Also in this compendium: How to handle an employee who cries and three stories to master
One-on-one meetings with your employees may be the best management technique you are missing. Julia Austin, chief technology officer at DigitalOcean, a cloud computing platform, is fond of them and offers a primer.
She starts with why they are vital. "Whether it's an hour a week or 30 minutes once a month, making time for an individual says you give a damn about them as a person," she notes. The one-on-one is also the only forum where you can have an honest, private conversation with the individual and find out what's really going on professionally and personally for both of you. It allows you to assess the employee – if your organization has annual performance reviews, it makes them a breeze – and to reduce ambiguity and mistrust.
If you start holding them, be transparent about your reasons so you don't create unnecessary alarm, making it clear you will be meeting with every employee – not just some targets.
"Book a regular cadence of one-on-ones. They should not be ad hoc. It's okay to skip one every once and a while, but having it locked into the calendar is your commitment to being there for your employee," she says. Decide the best routine with them – it might, for example, be weekly or every other week, 30 minutes or an hour. Also discuss the format, whether it should be your office or theirs, over coffee in a more neutral spot, or while sharing a walk. Different formats will work for different employees, she advises, and can be altered as you progress.
About 24 hours before the session, e-mail a list of what you would like to cover and solicit topics they want discussed as well. Ideally, you will focus on professional growth, building a personal connection, and giving each other feedback. "Do not use the meeting to rehash things from a group meeting or standup unless there are specific things you took off-line in that meeting, or need to provide/get constructive feedback," she warns.
At the start of the meeting, confirm the agenda, trying to prevent the employee from holding back on anything. If there are some hard things to discuss, try to put positive matters before and after so you don't end on a negative note. Be careful not to monopolize the conversation – each of you should be getting a chance to share viewpoints. She suggests ending by asking them how things are over all, and if there's something else you can do to make them successful. It may sound trite but if your employees are a success, you will be too.
Afterward, follow up with notes about what was discussed, what decisions were made, and if it came up, constructive feedback that will be measured over time. That will ensure you're both on the same page and can serve as an audit trail if things go awry.
"One-on-ones can make all the difference in how you lead. Your time invested in doing them right will pay off not only with each individual, but with how your organization functions as a team," she concludes.
2. How to handle an employee who starts to cry
So let's say you're in a one-on-one – or some other situation – and an employee starts to cry. That's an uncomfortable moment, to say the least, and many managers fumble it. On his blog, consultant Michael Rogers says your objective should not be to get the person to stop crying – unless they are hysterical or the crying is inappropriate – but instead to understand why.
He shared five things he has tried:
– Be quiet and listen: There's nothing you can say that can magically solve the problem or wipe away the person's feelings – and you could exacerbate the situation. "As awkward as it might feel, letting the person talk and cry it out is the best thing in most cases. The benefit to you is the trust it will create and the opportunity it will provide to help," he says.
– Don't make a scene: If you can, move to a more private area so co-workers don't see.
– Demonstrate empathy: Try to respond as you would want your manager to respond to you in such a situation, using caring words. "Strive to bless, not stress," he says.
– Be firm if needed: While you want to show empathy, if the tears result from a discussion of poor performance, don't lower your standards. He advises helping the employee understand you care about them but then providing clear expectations and direction on performance.
– Be aware of larger issues: The crying can be a symptom of deeper issues, at work or home. You can delve into the ones at work if the person wishes. Sometimes a listening ear is what's needed.
3. Three story structures to master
Managers need to tell stories. If that seems daunting, Carol Barash, chief executive officer of Story2, an online platform helping students with college application essays, distills it into three stories leaders need to master:
The numbers story: Data needs context. People's eyes often glaze over as you start talking about the all-important numbers. PowerPoint slides can make that worse. Instead, give meaning to the numbers by identifying trends and showing what the figures can mean for the company. Bring the data to life through such stories.
The vision story: She suggests the most important story a leader needs to tell is what the future looks like. "The leader takes people to the future by making it true in the present. The vision story is bigger than goal setting and much more compelling than projecting business outcomes. The vision story is the story you tell employees, investors, advisors, and yourself to generate creativity and belief in the present," she writes in Entrepreneur.
The bridge story: You need to share proof of your success in the past as a bridge to the future your vision has outlined. It shows that future is attainable and people can count on you and the company.
4. Quick hits
– What's your default meeting time? If it's an hour or even 30 minutes, consultant Kevin Kruse suggests thinking smaller. He notes that Ryan Delk, who leads growth at e-commerce company Gumroad, defaults to 20 minutes, considering anything longer an exception. In 2006, Marissa Mayer, then a Google wunderkind, revealed that to cram 70 meetings into a week she had to sometimes schedule 10-minute or even five-minute sessions.
– Trainer Dan Rockwell urges you to instill self-confidence in others by helping them to create a track record of progress; being an accountability partner by making commitments to each other; standing with others as they press through fear, since confidence comes after you move past fear, not before; and providing constructive feedback, since improvement fuels confidence.
– Information overload expert Nathan Zeldes recommends your company set a policy that any message longer than one screen – or some other reasonable length – must have a short "management summary" at the top.
– In organizational restructurings, don't assume employees are working at the right levels. Toronto-based consultant Ron Capelle notes that as employees move to higher levels in an organization, it's expected that their complexity of work will increase. However, often they perform the same complexity of work as they did at the lower level but are paid higher wages, and because they are comfortable with past work, directly micromanage and impede the workers below. Identify such situations and you'll improve efficiency while saving money.
– Research shows that people are most comfortable with eye contact of about three seconds with somebody else.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter