Monday, May 24, 2021

One-on-ones: Reticent Employees

Actions to takeSchedule 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. 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.

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