Compassion means business – Part 2 Making One-to-Ones a PLEASURE


June 15th, 2016

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In my last post, I commented on two reports. The first, Mental Health England’s Taskforce Report, reached the shocking conclusion that 75% of those with mental health problems receive no help at all from the NHS. The second, the Leading on Mental Wellbeing: Transforming the Role of Line Managers report strongly suggested that we shouldn’t just rely on the NHS, but that line managers have a crucial role to play in spotting the early signs of stress and mental illness in employees. I brought in Roffey Park’s latest Management Agenda (Feb 2016) research that suggested senior managers can be deluded in thinking that their organisations demonstrate care and concern for the wellbeing of staff. I also mentioned Gallup’s research that suggests a direct correlation between care and compassion from a line manager with higher productivity, profitability, customer satisfaction and lower staff turnover.

UK PLC – ‘could do better’ – tackling the productivity crisis

The importance of this issue was thrown into stark relief for me again in the Chancellor’s UK budget announcement in March. In a radio interview afterwards, George Osborne could not hide the fact that UK plc’s productivity was still one of the lowest in Europe and was stubbornly refusing to improve. The UK also regularly appears in the lower quartile of employee engagement surveys – another factor that is impacted by the degree of compassion in the workplace. In this difficult global economic environment, can we afford any longer to ignore the possibility that compassion in the workplace might be an important factor in shifting these depressing figures and might even represent a competitive advantage for the UK if we can get this right?

Regular one-to-ones are, for me, the key tool through which line managers can create a caring, engaging and productive environment. But too often they don’t work in this way. In Part 1, I suggested that the occasional and informal approach was often not enough to either communicate care or spot the warning signs of mental ill-health. Nor are they very effective in managing performance per se. I suggested a more formal and planned approach might be more effective. But it all depends on the quality of the conversation, not a slot in your diary. So how can we make one-to-one conversations more effective?

About 15 years ago I helped a local council develop a series of concise line managers’ guides to improve their line management practice. I’d like to share the essence of the one-to-one guide we developed with you here. We can now offer a downloadable version of this guide free to your organisation (see link provided later).

A Time and a Place for us…Seven tips on creating a good one-to-one environment

Here are some thoughts on setting up an environment for a good one-to-one conversation:

  1. Book a series (and the venue) in advance – it helps people know that there is a time they can speak to you if they see you as too busy to disturb on other occasions.
  2. Get out of your office (if you have one) and find a more neutral space for your one-to-ones. This will help people relax more and probably means you are less likely to be disturbed.
  3. Choose a suitable venue where you won’t be disturbed. A local coffee bar or a walk together may work well, but usually a meeting room or office where you won’t be overheard is best.
  4. If you have to use your own office, extract yourself from behind your desk! Choose informal seating and chairs that are the same for both of you. Chair types can emphasise power distance.
  5. Agree on a mobile moratorium during your one-to-ones – if both of you can put your phones on silent, you are more likely to have a conversation that communicates care and attention.
  6. Make them regular – in general, every 4-6 weeks is probably a good guideline. More than eight weeks apart and they tend to lose continuity (your own organisation may have guidelines here). Consider more frequent one-to-one’s if someone is new to a job, has returned after a long absence (eg sickness or maternity leave) or there is a lot changing in the individual’s world.
  7. Try to allow at least 30 minutes for each meeting; an hour even better. You may not always use an hour but having it available gives the space to tackle unanticipated urgent issues.

What to cover in a one-to-one – making one-to-ones a PLEASURE…

You might do well to start with a genuine: ‘How are you?’ and an invitation for them to express what they would like to focus on during the one-to-one. It doesn’t mean you neglect what might be on your agenda, but it may give you an indication if there is trouble brewing that you may need to tackle. From then on, if you use the PLEASURE mnemonic below as a reminder of what areas to cover in a one-to-one, you won’t go far wrong.

  • PERFORMANCE – check progress against objectives; give feedback, praise and encourage. Address shortfalls as necessary, but get to know their strengths and search for opportunities for them to play to their strengths. You will dramatically increase engagement and performance levels if you focus more on strengths than weaknesses.
  • LEARNING – help them capture learning from everyday’ successes and failures – where the majority of development opportunities occur. Check how they are applying the learning from formal training; identify what further development needs they may have.
  • SUPPORT – check on workload & stress levels, offer support where needed; refer on if the person needs counselling or specialist support. Remember – business units with genuinely caring managers tend to report better business results.
  • RECORD – keep a simple record of what was discussed and the action that both you and the jobholder agrees. It doesn’t have to be too detailed or time-consuming. It gives you a good starting point for next time and a record that saves time at appraisal time. (See website for a template of a simple record form)

You may need to focus on just one of these areas in a particular session because of issues that have arisen since last time. But try to keep these four areas in balance over time.

Eight Pitfalls to avoid…

  1. Talking too much. Your staff member should be talking as much, if not more, than you.
  2. Turning one-to-ones into general briefing sessions. Save your briefings for team meetings.
  3. Treating one-to-ones as ‘dispensable items’ when the pressure is on. Often this is when they are needed the most. Protect them in your diary. It is a powerful way to communicate you care.
  4. Allowing one-to-ones to be completely dominated by monitoring an individual’s work so that their support needs are neglected. Not looking after your people is false economy.
  5. Focussing too much on weaknesses. Tackle unacceptable levels of performance, but spend as much time, if not more, on identifying and helping people play to their strengths.
  6. Waiting for a one-to-one to address an urgent performance issue. Deal with it straight away. Nip problems in the bud early and prevent time-consuming crises later.
  7. Giving some of your staff one-to-ones, but not others. Include everyone whatever their role, location or working pattern. Vary the frequency according to need, but include all in the process. Virtual team members need them just as much, if not more, as everyone else.
  8. Thinking that one-to-ones are more about a process and paperwork than a relationship and a conversation. Use the model above to give it structure, but don’t be a slave to it.

A challenge…

So – here’s the challenge – are your one-to ones a PLEASURE? Do they communicate compassion and emotional support? If not – make your next one-to-ones more effective using the guidance above or our handy line managers’ guide and one-to-one record form by following the links below. Who knows, in so doing, we might help relieve the burden on the NHS with a bit of preventative medicine and even do our bit to improve the UK’s GDP?

Making one-to-ones a PLEASURE – a guide for line managers

Simple one-to-one record form