Our science-backed framework for effective one-on-one conversations

Written by: Alison Robins | Illustrated by: Clément Lavedan
Published on October 25, 2019 | Reading time: 12m

Employee engagement has become part of the furniture of the modern workforce as organizations finally grasp that the experience of their customers is directly related to the experience of their employees. At this point, not investing in engagement is like not having salt and pepper in your kitchen cabinet. You’ll miss out on the flavour of loyalty, collaboration, and innovation that comes with putting your people—your greatest differentiators—first.

Our next mandate is to help managers move beyond measuring team engagement to taking actions that help them perform. This is why Officevibe has widened its scope to include performance management. The truth is, employee engagement and performance go hand in hand because people feel most engaged when they’re set up to perform successfully, develop continuously, and ultimately see their impact.

The truth is, employee engagement and

performance management go hand in hand.

Conceived from our own needs for holding more effective and meaningful one-on-one meeting conversations (where the flame of employee development is sparked), our new performance management feature, built in collaboration with neuropsychologists, is tried, tested and ready for you.

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In this post you’ll learn:

  • What’s at the base of people-first performance management
  • What our data says (it says a lot)
  • How managers and employees really feel about one-on-one meetings
  • How our science-based framework helps managers develop employee performance
  • One-on-one question examples for meaningful conversations

People-first performance management = Continuous conversations

According to Gallup, “only two in 10 employees strongly agree that their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work.”

Eek. That is low.

While the way we manage employees still needs some TLC, the good news is that performance management as a concept has gone through quite the overhaul over the past decade. The term might still have a bad rap, but it’s how we bring it to life that really matters.

It’s no longer about squeezing performance juice out of your employees with a dangling carrot, the dread of missing the OKR mark, or an annual review that will determine salary increase (in fact, the conversation about pay and performance should be entirely separated).

What companies and their managers want to do today is develop people from the inside out by motivating them intrinsically. What’s at the base of this?

Connecting with employees through a conversational approach to performance to understand their strengths, how they want to grow, and how you can help them get there. This becomes possible when you keep your lens in a steady focus on:

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  1. Authentic, trust-based relationships
  2. Meaningful conversations to learn what truly drives people
  3. Continuous communication and feedback around performance
  4. Effective one-on-one meetings that offer a clear path forward<

But, are managers truly equipped to hold effective one-on-one conversations?

According to data from our employee engagement surveys:

  • “Feedback” (broken down into “Frequency” and “Quality”) is in the bottom three of our 10 metrics of employee engagement.
  • In the “Relationship with Manager” metric, “Communication” is the lowest scoring sub-metric.
  • Only 26% of employees strongly agree that their direct manager is aware of employee pain points (what we hope would come up in meaningful one-on-one conversations).
  • Only 23% of employees strongly agree that the feedback they get is specific.
  • 45% of employees do not agree that they have a development plan aimed at improving their skills (one stat that really got us thinking…)
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All to say, you’re not alone in the struggle. Mastering effective communication and offering developmental feedback is a lifelong journey. And seeing that what employees of the modern workforce truly want is a “coach” over a “boss,” the foundation for successful workplace relationships rests heavily on communication.

There are the select few “communicorns” (communication unicorns 🦄) who possess the innate ability to know exactly what to say and how and when to say it, properly and with affect. The rest of us need some guidance, because whether we’re holding conversations to help employees develop their performance or giving them tough feedback so they can improve, the way we communicate is as important as it is difficult. It all starts with the conversations held during the time we dedicate to one-on-one meetings.

The way we communicate is as important as it is difficult.

Before we get to our framework, we checked in with some real people to get to the nuance of the problems with one-on-ones.

What do people really think about one-on-one meetings?

Here’s what some Officevibe team members have to say:

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“I feel stressed that I’m not properly equipping people. If I fail, the whole team fails. Sometimes one-on-ones bring great conversations, but I fear that my employees don’t leave with actual action items that will stick.”

