Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Panel Interviews are Here to Stay

As we acknowledged in the previous post, panel interviews are miserable. In our next post, we will explain best practice for participating on a panel. In this post, we will help you come to terms with the fact that panel interviews are here to stay.

Let's talk about why panel interviews exist at all. There was a time not so long ago when typical procedure was for a manager to run the entire selection process, back to front, on their own. They might even be responsible for recruitment of the position. They would assess the applications, decide who to phone screen (and what questions to ask), decide who to bring in for interviews (with complete autonomy about how to conduct those interviews), and make the choice on their own. 

This was typical practice. Virtually no oversight at all. The manager did whatever they wanted in the interviews and made selection decisions based on whatever criteria they felt like. It is abundantly clear now why this was such a terrible practice. Every manager thinks they know exactly how to spot the right person for the job. They don't. It is a huge problem today, even with carefully developed hiring processes, training on bias, and oversight every step of the way. The issue was immeasurably worse back when bosses were off the leash. 

The fact is, people tend to hire people who look, think, and act like they do. Since white men predominantly have been in management positions, white men tended to continue being hired. It is not that white men are trying to just hire white men (usually). It's that, because they tend to have a common set of experiences and understanding of the world, the answers a white man gives will resonate more easily with another white man. This is true of anyone. Black women will tend to have an easier time connecting with other black women, people who speak English as a second language will have things in common with other ESL individuals, etc. (Note: Using a structured interview with behavioral interview questions will help keep the conversation exclusively on job-related information, cutting down on this problem considerably.)

One very obvious way to fight this bias is to get more opinions involved. The logic is straight forward. If you want to ensure that your organization hires a diverse and varied group of individuals, make sure that a diverse and varied group is doing the hiring. Hence, panel interviews. 

The logic is so direct that, regardless of how well panel interviews actually achieve the outcome, they undoubtedly appear to help. It became a legal liability not to do panel interviews—if only one person did the interview, a candidate could argue bias based on some protected class. If the panel was made up of a diverse set of individuals, it becomes much more difficult for a candidate to claim they were discriminated against, even if the organization continues to disproportionately hire white men.

Once one organization in an industry started doing panel interviews, everyone else followed suit. The others couldn't give the first company the competitive advantage of being able to say they were unique in the practice. It spread across industries, more quickly in those who are risk-averse about appearing to break the law (government industries, obviously, were very quick to take up the practice). Now, panel interviews are ubiquitous across the United States.

Thus, we have three very strong reasons to do panel interviews: 

  1. Bosses fail terribly at checking their biases. If left to their own devices, they tend to hire people similar to them, even if only unconsciously.
  2. It becomes a legal liability not to do panel interviews.
  3. It is industry standard. It is extraordinarily difficult to go against the grain, even if there is a better way. (And, let's note, this blog is not saying the old way was better. It was much worse.)

Winston Churchill is attributed with the quote, "Democracy is the worst form of government—except for all the others that have been tried.” Perhaps the same should be said of panel interviews. We're stuck with them. Look forward to next week, where we will explain how to proceed when you find yourself on one.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Panel Interviews are Miserable

I have had exactly one non-panel interview in my entire professional career. It was with the Executive Director of the library system I was applying for at the time, a position several levels above the one I was applying for. I had lunch with the director as part of a full day of interviews and presentations, all the rest of which had a minimum of 4 interviewers in attendance. Come to think of it, even my lunch was not a one-on-one interview—an HR person was present, though they didn't do much talking.

Panel interviews are near-universal for government positions, and the vast majority of for-profit companies use them as well. Even initial phone-screen interviews are often done by a panel of interviewers. 

Panel interviews are miserable for everyone involved. Candidates don't perform as well in them, the panelists are never satisfied with how they go, and they make the hiring process slow to a crawl.

Panels intimidate candidates 

Let's get something out of the way: good interviews are about assessing how well the candidate can do the job based on their answers (which, in turn, should be based specific examples from their past experience). If you are the type of manager to say, "I want them to be intimidated. I want to see how they react under pressure," then stop reading my blog. There are too many things wrong with your view of the manager-employee relationship for you to get anything out of With that taken care of, let's explain why panel interviews are problematically intimidating to candidates. 

