Actions to take: Come up with a question or phrase to use at the start of every one-on-one meeting. Pick something that makes it obvious to employees that you are passing the meeting to them to discuss whatever they want to talk about. When employees make a little fun of it, know that you are on the right track.
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.
When you step into your boss's room for a one-on-one, how confident are you that you know what happens next? If you are like the vast majority of employees, you are always a little unsure. You don't know how much time you will have for your stuff; you don't know what kind of mood your boss is going to be in; you don't know if they are going to hit you with some criticism of your work and spend the whole time talking about it; you don't know if the boss will have almost nothing; you don't know if the meeting will last 10 minutes or 70.
Now, how confident are you that your employees won't describe you the same way? Here's how you ensure that you put your best foot forward at the start of every one-on-one meeting.
Some of the answer comes down to being prepared for every one-on-one by having a list of things to discuss. Some of it is about keeping a professional demeanor. But a big part of helping your employees navigate the weekly one-on-one is to simply ask the exact same question every time you start a one-on-one.
My go to is, "What would you to talk about today?" but it can be nearly anything. "What's on your list?" "How's it going?" "What's new?" The "question" could even be a statement: "The floor is yours." The only requirements are that you say the same thing at the start of every meeting and that your employee understands it to mean that it is now time for them to talk about whatever they want to talk about.
When you ask the same question at the beginning of the meeting, it has three big benefits:
- It signals the start of the meeting. All meetings have a bit of preamble before they officially start. Usually the group chats until the last person arrives, at which point the meeting begins. In a one-on-one, obviously you will not start the meeting the moment the person gets in the door. At the very least, the two of you will say hello and give time for the other person to sit down. There is always a little bit of a void during the transition between greeting and meeting. This question fills that void.
- It circumvents awkwardness. You know that thing where you are walking toward someone and they're walking toward you, then you both step out of the way in the same direction? You end up doing a little dance as you both try to politely step aside for the other person. It is sometimes funny, always awkward. You'll get the verbal equivalent of that all the time in your one-on-ones if you don't have "your question" at the ready.
- It passes the conversation to them. This is the most important benefit. We want our employees to discuss literally whatever they want during their time in the one-on-one, unbiased by what we want to discuss. If you don't have a standard way of starting the meeting, you will end up influencing the direction of their topics. Even the seemingly benign "How was your weekend?" will alter the course of the conversation. They'll talk about what happened, and, to be genial, you'll respond with your weekend activities. Suddenly 10 of the 30 minutes is gone from the meeting. (Note: If the employee chooses to spend their time talking about their weekend, great! But it needs to be their choice, not yours.)
Once you start doing this, it will become a bit of a joke. Employees might comment on it to you or to each other. They might anticipate you, saying it first or saying it in sync with you and jinxing you until you buy them a coke. That is a good thing. It means that your employees get why you do it. It also means that they are comfortable enough around you to poke a little fun at your behavior. Many bosses never get to that level of rapport.
Bonus advice: What if you are the employee in this scenario? Your boss does one-on-ones but doesn't seem to know how to start them. You can fix this problem as the employee in nearly the same way. Come up with a question to ask your boss about the work: "So, have you got anything in particular that we should cover today?" Or, after pleasantries, find a statement that indicates you have a few things to cover: "I've got a few things on my list if we've got time?" Yes, this should be your boss's problem to fix, but you can pick up the ball if they do not.