I’ll bet you’ve experienced it, too. It seemed as if every few years a new leader would come along saying, “I really care about you. I’m going to work with you to make this a great place to work!”
They probably meant well, but in the end the “tyranny of the urgent” drowned out their good intentions and it became “business as usual”. Promises are made and broken, with the obvious casualty being trust between managers and their teams.
Consider a recent poll finding that given the choice, 58% of employees would trust a complete stranger before they would trust their boss. Yikes.
Fear and distrust – we clearly have a relationship problem.
If there is anything I have learned in 30+ years of leadership, almost 27 years of marriage and the raising of 4 children, it’s that where there is no communication there can be no trust. One on one meetings with a little structure can help build the kind of relationships that make work a productive, meaningful and fun place to be.
So where should you start?
About a year ago I was asked to lead a department I hadn’t led before. I knew the staff, but I had never been a part of their team. Because we had experienced a fair amount of change in our company, much of which didn’t actually make anyone’ lives better, the staff had an understandable cynicism when I announced we would be doing regular one on ones. They weren’t angry about meeting together, but they needed to be convinced the meetings would make a difference. It was my job to make sure they did.
Several months after implementing our weekly one on ones, one of my staff commented:
I know what my manager thinks of my work because we have been checking in all along the way. I know what is required of me and I know I always have an open line of communication when things don’t go to plan. It has energized me and freed me to get stuff done without worrying. I am much happier and more motivated than I have ever been in my professional life.
And as a manager, I felt the same way! So here are some of the guidelines I used to help break down the walls that separated me from my staff:
1. First, try to understand each person as an individual
Years ago a counselor friend of mine helped me understand that every person I interact with will bring three things with them:
- Their personality (who they were created to be)
- Their perspective (how their experience has affected them)
- Their pathology (the dysfunctions they carry because of negative experiences they have walked through)
This was super helpful for me as I started my leadership journey. While I am a big proponent of several personality inventories, (particularly StrengthsFinder, the DiSC Profile, the Birkman and the Enneagram), my friend’s perspective helped me more fully understand people as individuals. From there, I was able to adjust my approach to each staff member.
Each member of your team also brings what they are currently experiencing to the table. Think back to your own experience. How was your job affected by these events?
- Having a child
- Health problems
- Family issues
- Relationship problems
- Financial difficulty
- Other stressful circumstances
If you’re anything like me, these events took a toll on my productivity and my general demeanor. The same is true for you and your staff. I’m sure I didn’t come up with this phrase, but I’m fond of saying, ”Behind every set of eyes there is a story.” So, when entering into your initial one on ones, prepare yourself by recognizing that there’s a drama going on in the lives of every person you meet with. And remember, people love being known and appreciated for their uniqueness.
2. Ask questions
In his book “It’s Your Ship“, Naval Captain D. Michael Abrashoff explains how he took a ship that had one of the worst performance records in the Navy to its top performing boat. He started the transformation by meeting with every crew member on the ship, where he asked them 3 questions:
- What do you like best about this ship?
- What do you like least?
- What would you change if you could?
If you’re interviewing 300 people these questions are great – short, and to the point. But I was trying to build trust with teammates I’d meet with regularly. Are these questions the right questions? The short answer is yes. But I expanded them a bit.
- Start with a simple “How are you?” or, “How was your weekend?” This may seem like a filler question, but over time it helped me get to know my team. Initially I might get a “fine.” But as I was willing to share a little bit of myself it was clear they felt more comfortable sharing the details of their own lives. Over time, they got to know me and I got to know them, and knowing and understanding someone is the foundation for trust.
- Ask what they like best about their job. When do they feel most productive? When do they feel like they’re using their strengths most effectively? For me, I’d eventually get to the place where I would ask them to brag a little. “What are you most proud of accomplishing last week?” It was a great way to break down the “what bad thing is my boss gonna say” barrier.
- Ask what makes their job hard. It could be processes, office dynamics, their slow computer or the chatty guy that sits next to them. It could even be certain parts of your leadership. The key here is to engage them in an honest conversation about what makes their job difficult.
- Ask them what they would do if they were in charge. How would they fix the problems they see? This might lead to a very interesting discussion about problems they see that you don’t see. I have learned a lot about my company by asking questions like this.
- Ask about their career goals and aspirations. I didn’t ask this question in the first meeting with each member of my team. If they were generally open and seemed to enjoy the interaction I would ask. Some people, however, were tentative in our initial interaction, so I just let them know that “at some point I’d love to hear what pumps you up. Maybe even where you see yourself in 5 years.” Putting this question off to a later date gives them time to formulate an answer, and it gives you time to build the relationship.
3. Listen to their answers
I know – this one seems obvious. In Steven Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, habit #5 is absolute genius:
Seek first to understand, then to be understood.Steven Covey
People are smart, and if they think you’re asking questions because you’re trying to simply gather information, or worse, so you can use the information against them, you will have undermined the whole process. It’s important to be an active listener in this process. Ask follow-up questions. Talk about how their ideas might be implemented. By diving in with them and listening you will help them understand that you value not just their contribution in the present. You’re interested in them – their obstacles, their growth, their development, and their ideas.
For instance, when they answer the “What makes your job hard? question, you might listen to their answer and ask a couple questions:
- “Tell me more about that problem?”
- “Do you have any ideas how we might make things easier?”
- “What can I, as your manger, do to help?”
There is nothing particularly insightful about the questions, but remember, it’s vitally important that you become an active listener, and that you let your staff know you’re engaged with them in solving the problem. Caution: This is not the time to solve the problem. Resist the urge to be prescriptive. Getting them to share what they are experiencing is the first order of events. Build trust by truly understanding them and the issues that are important to them. Solving comes next.
4. Focus first on solving their problems.
Whether you’ve been managing for 30 years or 30 days, you’ve likely heard a team member say, “I wanted to ask you about this problem I’m having, but you’re so busy that I didn’t want to bother you.” There is only one way to address this statement:
“It’s my job to make your job great…to help you remove the obstacles on your path to success!”
As a new manager, I had the same thoughts many new managers have:
- I need to be the smartest.
- I need to be the best at everyone’s job.
- I need to know the answer to everything.
- My staff are here to help me.
The first time I was offered a “big job” where I was managing 12 leaders and an organization of 80 or so, I had to quickly rid myself of these lies. I looked around at my team and saw people smarter, more talented and just as invested as I was. My job was to listen to the staff and help them identify the obstacles that stood in the way of our goals. Then, I was there to help them remove the obstacles in our way. Not my way, Our way.
Sure, like most managers I did more than just manage. I had deliverables and goals I needed to accomplish, and I was accountable to a manager above me. But I realized early on that if I worked hard to solve my team’s problems, mine would be solved as well.
So in your initial one on one meetings, regularly ask your staff what’s tripping them up and how you can help. Look for ways to empower them so they learn how to solve their problems – this will help you in the long run, but it is essential in building trust with your team.
5. Keep at it!
Building trust with your team takes tenacity and hard work, and it doesn’t happen overnight. I would say that it took between 4-8 weeks to get in the groove with most of my team, and each person responded differently. Don’t be discouraged if your one on ones aren’t magical from the get-go. But don’t quit! As a leader it’s your job to create the culture that makes for a winning team, and your one on ones will create the foundation you’ll all need to succeed.