All interviews are intimidating. The interviewee is literally there to be judged. In an interview with a single hiring manager, that manager can set the person at ease somewhat by being a person themselves. A little small talk, a little humor about how interviews are awkward, etc. The candidate can see you as a human being outside of this situation. 

This is impossible with panel interviews. As the number of people in a room increases, the social complexity of the situation multiplies. There is simply not time for every panelist to make a connection with the candidate. They are only judges in the eyes of the interviewee. It is a sea of strange faces deciding your fate.

During the interview, the interviewee tracks reactions, body language, and so on from multiple people, not just one. This is automatic—most people have no way to turn this on or off. Invariably, some panelists will be giving off body language that throws the candidate. This has happened to me even in a two-person panel. I was mostly speaking to one interviewer who had been giving me open, positive body language. Then I glanced at the other person, who was stone-faced. It completely threw me. Had I been dealing with the stone-faced person alone, I probably would have had the presence of mind to think "Oh, this is just how they look when they're listening." Because I was interviewing with multiple people (and interviews are already a massive cognitive strain), I simply did not have the mental resources to process it.

Panels practically guarantee biased selections

Those of you who have participated on panel interviews, be honest: have you ever given your full, unvarnished opinion of the candidates during selection? 

The only person who can even think about stating their honest opinion is the senior-most manager in the room. Everyone else is at least subconsciously aware of the power dynamics going on. This isn't a matter of trust or openness. It is human nature. Yes, if you don't trust the senior-most person to reward candor, then of course you won't give your honest opinion. If you do respect them, though, then you will hold their opinion in high regard. You will trust their opinion of who to hire over your own, so you'll wait for some indication of who they liked. 

None of this necessarily happens consciously or intentionally. As a hiring manager, I've seen it many times with my employees. The moment I give any indication that my opinion varies from theirs, they start trying to see it my way. This happens in spite of the fact that I want diverse, honest opinions from them. It is the cursed part of management authority at play.

Panel interviews are tailor-made to select whomever the senior-most person likes. You will appreciate the irony if you are aware of the history behind panel interviews. They were originally put in place to promote diversity. 

Panel Interviews are a Scheduling Nightmare

This part is for all my HR folks out there. The scheduling burden typically falls to you. Thank you for dealing with it. 

Scheduling may seem like a small problem compared to the two above. It is in third place, but it is still a major organizational issue. The idea of a panel interview is that the organization gets a diversity of opinions about who would fit the role. You get the direct manager, a second manager, a coworker, someone from a separate department who would interact with the employee occasionally, and someone from HR to ensure nobody asks any problematic questions. Assuming a properly busy workplace, it will be a minimum of 3 weeks out before everyone's schedule is open. Then there is vacation to deal with. 

The day of, one person falls sick. Your organization has rules about how many people need to be on the panel. It can't just be anyone, either. We have to ensure that various roles are accounted for. Do we proceed with fewer people or swap in someone who doesn't technically fit the rules? Are we even allowed proceed? 

Panel interviews are a huge part of the reason that positions go unfilled for months, leaving work undone and the current employees overtaxed.

If panel interviews are so terrible, why are they so common? There are some very good reasons. Stay tuned, our next post will explain.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Brainstorming Sessions: Purpose and Facilitation

Actions to take: Use brainstorming sessions as a tool to help your team anticipate change. During the meeting: 1) Respond positively to any ideas and comments your employees make. Nothing gets a no. 2) Prepare questions in advance to ensure that the meeting doesn't stall. 3) Set ground rules that help your employees understand expectations for how to participate in the brainstorming session. 

A brand new process is rolling out at your organization in 6 months. You know it will cause a major shift in how most of your team will be doing their work. You don't have many details. How do you prepare your team? We've already talked about announcing before you implement any change. Since you're light on concrete information at this time, that strategy might feel inadequate. The other great tool at your disposal: call a brainstorming session. 

