All employees want to know how they’re doing—and every manager needs to ensure they do. Not just in general or overall, but in detail, for each aspect of the job, each skill, and each opportunity for improvement. Not sharing that information deprives the employees, the team, and the organization of their potential improvements.
One on one coaching in a private meeting is a manager’s opportunity to talk candidly with team members about their work, encourage their efforts, recognize their achievements, suggest improvements, and offer help.
One-on-ones work best on a regular schedule. Quarterly is a good minimum but more frequently is often appropriate. A manager might choose to meet with a new employee daily, a team member having trouble once or twice a week, and a reliable long-termer only quarterly.
An office is an ideal space for the meeting, but almost any private area can work—the team member’s desk if private, a table in the corner, a conference room, a patio, etc. Sometimes ambient noise in a cafeteria or otherwise busy spot provides enough privacy.
M: Jackie, when you get a minute can you have a cup of coffee with me?
J: OK, I should be free in a few minutes.
Although Mike makes a point to meet with each of his team members at least once every 90 days, he doesn’t schedule the meetings formally; he believes that creates anxiety and raises defenses. Instead he approaches his one-on-ones as casual conversations.
Other managers do schedule formal one-on-one meetings and often ask their team members to bring reports, summarize the previous period, review progress on goals, and prepare a plan for the next period. That process is often suitable for managing managers.
A meeting with the manager is frightening for many employees; getting them to relax and speak freely is challenging. Most will carry on polite conversation but won’t share any significant information until they’re comfortable—and that can take some time and effort.
A casual atmosphere with coffee or a soft drink encourages open dialogue. Small talk, especially about something they’re passionate about, helps them relax and speak freely.
In a little while Jackie appears at Mike’s door.
M: Do you prefer coffee, latte, or Coke?
J: Latte sounds good.
M: We haven’t talked in a while. How’s life?
M: Is your daughter still involved in…?
J: Yes, she just.... We were really proud....
M: That’s impressive. How did she...?
M: Wow! It must be gratifying to see her do so well.
J: Yes, it is. [smiling now]
Children, hobbies, or favorite causes are good conversation starters. Sports teams, vacations, and leisure activities sometimes work. The weather and the news are weak topics, and politics are hazardous.
The old advice that managers should be distant with employees and avoid non-work topics is antiquated and offensive. It’s OK to get to know our team members—and care about them! We spend a large part of our waking hours with them, often for years, and we depend on each other. We need understanding and trust. If they obviously enjoy talking about a subject, asking and being a willing listener are basic human courtesies.
Nevertheless, there are sometimes topics that team members aren’t comfortable discussing with us. We should, of course, respect their privacy; those topics would be counterproductive in promoting conversation anyway. And, of course, any conversation bordering on sex or discrimination in any form is always off-limits.
Only after his team member is comfortable and begins speaking freely, does Mike move the conversation toward work.
He begins with a broad question to uncover ominous frustrations and dissatisfactions.
M: Are you happy with the way things are going at work?
Naturally he hopes for a positive response. When he gets it, he can move on to performance topics.
But he might get an answer like, “To be honest, ... [I was disappointed when…, my workload has gotten…, it’s not much fun when…, I don’t really enjoy…, the schedule has become more difficult now that…, I’m having trouble getting along with…, I was hoping I’d be promoted..., etc.].”
There’s no point in discussing an employee’s job performance and potential improvements if the employee is frustrated, unhappy with the job, or making other plans.
J: Well, actually there’s something that’s bothering me. I….
M: I see. I’m glad you’re telling me about it. Tell me more.
M: I understand. Anything else?
M: Have you thought about how the problem could be resolved?
M: OK, what if we…. Would that fix it?
Only after they’ve agreed on a plan or solution does Mike move on.
M: I know I miss some opportunities to thank you and recognize you for all you do but I want you to know that I appreciate you. You’re a key player on the team and I have a lot of faith in you.
J: Thank you, Mike.
Starting the performance conversation with compliments boosts a team member’s confidence and creates a positive atmosphere for open communication.
M: How do you feel you’re doing overall?
J: I think pretty well. I feel like I can handle....
Asking a team member for his opinion of his work is less threatening than Mike offering his own assessment.
In most cases, the employee is pretty accurate, and Mike only has to agree.
M: Yes, I think so too. What aspects do you feel you’re best at?
M: I agree. And I’ve noticed you’re also good at....
Acknowledging strengths builds credit to offset the discussion of potential improvements. If there are big improvements to be discussed, dwelling longer on strengths can be helpful.
If Mike conveys Respect for the employee’s work in his one on one coaching, the employee should be comfortable discussing where he could improve.
M: What would you like to do better?
J: Well, I have trouble with….
M: I see. Which part is the challenge?
J: I just can’t get….
Most employees recognize where their opportunities for improvement are, often better than we, as managers, do. If we’ve created a trusting atmosphere in our one on one coaching, they’ll typically recite a pretty accurate list. And, since they want to Improve, they should welcome our support and encouragement.
M: I understand. What do you think you need to get better at it?
J: Probably just....
M: That makes sense. What can I do to help you?
J: I think I know what to do but I’ll let you know if I need help.
Their ideas on how to make the improvements are usually the ones they’re most likely to implement.
Sometimes, we can provide help—a book, a video, a course, the assistance of another team member, time with an experienced coworker, etc.
M: Anything else you’d like to learn or become better at?
If a team member doesn’t mention an improvement Mike has in mind, he can bring it up.
M: How do you think you do with...?
J: Well, I could probably do better at that.
M: In what way?
J: I think I could....
An additional question or two usually evokes an opinion Mike can agree with.
However, occasionally in one on one coaching, a team member thinks their performance is better than...