The purpose of a one-on-one is not to have a deep and meaningful conversation with your employee. It’s to inspire them to have a deep and meaningful conversation with themselves. You do that by keeping the conversation focused on performance, and letting your employee make the connection to personal themes.
These days, many managers try to take on the role of therapist, life coach or cheerleader for the people on their team. It’s well intentioned. We want to help people grow and, often, we’ve internalized cultural messages about caring for employees that can be quite confusing to implement in real life.
Said another way, when managers hear top-down messages about being “people-first” it’s easy to think that having personal conversations with employees is what you’re supposed to be doing. That can lead to disastrous results, with managers going over the line, probing and meddling in people’s lives with employees feeling pressured to go along.
It turns out that the fastest way to create a people-first culture is to have work-first one-on-ones. Because it’s how people show up in their work – with their teammates, with customers, with their manager, and with themselves – that either brings the team together or tears the team apart.
What makes a great one-on-one is not the depth of the conversation but whether it helps employees make the connection — for themselves — between what’s going on at work and what’s going on in the rest of their life.
Here are three things to keep in mind to make sure your one-on-ones stay productive and that you role-model a vulnerability and transparency that honors professional boundaries:
Focus on the impact, not the issue. The contents of your employee’s personal life are off limits. Though you may suspect, or even know, that there is something going on outside the office that they’re having a hard time with, it’s almost never appropriate for you to ask about it directly. The specific content of what’s going on is not your business. But the impact that whatever is going on at home is having on their work absolutely is. Here’s a template to start the conversation:
“Hey, so I get the sense there’s something you’re struggling with outside of work. It’s not that I don’t care, I do, but it’s not appropriate for us to talk about that here. But, whatever it is, it seems to be impacting your work and we do need to be talking about that and how we can manage this together. Okay?”
If you notice yourself working hard, stop. If you find yourself walking on eggshells, having to ask the same question from ten different angles, or feel like you’ve given feedback a few times and they’re not getting traction, use that as a cue to pause your one-on-one and name the dynamic you’re observing. Here’s what it might sound like:
“It may be how I’m saying it, I’m open to that, but I feel like I’m working really hard to get you to look at this pattern and we keep cycling. Do you agree? Is there something going on that makes this conversation hard to have?”
Don’t reinvent the wheel every week. Many managers, especially these days with all the focus on trying to help employees grow, put way too much pressure on themselves to have a life-changing conversation about personal goals and dreams in their one-on-ones. It’s far more effective, and less stressful for all involved, to focus on one theme and have that be an ongoing conversation over time. Here’s a way to frame it:
“So, what I’d like to do in our one-on-ones is to come up with a theme that we both agree is an area you can improve on over time. Then, we can use that theme as our baseline for our one-on-ones. We’ll talk about whatever the current projects and tasks are at the time and see if we can make the connection between daily life here and the overall theme you’re working on. Sound good?
To be a great manager you don’t have to be a therapist. You don’t have to be a life coach, and you certainly don’t have to be a spiritual counselor. All you have to do is to care enough about the person in front of you to talk with them about what you see that you think they might not. It’s their job to do the rest.
A great manager uses their authority to help others discover their own, to unlock their personal motivation to grow, and leaves the responsibility for change with the person who needs to do the changing.
Is there anything deeper and more meaningful than that?