When done correctly, you get two major benefits out of a brainstorming session: ideas from the team and engagement from the team. The first one is what you might call the "surface-level" outcome. It is the obvious, stated purpose of a brainstorming session. Some of those ideas will indeed be useful once the change comes. 

The second benefit is often the more meaningful one. We've got a big change coming in 6 months. It is going to disrupt things. People's workflows will get pushed around—no one can be on autopilot anymore. We need employees to start thinking about this now, not 5 months and 3 weeks from now. If you don't do anything, the team will worry about it, sure. But most people won't engage in any kind of meaningful planning until the change is at their doorstep. A brainstorming session will push them to consider exactly how the change will impact them personally and what they might need to do about it.

That explains why you call a brainstorming session to anticipate change. Here's how to conduct one. Follow these three guidelines, and the sessions you lead will be more successful than any others you've participated in.

  1. Nothing Gets a "No": Brainstorming is not about making decisions or debating. It is about generating ideas. In our post about meeting topic purpose, we touched on this. Say "yes" to any ideas or thoughts your employees have. The purpose of this session is simply getting your people to participate in thinking about the change. You want to reward participation in any form. You don't have to spend 10 minutes fleshing out a bad idea. Just say "great!" and move on. 
    • Furthermore, do not let others pick apart those ideas. When an employee hears an idea that clearly won't work from their perspective, the natural reaction is to speak up about it. Cut them off in a friendly way: "We'll worry about how feasible these ideas are later on. For now let's just come up with as many as possible!"
  2. Prepare Specific Questions: Brainstorming sessions fail when they are too open-ended. People need a starting point for their thoughts. Even better is to have multiple starting points that you can run through one at a time. A few other tips:
    • Have your own answers to most of your questions, especially the early ones. "Lead by example" is an evergreen buzz-phrase for managers. Here is an opportunity where it is especially helpful. You'll get the ball rolling if the session stalls at first. The team will eventually follow your lead.
    • Start off with questions that you know that other people want to talk about. For instance, maybe your folks who deal with inventory are already complaining about this or that issue. Start off by asking what problems the change will create or solve relating to inventory management.
    • Have at least one question that relates directly to each unit or function of your team. Ensure that every person on your team contributes at least one idea during the session. Literally call on them if you have to. Plenty of people will passively wait for a meeting to end if you let them. We are going to guarantee that every single member of the team thinks about this change at least a little bit.
  3. Set Ground Rules: You know that we don't shoot down ideas and that everyone participates during brainstorming sessions. Make sure your team knows that too. If you explain in advance, the session will go much smoother. For instance, when an employee starts going over all the problems with the last idea, you need to cut them off and move on. You want to do it in a way that doesn't feel punitive and maintains the positive energy in the room. With a ground rule stating "Nothing Gets a No", the nay-saying employee will understand why you shut them down. They might feel a little dinged for having broken one of the rules, but they'll bounce back much more easily than if you shut them down for "no reason" (after all, they likely thought they were contributing useful information). 
    • Some managers don't like official ground rules in meetings, finding them overly stuffy and dictatorial. If that is your stance, no problem. Give a minute or two explanation of how you run your brainstorming sessions. Explain the behaviors you expect out of the team, just don't call them rules.

I have called brainstorming sessions when I had virtually zero information about the impending change. It has had major benefits in my career. This post has explained the benefits to your employees. The value extends beyond that. With big, uncertain changes, the management team almost invariably calls a meeting to decide what to do about this change. If you have done a brainstorming session about it already, you will have thought about the change much more than your colleagues. You will have the benefit of your whole teams' thoughts behind you. You are very likely to contribute solutions that will get implemented beyond just your team. 

Start using brainstorming sessions as a change management tool. You'll get your team prepared, you'll contribute to successful implementation of the change within your unit and beyond it, and you'll look good to your colleagues and superiors. 

Monday, October 18, 2021

Read Past Performance Appraisals

Actions to take: Read past performance appraisals for all of your employees before beginning to write this year's appraisals. To get your hands on them, simply contact HR. Couch your request in terms of keeping things consistent and avoiding upset employees. Examine those appraisals both for content and for style. Use what you've learned to inform your own choices about how to write the appraisals.