– New Manager, Nicolas Prieur

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“I don’t always know what to expect. There’s either no agenda or an unclear one. And sometimes I feel we forget the human aspect of the discussions, focusing only on “what needs to be done.” That part really hurts me the most. I feel we need to take time for both aspects: human and outcome.”

– Employee, Virginie Lehmann

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“I consider myself to be a terrible communicator. I was never taught how to have difficult conversations with people, especially while I was a developer, but as a manager we have to have these discussions continuously to help people grow. Our words are under a microscope, which makes one-on-ones even more complex.”

– COO, Guillaume Roy

So, while holding one-on-one meetings and offering constant feedback are prolific concepts in the workforce, it’s clear that a framework and the techniques for how to do it right are lacking.

We have the toolbox, now we need the tools to fill it with.

A science-backed framework for effective one-on-one conversations

We worked with superstars Sofia and Audrey from Nev, a team of neuropsychologists who are just as passionate as us about creating a better future of work. Together, we created a tool to help managers master their one-on-one meetings so they can drive better performance, set more effective goals, and build more meaningful relationships all around. We sat down with them to ask a bit about the science behind how the tool works.

Today’s management practices are too often based on intuition alone.

Today’s management practices are too often based on intuition alone,” the experts at Nev tell us, and we don’t disagree. As much as our intentions when it comes to conducting one-on-one meetings are pure and effective in theory, in practice, people need something more tangible to work with.

This is why we created a tool founded in a scientific framework that helps managers have more purposeful one-on-ones. It’s been enlightening to see how the intersection between science and human communication can help managers have more meaningful interactions with their employees. In a nutshell, you can expect: better preparation, better communication, better action-planning, and better performance.

Breaking down the framework:

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Prepare properly and stress-free:

A common pain point of one-on-one meetings is that they take a lot of preparation, which managers don’t always have the luxury of time to do properly. According to Gallup’s recent report on the challenges of being a manager, 42% of managers strongly agree that they have multiple and often competing priorities. With their ultimate mandate being to lead their team to reach business objectives and drive results, sometimes proper preparation for one-on-one meetings inadvertently falls through the cracks.

Diffuse negativity from the get-go:

But, leaders owe this time to employees to show them that they truly care about their development. In fact, this element of care is paramount because once a trusting rapport is solidified (when people feel their manager is on their side), employees are more likely to receive even the toughest feedback with positive intent. By allowing employees to see the one-on-one talking points in advance, one of the tool’s key attributes, the “what should I expect” anxiety that manifests in our brains is decreased.

Nev explains:

Without a clear and thoughtful agenda, the employee might enter the meeting in an emotional state expecting negative feedback, or they may simply be closed off to communication because they feel fear around what to expect. It’s how the brain works when there is ambiguity. We come up with our own story and shut down before we even have the chance to get started. The pre-planned talking points diffuse this by giving visibility, and the language we offer activates a positive mindset, the foundation for growth.

TIP: Nev suggests using conversation starters to activate positive memories. For example, try asking your employee to describe a recent workplace event where they felt their best.

Keep track and stay organized:

Our new feature gives managers and employees a tangible, collective space where they can log important talking points for their next one-on-one any time of the day (feedback, questions, recognition, etc.) This ensures that the one-on-one conversations are not based on the flimsy whim of memory. It likewise helps keep a trace of conversations and action items to return to as a common base.

I leave it open on my computer and add notes to each employee’s profile almost daily, so I don’t forget. My one-on-ones have been more focused, I feel much more organized and prepared to give feedback, ensuring my employees are better set up to succeed,

Guillaume tells of using the tool in his day-to-day.

Build the agenda together:

One of our favorite parts: the agenda is collaborative, giving employees an active role in one-on-one agenda setting, and thereby a stake in their own career development.

When you work together to build trust-based relationships, you build proverbial homes that people feel they can return to safely at all times.

