Creating an Engaged Environment: 4 Ways and 5 Questions.

Let’s get this out there first; you can’t MAKE someone engaged. You can, however, create an environment where people can choose to bring their best and be highly engaged. One of the best ways to do that is regular 1-on-1 meetings with your direct reports.

I get it, time is the most valuable asset any of us possess. What we spend our time on, then, reveals what we view as worthy of value. Dedicating time to 1-on-1s create the conditions for engagement by communicating to employees on a consistent basis, “I care about you. I have a vested interest in you and your success.”

Why, then, don’t more managers use this valuable tool effectively, or at all? There are three main reasons:

  • They don’t know how to do them or are intimidated by 1-on-1 interaction, so they don’t schedule these meetings at all.
  • They’re holding 1-on-1s, but only as a status check to monitor progress.
  • They say they don’t have time, and this is by far the most common reason.

If you say you don’t have time to have regular 1-on-1s, you are saying you don’t have time to be an effective manager. Good, now you’ve decided to be an effective manager, here are four ways to use your 1-on-1s to do that.

1. It’s not about you

This is not a status update. Effective 1-on-1s are the team member’s meeting, not yours. Ask them to prepare the agenda (provide them with a worksheet or template, if needed). Say, “We’re going to be meeting next week. I’d like you to use this worksheet or one of your own to think ahead of time about the things you want to cover. There are a few things I want to cover, too, but we’re going to tackle yours first.” That kind of language and intent communicates that your team member and their work matters to you.

2. Energy matters

Don’t schedule these meetings at the end of the day when energy is typically low. These are important relationships and deserve our time, creativity and energy.

3. Personal concern

To the extent your team is comfortable, your communication should include the whole person and not simply their professional lives. Ask about their family, their vacations etc. You can’t fake this. You must be genuinely concerned and interested, creating a connection to the team member.

4. “Hold on, someone more important is texting me.”

For this meeting to be most successful, your phone should be out of site/mind. This goes for tablets, laptops, desk phones, smart watches and any other communication device that could interrupt the meeting.

This is a time to learn about problems you can fix to make work go smoother and more efficiently. This is a time to focus on what the employee wants to do next at the company and to give feedback on how to get there.

I don’t think there is any magic when it comes to the frequency of 1-on-1s. Weekly meetings are preferable, but bi-monthly and monthly meetings work as long as the schedule is kept. The duration can also vary. But at least a half-hour needs to be set aside for this to be effective. These meetings should not be rushed.

Besides creating the conditions for employee engagement, 1-on-1s are just as beneficial for leaders. Use that time to learn what you’re doing that’s working (and not working) to build your skillset as a manager. 

Even if the feedback is not direct, if you listen, you’ll learn. You’re part of this team, and you’ll benefit from the engagement, collaboration, and camaraderie of regular 1-on-1s.

Let’s talk about those 1-on-1s.

5 Questions to Ask

What workers really need, to feel engaged in and satisfied by their jobs, is an inner sense of purpose. As Deloitte found in a 2016 study, people feel loyal to companies that support their own career and life ambitions — in other words, what’s meaningful to them. No matter one’s level, industry or career, we all need to find a personal sense of meaning in what we do.

Leaders can foster this inner sense of purpose — what matters right now, in each individual’s life and career — with simple conversation. One way is to use  action identification theory, highlighting that there are many levels of describing actions. For example, I’m typing on a keyboard, that’s a low level. At a higher level, I’m helping improve employee engagement for your staff! As a leader, you want to walk your team members up the ladder and help them find meaning in even the most mundane tasks.

Regular check-ins that use five areas of inquiry are another way to help employees explore and call out their inner purpose. Leaders can ask:

What are you good at doing? Which work activities require less effort? What do you take on because you believe you’re the best person to do it? What have you gotten noticed for throughout your career? The idea here is to help people identify their strengths and open possibilities from there.

What do you enjoy? In a typical workweek, what do you look forward to doing? What do you see on your calendar that energizes you? If you could design your job with no restrictions, how would you spend your time? These questions help people find or rediscover what they love about work.

What feels most useful? Which work outcomes make you most proud? Which of your tasks are most critical to the team or organization? What are the highest priorities for your life and how does your work fit in? This line of inquiry highlights the inherent value of certain work.

What creates a sense of forward momentum? What are you learning that you’ll use in the future? What do you envision for yourself next? How’s your work today getting you closer to what you want for yourself? The goal here is to show how today’s work helps them advance toward future goals.

How do you relate to others? Which working partnerships are best for you? What would an office of your favorite people look like? How does your work enhance your family and social connections? These questions encourage people to think about and foster relationships that make work more meaningful.

It’s not easy to guide others toward purpose, but these strategies can help.

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