priorities straight. They know that work for the entire team becomes easier when the boss spends time helping their employees.
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