Monday, January 24, 2022

One-on-Ones Resistance

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.

A 30-minute meeting is 1.25% of your time, assuming you work 40 hours per week. It is a drop in the bucket. Nevertheless, there are a great many organizations where a weekly one-on-one with your employees would be considered an absurd proposition. Here are three of the most common arguments people use to resist one-on-ones.

One-on-ones pull the employee away from "their work"

Whether you work in a highly functional organization or a dysfunctional one, there is too much work for the number of hours. We don't have time for a meeting every single week with no specific agenda or goal, just to "build the relationship." It's absurd to imagine.

My favorite version of this argument is that you, manager, don't have time for weekly one-on-ones. You've got 15 employees for goodness sake! That's 7.5 hours of your week, gone!! How can you possibly justify all that time spent? 

This argument is a lot of fun to challenge. Simply pull up notes from past a one-on-one and talk through each topic. Ask the nay-sayer "Was this one worth taking a few minutes to talk through? How about this one? And this one?..." Then go to the very next week with the very same employee. Invariably, they agree that there is no problem spending a few minutes on each individual topic. They agree that covering these details is highly relevant to helping the employee complete their work (therefore the conversation itself is part of "their work"). Then put the final nail in the coffin: this is a 30-minute meeting. A well-oiled weekly one-on-one will cover 8-10 topics a week for most fulltime employees. It is impossible to claim that 8-10 individual conversations would be more effective than getting it all sorted in a single 30-minute meeting.

The manager version of this argument is even more fun to respond to. What is the point of a manager, anyway? To make sure that the work gets done in a timely and effective fashion, right? To direct others' work, give feedback, coach them through any complexities they face, ensure changes are implemented smoothly, develop their abilities, check in on status of projects, etc. etc. Again, just turn to past one-on-one notes. Point out examples where all of this is happening every week under this management strategy. Challenge the nay-sayer to produce evidence that other managers are getting anywhere near this amount of managerial work done. (Bonus: we can also talk about outcomes. How is my department achieving goals relative to others? How many personnel issues come out of my department relative to others? How well do changes get implemented in my department relative to others?)

One-on-ones are "too formal"

As the argument goes, the employee and the manager could never have a meaningful conversation if they are locked in a scheduled, private meeting together. This feeling comes from all over the organization: the employee, the higher-ups, or the manager themselves. You might have this concern. You picture "calling the employee in" for a meeting versus just walking up to their desk to have a chat. Obviously, you think, the latter is going to lead to a more relaxed conversation. 

Our intuition tells us that line of thinking is correct. Empirically, it is simply wrong. First, employees never have completely relaxed conversations with their boss. Walking up to their desk to chat may feel casual to you. To them, it is an alarm bell as they mentally scramble to shift gears and try to anticipate whatever it is that you want ("Was I slacking off? Did I forget to do something? Is this going to take two minutes or twenty?" etc.).

Actually do weekly one-on-ones for a few months as this blog recommends rather than just imagining them in your head. When it comes to formality and employees keeping their guard up, you will see that the opposite is true. The weekly one-on-one is a rare opportunity for the employee to let the professional mask slip a bit and relax into their real self. Assuming, of course, you genuinely make the meetings about the relationship, genuinely spend half the meeting (or more) on whatever is important to them, genuinely reward their candor and show candor yourself.

The employee doesn't "need" them

This argument usually comes from an employee, and usually a tenured one. They've had a lot of ineffectual bosses who don't do much more than get in their way (though the employee would never say it that way). They'll assure you that, while the one-on-one is likely a wonderful thing for some employees, they are doing just fine. They know how to do their job. There's really nothing to discuss.

This argument is a polite way of saying, "I don't need to be managed." Average bosses find themselves giving into this argument because, put bluntly, they really can't figure out what they have to offer these employees. 

Do not let anyone tell you that your employees don't need to be managed. Even the highest achieving employees benefit enormously from regular check-ins with their boss. Let's imagine an extreme version of the situation: it is the perfect employee and you as boss have literally no guidance you can offer. The weekly one-on-one is nothing more than them letting you know the things they are doing and you letting them know they are on the right track.

This perfect-employee circumstance doesn't exist. But if it did, the one-on-one is still absolutely worth the time. Think about the benefits that are coming from even this stripped-down version of the meeting. The employee knows for certain that the boss supports their work. If things start to get scrutinized by higher-ups or other departments, they can say the boss has approved it. The employee's work is more effective because they can more forward quickly and with confidence. The boss knows what the employee is up to. They might hear of similar initiatives across the organization and be able to expand the employee's work and recognition—or even just do this in-department with other employees. The employee's work is more effective because it can be tied into departmental, organizational, or other employees' goals.

Wrap up

All of these arguments come from the same place. People make assumptions about how your weekly one-on-ones will go based on their (poor) past experience. Better bosses are constantly fighting the ghosts of average bosses. When you meet resistance to your one-on-ones plan, don't let it get to you, and don't let it convince you. Be prepared to calmly respond, explain their value, and be firm in your certainty that weekly one-on-ones are the single most effective way to manage your team.

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