What Makes a High-Substance One-on-One Conversation?

High-substance means rich in immediately relevant content, specific to the person and the situation, with a clear execution focus.

Training Magazine

Managers today are under a lot of pressure. The bar keeps being raised. They are responsible for more and more employees. More of the people they manage are working in areas of expertise that the manager doesn’t know much about or maybe knows almost nothing about. Managing people is getting harder, and it can be tempting for managers to try and find a “quick fix” solution that will solve all their management problems… at least for a little while.

Management and Leadership

The latest trend in management or leadership can seem to improve things initially. But very quickly, it becomes clear that the system isn’t sustainable or was merely improving things on the surface without addressing the core issues the managers face. Think of it as a fad diet: it may cause you to lose a lot of weight initially, but it doesn’t necessarily make you any healthier, and, as soon as you stop dieting, the importance all returns.

Nearly nine out of ten managers aren’t providing the guidance, direction, support, and coaching their teams need to succeed. Undermanagement is the root cause of so many ongoing management challenges and problems. The solution is simple but effective: rigorous adherence to the fundamentals of highly-engaged management.

If a management “quick fix” solution is like a fad diet, then think of the management fundamentals like taking a walk every day and eating your vegetables. Adopting a routine system for maintaining the quality and productivity of your team may take some time, but eventually, that daily effort adds up.

High-substance communication is a robust framework that prevents many minor problems from becoming significant, production-halting problems in the future.

Consider this example from one of our clients in a medical clinic.

The department manager had a receptionist, let’s call him Chris, who seemed to have a hopeless performance problem. He was efficient and on time, answered the phone when it rang and dealt well with the patients in the office. But he neglected to open the mail daily and file it as he was supposed to. The manager “actually saw Chris using a dustpan to scoop up excess mail that had fallen onto the floor… [and watched] he dump it right back on the pile on his desk!”

The manager wanted to know, “Do I need to tell Chris to open the mail daily, sort it in this particular way, and then file it accordingly? Do I need to spell it out that much?”

The answer? When the manager didn’t spell it out for Chris, he got it wrong. So, yes! Spell it out for him, every day if necessary, until his performance improves. Turn that big pile of mail on his desk into a project. Give him a clear deadline. Break it down into smaller goals with precise instructions.

Several weeks later, the manager reached out with an update: “Sure enough. All I had to do was tell him. I reminded him every day for a while. Now when I walk by Chris’s desk in the morning, he says, ‘Don’t worry, I won’t forget the mail today!’”

What Makes a High-Substance One-on-One Conversation?

High-substance means rich in immediately relevant content, specific to the person and the situation, with a clear execution focus.

Talk about what’s going right, wrong, and average. What needs to be done? What are the next steps? And the next steps after that? Spell out expectations in clear and vivid terms every step of the way:

  • Remind each person of broad performance standards regularly.
  • Turn best practices into standard operating procedures and teach them to everybody.
  • Use plans and step-by-step checklists whenever possible.
  • Focus on concrete actions within the control of the individual employee.
  • Monitor, measure, and individual document performance in writing.
  • Follow up, follow up, and provide regular, candid, coaching-style feedback.
  • Follow through with real consequences and rewards based on performance in relation to expectations.

Ask outstanding questions:

  • “What do you need from me?”
  • “What is your plan? What steps will you follow?”
  • “How long will this step take? How long will that step take? And the next?”

Listen carefully:

  • Evaluate how well the employee understands the requirements of the task at hand.
  • Pay close attention to the gaps in her approach.
  • Keep asking questions. Facilitate.
  • Adjust as needed.
  • Never forget, you need to make sure every single employee knows every step of the way exactly what is expected of her—precisely what she is supposed to do and how.

Create a Dialogue with Your Employees

One-on-ones are also where you answer employees’ questions as they come up. Get input from your employees throughout the process. Learn from what your employees are learning on the front line. Strategize together. Provide advice, support, motivation, and even inspiration once in a while. Together you’ll need to think through potential obstacles and pitfalls regularly—make backup planning part of every work plan. Anticipate and prepare. Train and practice.

Together you will regularly uncover what can be done and what cannot, what resources are necessary, what problems may occur, what expectations are reasonable, what goals and deadlines are sufficiently ambitious, and what counts as success versus failure.

Stay on the lookout every step of the way: Are there problems hiding around the corner or just below the surface? Can minor issues be solved now so they don’t become more significant problems soon? Resources we need to obtain or else figure out what to do instead? Key people in interdependent roles we need to be engaging?

What’s changing? What’s about to change? What might change soon? Don’t be embarrassed that things change. It wasn’t your idea. Uncertainty is a new certainty. When priorities change, expectations change. That is further evidence that telling people what to do and how to do it is critical. After all, no one else is going to say to each employee:

  • Which priorities have shifted and changed today?
  • What they are supposed to focus on today.
  • What the expectations are today.

That’s it. That’s how you break free from the vicious cycle. It’s all about making those routine conversations much, much better. It’s just the fundamentals—practiced consistently with rigor and discipline.

Imagine the impact it would have if you started running one mile daily for the rest of the year.

Now imagine the impact that practicing the fundamentals of management, a little bit every day, would have on your team’s success. Don’t wait until there’s a crisis to start managing!

Start now and build the habit so that when there is a management challenge you have to deal with, you are in a much better position to handle it quickly.