If you want to avoid tension, awkwardness, or outright arguments with your employees during performance appraisal meetings, do your homework. Read past appraisals. Read as many past appraisals as you can get your hands on.

The first time most of us wrote performance appraisals as a new manager, we had no real clue how to what we were doing. I am sure I would cringe if anyone made me look at the appraisals I wrote in my first management position. After a few years, though, we develop a sense for what is expected of us and how we prefer to do them. Like any new task, a little experience makes it feel familiar.

When you switch roles, the latter is just as likely as the former to land you in hot water with your employees. Just as you have developed certain assumptions about how performance appraisals are written, employees have developed their own assumptions about what to expect. Your assumptions are not going to match your employees' assumptions. Any time you and your employee have conflicting expectations about how a thing will go, you are in for trouble.

The solution to this problem is obvious: understand your employees' assumptions about performance appraisals. To do that, simply review as many previous performance appraisals as you can.

Getting your hands on your employees' past appraisals is easy, though virtually no one ever does it. Just contact HR and ask. It will be unusual, but it should be welcomed. Here is how to spin the request.

More than anything else, HR wants to avoid anyone making waves. It's not that HR wants to avoid work. It's that they are extremely risk-averse. Anything new is something that an employee could take issue with. Your way of writing appraisals may be objectively better than the do-nothing boss who was in your position for 10 years before you. To HR, that change still represents the possibility of a complaint, no matter how much of an improvement it is.

So when you ask for your employees' performance appraisals, just couch it in terms of consistency: 

"Hi [HR contact], how are things? Busy as ever? ... Yea, I hear that! Anyway, I'm wondering if you could help me out with something. Would it be possible for you to send me the about 5 years' worth of appraisals for each of my employees? As you know, I'm new to my current role. I know performance appraisals are still about 3 months away, but I'm trying to get a head start. I want to make sure that those meetings go as smoothly as possible. I also know that it can be jarring to have a new manager, especially when it comes to appraisals. Suddenly, the whole appraisal looks completely different: the way they write it, the aspects of the job they focus on, everything.

I want to avoid being that kind of boss as much as possible. I'd like to have a look at past appraisals so that I have a good, clear understanding of what my employees expect out of an appraisal. Obviously, I'm still going to write the appraisals based on what I personally have observed throughout the year. But if I review past years' appraisals, I can at least do it in a way that is familiar to the employee. 

When I've done this in the past, I've found that employees are much more accepting of the appraisals, the appraisal meetings go more smoothly, and we are able to wrap up the process and move on more easily. So would you mind helping me out?"

With that explanation, HR should be delighted to assist.

Once you have the appraisals, review them for two things: what past managers wrote about, and how they wrote it. Some managers and appraisals systems expect detailed narratives, others bullet points, still others no explanation of the scores at all. You will want to know what your employee's are used to. While I don't recommend that you ape a badly written appraisal, it is politically smart to alter your own appraisal style to match employees' expectations at least somewhat. You may still choose to write more or less than past managers, or write it in a different way. Simply knowing that you are making a change is valuable information, however.

Second, it is vital to know what past managers focused on in employee appraisals. This is obvious for poor performers. Have these issues been addressed in the past? How much? In how many appraisals? The previous boss may have ignored some issues that you will need to touch on in this coming appraisal, but you will be more prepared knowing that one way or the other. 

The content of past appraisals is even more important to know for good and excellent employees. The first time you do an appraisal, you are not going to know what matters most to that employee. People have pride tied up in diverse and specific things. Some people are extremely proud of their creativity but see "professionalism" as a fairly meaningless metric. For others, being perceived as professional is central to their identity. Past managers have already made the mistake of ignoring the thing that matters most to that particular employee. You can see in the appraisals what things they focus on and intuit that those metrics are things you'd better spend time on as well.

