CLOs to Employees: We Need to Talk

One-on-ones aren’t always about performance — get to know who people are.

The phrase “we need to talk” often conjures up dread or fear. But in a working environment, a one-on-one conversation might be the very thing needed to improve leadership skills and job satisfaction. Our company’s research shows employees want to have more time with their leaders. Our survey found gaps of 10 to 16 percent between how often people actually meet with their managers compared with how often they wanted to meet.

For example, several years ago my wife, Margie, was working with a fast-food chain and learned its turnover rate was substantially lower than thenational average. She asked the manager what he was doing to keep the rate so low. At first, he said he didn’t think he was doing anything special, but further discussion revealed the answer: This manager made sure to take at least 10 minutes every week to talk to each employee. These conversations weren’t necessarily about job performance; they were just a conversation to check in with each employee to see how things were going.

After learning this, Margie talked to some of the staff. When she asked why they stayed, they all mentioned their manager and said they liked working for someone who cared about them. A few said they knew they could go to another fast-food restaurant and make a few more cents an hour, but theywanted to continue working for this manager. He made time for them, which in turn made them feel they were a respected part of the team.

Margie was so enthusiastic about this concept that she shared it with our leadership team and went on to develop a “one-on-one meetings” process. This process requires managers to meet one-on-one with each of their direct reports for 15 to 30 minutes at least every two weeks. These meetings are not to talk about performance or report on progress — they are meant to enhance the relationship between the manager and the employee.

The leader schedules the meeting, but the employee sets the agenda. It’s a chance to talk about anything: goals, share personal information, learn more about the company or ask for help to solve a problem. These kinds of conversations allow managers and employees to get to know each other as humanbeings.

We’ve found that when employees are not only allowed but also encouraged to talk with managers about their everyday lives — the good and the bad — relationships flourish and reach a new level of trust. Trusted working relationships improve performance at all levels.

As a leader, you might think you don’t have time to add more meetings, but you can’t afford not to take time for your people. If you have 10 directreports and can’t find an additional few hours to mentor and develop them, leadership might not be the right role for you. One-on-one meetings are a significant way for leaders to demonstrate they care. Time in team meetings doesn’t count. Only one-on-one interactions deepen relationships, create loyalty and build partnerships.

Spending dedicated time lets employees know their work is important and that they are valued members of the team. These conversations are the foundation for strong, productive relationships that align people with each other and with the work of the organization in a satisfying, meaningful way. 

Some might think it’s better not to get too close, and that it might make it too difficult to make hard decisions if there is an emotional attachment with team members. Consider this from an entirely different perspective: Having dedicated and consistent conversations will develop trusted relationships with your staff that might actually result in a competitive advantage in retaining key people. Also, when people are performing at peak levels, the need to make those hard decisions might be greatly reduced or even eliminated.

I encourage you to evaluate how much time your managers spend in one-on-one conversations with their people. Be a role model for your staff and schedule your one-on-one meetings today.