We’re moving, actually, running away from the top-down, one-sided model of a boss who dictates. By offering a way for both managers and employees to list talking points before having a meeting, the tool nudges everyone toward a collaborative and solution-oriented relationship,

Nev tells us.

Communicate effectively and mindfully:

We take it a step further with guided talking points that allow managers to frame actionable, measurable and focused team and individual goals. What’s more, there’s a bank of helpful conversation topics to broach for each team member’s unique situation. With science and psychology at the base, the wording is carefully constructed so every conversation starts off on the right foot.

This ensures that it’s not only about what’s being said, but how it’s being communicated, to ensure a positive, growth-oriented mindset. As much as we need to get down to business and want to be profitable, we need to be human while doing it or we won’t get very far. Deloitte asserts that “high-performing organizations focus on purpose and mindset over processes and models.” We agree, but also feel confident that when the right processes and models are merged with authentic mindsets and successful conversations, team performance will soar.

Having a tool to help manage the process of giving feedback and setting goals has been a lifesaver. It’s not always easy to bring certain things up, and sometimes I just don’t know where to start. The talking points help kick off the conversation and get my team members in a positive mindset for whatever we need to discuss,

one manager shares.

The truth is that sometimes we need help to gather our thoughts and understand what it is we’re feeling or trying to say. Think of the suggested conversation topics and questions as your sidekick; they help bring clarity and direction to your own thoughts, pinpointing not only what to bring up, but how to bring it up properly so you can better align with employees.

What’s more, these talking points are available to both you and your employees whenever you need, since development is a two way street. But, you’re also free to add your own more specific talking points to the one-on-one meeting agenda.

The ‘Recommended Talking Points’ help managers do
3 key things:

  • Create a positive and growth-oriented mindset for the meeting,
  • Connect the right talking points to both team and individual goals, and
  • Focus discussions on the 3 lowest metrics of engagement.
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Science-backed question examples for one-on-one meetings

Here’s a sneak peak into some of the embedded talking points that help kick off all sorts of important conversations on the right foot. To test out the tool and access all the talking points, click here.

Talking point and question examples to kick-off your conversations:

1. Set the right mindset:

“When you [positive action or valued skill], this leads to [positive impact on a project, a customer, the team or the company]”

“What competencies or behaviours do you advocate for, that are win-win for yourself and the team or company?”

2. Align on goals:

Manager: “What new knowledge would you need to obtain to achieve your goal more easily? How could you acquire it?”

Employee: “Can we work together to revise the goal so that it’s made [more/less] challenging?”

3. Improve employee engagement:

Feedback” Metric: “Do you feel that the feedback you receive is communicated at the right moment (that is, not too early or too late relative to your completion of a project)?”

Personal Growth” Metric: “What new knowledge and skills would allow you to achieve your goals and help the team and company achieve their goals?”

“Relationship With Manager” Metric: “Do you feel included in the process of developing your work projects and objectives? If not, how can I help you find solutions so that you feel more involved and informed?”

The language and sentence structures embedded in the feature helps managers broach the topics in an effective and positive way, “accompanying them in formulating conversation topics and setting optimal goals without disrupting or adding burden to their thinking process,” explains Nev.

Having daily support in the way they give both positive feedback and constructive criticism helps managers improve their communication skills in the long run (learning in the flow of work is the dream, right?). It takes soft skills to get this right, and soft skills, while of the utmost necessity in the modern workforce, are also the number one skill gap that leaders need to hone in on.

Soft skills are the number one skill gap in the workforce, and the greatest necessity.

So there we have it: a glimpse into how we’re moving beyond measuring engagement to taking action. We all want engaged and performing teams who feel excited to show up to work every day. That’s how companies differentiate themselves, and we believe that our conversational framework and human approach to performance management is a stepping stone to more successful, people-first workplaces. The team at Nev shares our sentiment when they say, “it may sound cliché, but we think this will create a revolution!”

For full access to our bank of guided conversation topics and to learn more about our new performance management tool, click here!