Our script for HR says it right there. If you look up past appraisals, you are going to have less work and fewer fights on your hands. Virtually every boss writes appraisals assuming their way is the right way. Better bosses read past appraisals because they know that the "right way" depends on context and perspective.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Management Delusions: My Employees Will Come to Me

Actions to take: Accept the fact that employees only come to their bosses when the matter is urgent or extremely important. Recognize that those few interactions are not enough to meaningfully manage a person. Create an environment where your employees have regular, frequent opportunities to share and discuss things that are not just urgent or important problems. By far, the easiest way to accomplish that goal is through weekly one-on-one meetings.

Many well-intentioned but wrong-thinking managers push back against weekly one-on-ones. They see the weekly meeting as overly invasive, something that inserts them too deeply into their employees' work. In short, weekly one-on-ones are micromanagement to them. Invariably, when a manager takes this line in a conversation with me, they will say, "I have a great relationship with my employees. They know my door is open. If they need anything, they'll come to me."

The hard thing about convincing these managers is that, in a way, they are right. They are imagining capital "P" Problems when they think about their employees coming to them. Yes, employees will alert you to urgent business when necessary. Even generally unapproachable bosses will be told about major issues that need their attention.

Their wrong-thinking has nothing to do with that scenario. Their wrong-thinking comes from what they perceive as the purpose of their role. "My employees will come to me" springs from the school of thought that managers are primarily there to put out fires. It is in the same vein as "hire good people and get out of the way." Employees work virtually without guidance until a problem big enough for the manager comes along. Then, and only then, the manager steps in.

Managers who think this way want to have their cake and eat it too. They will fully agree with the idea that managers should be involved with employees work: coaching them, helping them develop their skills, ensuring that the team is working together effectively, etc. They don't realize that the two ideas are incompatible. They are. It is not enough to "be there if you need me." Try pressing one of these managers on when and how they do the aforementioned coaching, development, and so on. If they have a team of 10, they will be able to give, at best, three examples from the past month. If they work in a different location from their employees, don't expect more than one example in the past month.

One-on-ones are not "micromanagement." One-on-ones are "management." 

Managers who believe that their employees will come to them end up missing out on the majority of their employees' thoughts and opinions. You do not want to hear from your employees only when the issue is big enough for a manager to step in. Employees emphatically do not want to bother you. They will save little issues until they are big. It goes without saying, little issues are a lot easier to solve than big issues. Create a communication process that encourages employees to share little problems, not just big ones. Same with ideas. You want to hear about employees' little ideas. Little improvements might be worth more than big ones, frankly. You may be able to quickly implement small stuff, whereas big ideas take a big lever and a lot of time to get started.

Again, it is not enough to wait for your employees to come to you. You must go to them. By that, I mean that you must create a time and place for them to share thoughts with you regularly and frequently. 

Over time, they will learn to feel comfortable with the idea of just chatting with the boss about work. Eventually, a good chunk of them will come to love it. There is safety in knowing what the boss thinks about your plans for work. With weekly one-on-ones, an employee can briefly check in on all the little things that never felt big enough to "bother" the boss with in the past, but are nevertheless worth discussing.

They will start telling you how much they appreciate your genuine willingness to listen and that they have never had a boss reward candor before. This is the real goal with one-on-ones. You are working to build the kind of relationship where communication is easy, where it is bi-directional, where your employees will say what they actually think about all sorts of things instead of only sharing the unavoidable, urgent issues. 

One-on-ones are by far the easiest, most efficient way I know of to accomplish these outcomes. If you have a way to do it without one-on-ones, fine by me. But don't delude yourself into thinking "they will come to me" is an answer. 

Monday, October 11, 2021

Removing Distractions Series: Set Your Intention

Actions to take: Quit mixing little breaks into your work time. Instead, set ambitious-but-realistic goals for getting tasks done quickly. Use the time you save for real breaks that allow you to genuinely rest your brain. Take 10 minutes in the morning thoroughly planning your day. If that plan is disrupted, spend a few minutes rewriting the plan rather than just trying to play catch-up.

This is one entry in a short series about removing distractions from your work, inspired by the Cost of Distractions post from early September. There are both productivity and mental health benefits to removing distractions while working on anything that requires focus.

No matter the amount of work we have to get done in a day, we manage to sabotage ourselves. When our load is heavy, we feel overwhelmed and find ways to avoid getting started. When our load is light, we stretch things out to fill our day.

