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One-on-one meetings: The stitch in time that saves nine


Remember the last time you had a loose button? Maybe you thought about stopping to sew it on, but never did. Then the button fell off and you lost it. That’s when the fun started: You either decided to live without the button (that’s what safety pins are for, right?) or took the time to find a new button, needle, and matching thread and sewed it on. If only you’d taken the time up front to mend the loose button, you’d have saved a lot of time. We all know this truth, yet we don’t always act on it.

The same principle may hold true when it comes to managers engaging their employees. Most likely, your organization-wide engagement survey results show employees want more time with and recognition from managers. Yet, as a manager, you have so many fires to put out and squeaky wheels to grease that you lack the time for one-on-one meetings with employees. And most nurse managers have 50 or more direct reports, which makes finding time even more challenging.

Who says meetings matter?

Let’s back up a minute. I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Where’s the evidence that says managers need to spend one-on-one time with staff?” Here are findings from just two of the many studies that reinforce this point.

  • In 2012, Dale Carnegie Training & MSW Research studied elements that affect employee engagement. They found “employees want their managers to care about their personal lives, to take an interest in them as people, to care about how they feel, and support their health and well-being.”
  • In 2013, BlessingWhite (a consulting firm specializing in leadership development and employee engagement) made the following recommendation based on its survey of more than 7,000 individuals: “Managers must understand each individual’s talents, interests, and needs and then match those with the organization’s objectives—while at the same time creating personal, trusting relationships.”

But managers can’t possibly address these findings and recommendations in an annual performance-review conversation or in a rounding, “How-are-you?” conversation with others milling around.

So we come to the topic of one-on-one meetings. I can see some of you grimacing, thinking “There’s no way! I just don’t have the time.” But please put aside your skepticism for a moment and read on—because either you pay now or you pay later. It’s your choice.

Why it’s worth it

I’ve seen firsthand that time spent in one-on-one meetings is well worth it. Recently, I asked a team of nurses and their manager what they liked best about the new engagement strategies that had been implemented on their unit. One nurse said, “I really like the regular one-on-one meetings. They’ve made a big difference.” The rest of the team listened, nodding their heads in agreement. Their manager loves the meetings (most of them, anyway) and says they’ve made a huge difference in her own engagement as well.

ABCs of the one-on-one meeting

When working with managers, I define a one-on-one meeting as “a meeting between you and one team member. The meeting is previously arranged, scheduled on the calendar, and held in a private place with no interruptions.” Typically lasting 20 to 30 minutes, this meeting is not a performance-management conversation. It’s meant to be an open forum for communication and creating connections between you and the employee.

Ideally, the meetings should take place once a month—but this level of frequency is probably unrealistic if you have many direct reports. Meeting every other month is the next best solution. Even quarterly meetings are better than none at all. If you have a large number of staff reporting to you, another option is to teach your middle managers, such as frontline clinical coordinators, how to conduct one-on-one meetings with team members.

An easy way to schedule the meetings is to post a list of available times on your door (or electronically) so team members can sign up. Keep track of who has signed up; be aware that underperformers are likely to be the ones who don’t sign up. Make sure team members know this meeting is mandatory, not optional. Everyone needs to participate.

Meeting format

Besides lack of time, another obstacle to one-on-one meetings is concern over how best to format the meeting. This is easy to overcome. First, think of the one-on-one meetings you have with your boss. Does he or she have a standard format for discussion? Can you adapt that to use with your team?

If not, you can use the format I created through personal experience and feedback from managers and executives. It’s a compilation of real-world, effective best practices. Adapt it to meet your style and needs so you feel comfortable. Give team members a copy of the agenda before the meeting to share your expectations and decrease anxiety. (See Meeting agenda and grid by clicking the PDF icon above.)

Get out your needle and thread

Regularly held one-on-one meetings have the potential to significantly improve employee engagement. Stronger engagement can translate to improved patient satisfaction, safety, quality, and the other metrics you measure. Spending time learning what keeps each team member satisfied, energized, and productive and helping each one connect that to your organization’s mission and vision are transformational. As a leader, take the “stitch that saves nine” to make a difference in others’ lives.

Selected references

BlessingWhite. Employee Engagement Research Update, January 2013. www.blessingwhite.com/eee__report.asp. Accessed January 3, 2014.

Dale Carnegie & Associates. What Drives Employee Engagement and Why it Matters. Dale Carnegie Training White Paper; 2012. www.dalecarnegie.com/assets/1/7/driveengagement_101612_wp.pdf. Accessed January 3, 2014.

Hess V. 6 Shortcuts to Employee Engagement: Lead & Succeed in a Do-More-with-Less World. Catalyst Consulting LLC; 2013.

Vicki Hess is an author, consultant, and professional speaker who works with healthcare organizations to create sustainable cultures of engagement. Her website is www.vickihess.com, and her e-mail is vicki@vickihess.com.

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