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October - 2007 - issue > People Manager
Power-of-One-on-One-Conversations
C. Mahalingam
Monday, October 1, 2007
Imagine this scene: An employee coming up with a piece of folded paper in his hand, seeking a 5 minutes meeting with his manager. Manager receives the employee and glances at the A4 clutched in his hands. He exactly knows what is in store.. yes employee is breaking the news of his wanting to leave! Well in the technology era, more likely scenario is employee sending in his resignation by mail and the manager waking up to this bad news and summoning the employee for a chat. When this happens, our manager is willing to postpone another important meeting, reschedule his travel by a day, and perhaps is willing to spend a couple of hours talking to the employee concerned, getting the HR and other Senior Managers as well to talk to him.

Now, turn your attention to this employee wanting to leave. He is completely nonplussed by this unusual behavior although he can rationalize it! His account is that, “ well, I have been asking my manager for a one-on-one for 30 minutes for the last 6 months, and my manager has been too busy to grant me this! How come he is willing and able to spend hours together today?”

Power of Periodic One-on-Ones:
If you are a manager of people, then you should not be surprised by what is stated above. If you are part of HR, you would not be surprised either since this is what many exit interviews bring out. The power of periodic one-on-ones with employees cannot be overemphasized. One-on-ones are scheduled short meetings that first line managers are encouraged to have with their employees, one at a time. Assuming a team leader has 10 employees reporting to him or her, there still is a possibility to do one-on-ones with each of these 10 folks once every month. Collectively this will take a little over 3 hours per month but the amount of good will and information this will generate for the manager is immensely huge and invaluable.

Why these One-on-Ones do not happen?
The oft-quoted reasons by the people managers as why they do not hold these meetings are as follow:
* I meet my employees everyday in the course of work. I do not need these special meetings!
* Special meetings for HR teams to do, I know the pulse of my department like back of my palm!
* I know what employees will come and talk…. More money, faster promotions and they want change of roles. I do not need these meetings since I can accede to neither of these
* If it is urgent, employee will any way dash into my doors and talk. I do not have to assume they need these
meetings!
* I asked our employees if they believe one-on-ones are a must, and I did not hear from anyone that it is
* Well, I understand I can get to understand the employee personally during the first meeting, share some jokes in the second meeting, but what the hell do I do in subsequent meetings?
I have furnished an illustrative list and not an exhaustive one, just to drive home the point where our managers are coming from. Let me proceed to outline again an illustrative list of what can be done during these one-on-one meetings.

What can a manager discuss during the One-on-Ones?
Remember these meetings are frequent (recommended once a month) and short (for 20 minutes to max of half an hour, unless the conversation prolongs and both the employee and manager are okay with it). Some of the focused points for discussion are as below:

* Of course, understanding the employee, his interests (both in technology/work and outside in terms of pastimes), his energy levels (takes time to assess, but smart and trained managers can do this well)
* Employee’s experiences in his previous jobs. This will help the manager in understanding if the employee has any touch-points that he is too sensitive to.
* Employee’s aspirations and employee’s own assessment of how he or she plans to make it a reality. Clarifying the challenges and opportunities, preparations needed on the part of the employee, what time frame is realistic, etc., would constitute the manager’s contribution in these conversations
* Discussing the development needs of the employee with a clear focus on strengths and weaknesses as observed on the job
* Understanding what the employee is doing to continuously enhance the knowledge and learning off-the-job and encouraging the employee to enroll for memberships in professional bodies and networking forums or special interest groups both inside and outside the Company
* Sensing the moods of the employee during the conversation. A manager can only sense the difference and dramatic change in the moods if he / she has been in regular conversations in any case. These mood swings offer significant insight into the satisfaction level of the employee and offers a chance to address this to an extent it is within the manager’s control
* Understanding the special talents that the employees are endowed with. An example would be that the employee may have a talent for teaching or training and can be a potential candidate for the Internal Trainer program
* And not to dismiss the possibility that the employee may also bring up issues around his compensation or promotion. This is not something to be dreaded and avoided, but listened to and responded in a manner satisfactory to the employee. Communicating why the manager believes the employee is at the right level of salary and grade is at least much more satisfying and (reassuring in many cases) than completely skirting the conversation on this subject
* Listening to the employee aspirations for a change of role and discussing it in detail as to what would be an appropriate time to consider this. Most employees are reasonable enough to wait if a customer related reason is cited. What is key is to keep this in mind and do something about it proactively when the opportunity arises and not completely ignoring this discussion. The issue involved here is trust and genuine interest in the employee’s legitimate need for learning and change

What can HR do? What can Up line managers do?
I believe that both senior managers and HR can do their bit to help first line managers do these one-on-ones with all the seriousness it deserves. HR folks can assist in training the first line managers on how to do these sessions, what to discuss, boundaries around commitments that they can make. These modules are just a 2-hour investment but can prepare the managers better to do this well.

Senior managers are up line managers. They can do two or three things to leverage the power of the one-on-ones. Firstly, they can set an example by themselves doing the one-on-ones regularly with their direct reports. Secondly, they can leverage the “skip level” meetings with the employees to understand if these meetings are happening and share this feedback with their next level managers below them. Thirdly, they can mandate, measure and coach the managers reporting to them and ensure this happens.

After all, paying attention to people and listening to them can only help the organizations. A small, but powerful intervention is these One-on-Ones.

C.Mahalingam(Mali) is Senior VP and Chief People officer with Symphony Services Corporations. He can be reached at mahalingam.c@symphonysv.com
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