It might not be obvious, but both of these techniques contribute to mental exhaustion. On days where we are overburdened, we not only have a lot to do, but we add stress by putting it off. We do fun* things to put off work, like checking social media or playing a quick game of solitaire. These activities add task-switching costs to our time and mental energy. Light load days can be even more draining. Because we need to stretch, say, 3 hours of work into an 8 hour day, we take lots of little breaks. We are constantly switching between our actual work and fun* stuff. We might check the same Slack channel or news site a dozen times while working on a single task. 

*Note: These activities are not actually any fun. They are just ways to kill time because we are bored or because we are dreading how much work we need to do. 

Stop this nonsense. 

Set your intention for each hour of the day. Decide that you will spend a certain amount of time really working and a certain amount of time really relaxing, rather than constantly muddling the two. Here is a quick how-to:

  1. Plan your tasks at the start of the day. 10 minutes in the morning can save you hours of procrastination throughout the day. Go beyond making a list of tasks to do—decide how long each task will take and when to do it. People generally have the most mental energy available at the beginning of the day and lose steam as the hours go by. Whatever you are least interested in doing, schedule it as early as possible. You will be much more likely to get it done that way.
  2. Work ambitiously, take breaks ambitiously. Work well for 45 minutes, really step on the gas. Do 2 hours' worth of work in that 45 minutes. Then take a real break, something that relaxes and calms your brain. My default is music and a walk. You won't need the break every hour, but you are welcome to take it as often as you like. As long as you commit yourself to hard work during those 45 minutes, you'll still get more done than you used to. If your office policy doesn't allow this, it is a bad policy. (Frankly, if you are managing people, you are probably exempt. That means you are not paid by the hour—you are paid for results.)
  3. Rewrite your plan for the day when necessary. Some days, the curveballs keep coming. You made a plan to do x, y, and z by noon. 12:00 rolls around and urgent issues have kept you from even getting started. When you have a minute to breathe, step back and reconsider your plan. Simply trying to catch up is the wrong strategy. When you feel behind, it adds stress and pulls focus from your work. Instead, rewrite your plan. Decide what should be moved to another day. Get deadline extensions if necessary. Just like the 10 minutes in the morning, you will save time and mental energy by spending these few minutes reconsidering your day.

People are willing to put off work and take little breaks all the time, as long as it is not a "real" break. They will take several 5-minute breaks over the course of an hour to chat with someone, poke around on the internet, or play a quick game of solitaire. But the idea of taking a single 15-minute break each hour is clearly over the line for them. This is the opposite of effective behavior. They are constantly switching tasks and engaging in "always on" brain activity. That is how you burn yourself out. 

Instead, set your intention. Do your best, most efficient work. When you gain extra time because of it, use that time for genuine breaks, not time killers. You will be more productive, more effective, and you will feel better at the end of the day. 

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

One-on-ones: Five Minutes Before and After

Actions to take: During the one-on-one, take notes. Most importantly, take notes on 1) action items either of you must take, 2) feedback you've given, 3) problems that need to be solved. In the 5 minutes after the one-on-one, transfer those notes. Put any of your action items in your relevant to-do bucket; put a note to follow up on their action items in future one-on-ones; make notes to follow up with other employees if they might benefit from having a similar discussion. In the 5 minutes before your next one-on-one, review the planning notes you've made. Think about the best way to tackle each topic.

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.

If you have been following this blog since it started, maybe you have taken my advice and started doing weekly one-on-ones. Maybe you were already doing them. You've seen me write about how one-on-ones become the most efficient way to get "management work" done and how they become smooth, natural, almost reflexive over time. Perhaps your experience doesn't quite match up. Your one-on-ones still feel a little disjointed from one week to the next. They are going fine, but you want to take them to the next level. Here's how.

The very short version is: 1) take notes during the meeting, 2) transfer those notes to relevant places after the meeting, 3) prep each topic just before the next meeting. We will discuss the details of each in a moment.

If you spend this little bit of time before and after each meeting, you are going to see several improvements. First, the meeting itself will flow more naturally. Without this little bit of prep, there tend to be awkward pauses when you shift from one topic to the next. Second, there will be a sense of continuity between meetings. It can be very easy to discuss, say, a professional development opportunity one week, only to have that idea drop from your radar for three months. Third, you will appear more competent. This is a bigger deal than it sounds. When it is clear that the boss is ready for the one-on-one, most employees understand that as a signal that these meetings matter. If the boss isn't ready, it communicates the opposite message.

Fourth, and most importantly, you and your employee will both become accountable to the things you discuss in your one-on-ones. You will keep yourself accountable for the things you say you'll do. If you promise to look into an issue in a one-on-one, you'd better do it. These few minutes before and after are the easiest way to guarantee you will. You will keep yourself accountable for following up on status. You'll stop letting that useful-but-not-urgent topic slip through the cracks. You will keep your employee accountable for the things they promise to do. Again, without these few minutes, it is easy to let their missed action items slide.

Let's walk through an example to show you specifically how to do this. Imagine you are in a one-on-one meeting. Your employee spends some time talking about how they would like to get better about time management. They always seem to take twice as long as they intend to on every task. They mention how much respect they have for their coworker Wendy, who always gets things done right in line with her estimates about how long it will take. 

Step 1: Take notes during the meeting. Specifically, take notes on three things: 

  1. Action items that either of you agree to take as a result of the conversation. In this example, you might say that you'll both look for training opportunities over the course of the week. In that case, both of you have an action item to fulfill before next week's one-on-one.
  2. Feedback that you gave during the meeting. Here, you might give positive feedback that the employee is being frank about areas of improvement, that they are taking professional development seriously, etc. 
  3. Any unsolved problems. At this point, the employee's time management is an unsolved problem. The goal, of course, is to note it now so that you can successfully close the problem in the future. 
Step 2: Transfer those notes in the 5 minutes immediately after the meeting. 
  1. Start with your prompts for future one-on-ones with this employee. Obviously, you'll need to follow up in next week's meeting, since you both agreed to look for training this week. Also think about meetings further down the road. Make a note 4 weeks out and 8 weeks out. Has the employee taken any training? Have their skills improved? Are they satisfied with their progress (i.e. is the problem now closed)? 
  2. Transfer your action items to your appropriate to-do pile. For instance, perhaps you've marked out 10-11 am every Friday as your time to brainstorm employee development ideas. You would put this example into that timeslot's task list. Maybe you don't have anything quite so structured. Even so, figure out when you are going to work on it and transfer that action item. Don't rely on your memory, and don't let it get lost in the obscurity of past one-on-one notes.
  3. Consider other employee's future one-on-one prompts. In this example, it would be a slam dunk to touch base with Wendy. Assuming the initial employee is fine with it, you could even delegate some training to Wendy—have her come up with a 30-minute overview of her time management techniques to share with the employee.

Step 3: take 5 minutes before each meeting reviewing what you've planned for that meeting. 

  • The week following our example, you'll see your note to follow up on time management. Spend a minute thinking about how you'll present the training you found. Spend a minute thinking about how you will ask what they employee is worked on. (It is especially important to take this little bit of time if you suspect that the employee hasn't done anything.)
  • This step is even more valuable in the 4-week and 8-week portion of our example. You'll see that note from 4 weeks ago and say "Oh yea. How do I need to follow that up?" If you know they've worked on it, maybe your follow up is to give some positive feedback and ask how it is going. If you don't know what they've done, it's an exploratory question about what they've done. If you know they haven't worked on it, maybe some light corrective feedback about staying on top of their own development.

This all sounds basic enough that it may seem like you don't need to have some official plan to do it before and after each one-on-one. Keep in mind, though, we are using a single example here. If you are doing one-on-ones correctly, you have a minimum of 5 things to talk about, and that's just your half of the meeting. Multiply that by your number of employees...well, it gets very easy to lose track of things. 

If you are doing weekly one-on-ones, you are already head and shoulders above most bosses. This extra bit of work is going to send you even further to the front of the pack. Your employees may not comment on the change. They may not even consciously notice. But your one-on-ones will feel more natural and be more productive. You will be perceived as a manager who is always on the ball and never lets anything slip through the cracks.

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Monday, October 4, 2021

Removing Distractions Series: Turn Down Interruptions

Actions to take: When you are involved in a task and an employee interrupts, ask if it can wait. Don't make excuses about being busy. Simply pick a better time and ask if you can talk about it then. In any healthy working relationship, they will answer honestly. If you say you will follow up later, make certain that you do. 

This is one entry in a short series about removing distractions from your work, inspired by the Cost of Distractions post from early September. There are both productivity and mental health benefits to removing distractions while working on anything that requires focus.

Note: This post is written with the manager-employee relationship in mind. It works equally well with your coworkers. This advice is less applicable when the person interrupting you is above you in the chain of command.

When you manage people, there is enormous pressure to be available to your employees any time, all the time. "My door is always open" has become a cliché phrase in TV and film. The show will have a character say it genuinely to let the viewer know that this is a kind-hearted, supportive boss. If the character is a Michael Scott type, they might say this just before their door swings shut. Bosses who mean it when they say it are good bosses. Bosses who don't mean it are bad bosses.

Let's face reality. Your door is not always open. Literally, you have closed-door meetings all the time. When you see that your boss is calling, you close your door. When you have performance appraisal meetings, you close your door. When you talk to HR, you close your door. If you have ever said anything that resembles "My door is always open" then you are being naïve or hypocritical or both.

With that myth dispelled, let's face another reality: sometimes your solo work is more important than the thing your employee wants to ask about. Occasionally, it makes sense to ask your employee to come back in a few hours, or say that you'll follow up with them later that day, so you can continue with the train of thought you were already on. Here's the catch 22. You don't know which is more important until you've asked the employee what they want to talk about. And by the time they explain it, you're already in the conversation, so you might as well have it. Right? 

Well, no. 

We are, in fact, conflating two concepts. Important and urgent are separate ideas that should be treated separately. The question of which is more important, the employee's question or your solo work, is irrelevant. The employee's question could be of fantastic importance. That is all the more reason to wait until you are not distracted by other work. If you pause whatever you're doing, you will be in a state of mind to clear away the employee's question as quickly as possible to return to your task. That's a terrible strategy for dealing with important questions. 

If the employee's question is urgent, that's another story. So how do we judge urgency without getting sucked into the details? We simply ask if it can wait.

Employee: "Hey boss, can I bother you for a minute?"
You: "I'm right in the middle of something. Can it wait until the afternoon?" 

If you have a relationship that is built on frequent communication and trust, this exchange is no problem. You don't need to explain to them that you are so backed up and need to finish this and etc. etc. etc. Make the question perfunctory, make it unexceptional. We aren't pleading with our employees. It should be normal for you to deflect distractions when you are involved in a task that requires focus. Frankly, it sets a good example. We get better work out of people who become absorbed in a task and can work through it start to finish. Lead by example. 

As is my occasional habit with these posts, I'll finish with one caveat. If you don't do routine one-on-ones, you can't take the advice from this post. When you have a real working relationship with your employees, turning down their interruption is nothing. It's one interaction out of dozens they will have with you over the course of the month, and they know they have that time reserved each week for whatever is on their mind. However, if you are in the habit of only exchanging mundane pleasantries with your people, this interruption may be the only real interaction they have with you. In that case, it will be a big deal for you to say no. Your employee will leave with the message, "The one time I tried to bring an issue to the boss, they turned me down." Yet another example of how routine one-on-ones make all other work go more smoothly. 

When you're in the middle of something, turn down interruptions. Practice this over the next several weeks. Even if it is not strictly necessary, try it two or thee times each week to get into the habit. You'll find that the more you do it, the more natural it seems. If you say you'll be the one to get back to them, make good on that promise. If you ask them to follow up and they don't, double check. Most of the time, they'll say they figured it out on their own. Even better! You'll work better. You'll set an example of how to work better for your employees. And occasionally, you'll make less work for yourself. There is no downside to turning down interruptions.

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