The most important question for leaders in a 1-on-1 meeting

In a previous blog post, we stressed the importance of identifying your employees’ struggles, whether we do that through employee surveys or 1-on-1 check-in meetings. In this blog post, we share how to have a conversation with employees once you identify that they are struggling. We also prepare you for possible outcomes and answers you may encounter.

Check your ‘stuff’ at the door.

That was the mantra when I started my career. ‘Check your s*** at the door and get to work.’ Indeed. As if that’s really possible. These are significant, visceral concerns that undermine a person’s ability to truly engage in their work. It also reduces their resilience, which undermines their ability to feel safe at work. 

Using a coach approach.

As coaches we are trained to go below the surface-level symptoms brought up in workplace assessments and uncover the deeper issues – the ones that people are often not aware of themselves. A coach approach, explained by the Centre for Creative Leadership, “uses active listening, inquiry and feedback to bring together the best thinking and to co-create solutions.” Not every leader needs to go and become a certified coach, but asking one simple question (and truly listening to the response) can put you on the right path: ‘What is hard for you right now?’

Perhaps you could stop reading for a moment, and answer that question for yourself.

What is hard for you right now? Think beyond the confines of your workplace (which is easier if you are working from your kitchen table like me). Think about your entire life. What is hard for you right now? Chances are, whatever is hard for you in any aspect of your life shows up in some way at work. 

Here are a few examples I have encountered in my coaching that could be a creating challenge or distraction for your team members: 

  • Education concerns. 2020 has been a challenging year to be a parent. There is considerable uncertainty associated with ‘back to school’ this year. Parents are worried about their family’s safety if their kids return to the classroom, and on the other hand, they are concerned with the risk of their child falling behind academically if schools do not open. These are primal concerns which create considerable distraction and stress for employees who are parents of school-aged children. The stress is more impactful on mothers, for whom 69% indicate that they have suffered adverse health effects as a result of the stress and worry associated with COVID-19, compared to 51% of fathers. This situation is  ‘hard’, and it is imperative to have a conversation with your team members to see what support people need.
  • Health concerns. I was speaking with somebody last week who lost three family members due to COVID-19. That is an incredible weight to bear. Back in March, a friend was struggling for their life on a ventilator. I could hardly focus on work as my family and I directed all of our positive energy toward her recovery (thankfully she is okay). I read an article this week about a father who is moving into his basement when his kids return to school because he is worried about his underlying health conditions. Your employees are living through a pandemic, and will have health concerns for their loved ones and for themselves.  Although the experience is not the same for everyone,  health concerns are undoubtedly ‘hard’ and impact a person’s ability to focus at work.
  • Financial concerns. Many people have loved ones who have lost their jobs, fear losing their jobs or have had their income reduced. I’ve found that financial concerns can make people perceive smaller issues to be more of a concern. In one situation, a manager I was working with had a person who was reacting very strongly to a role change. I encouraged the manager to dig a little bit deeper in the next 1-on-1 with his employee. What surfaced was the employee’s spouse had lost her job and this role change would have provided some much-needed additional income. Financial concerns are always ‘hard’, heightening reactivity and impacting a person’s attitude at work.

Ask ‘what is hard'

In this environment, the best leaders are having their 1-on-1 meetings on a regular basis. If you have to reschedule a 1-on-1 meeting, try to keep it within the same week to show people you care about them. To genuinely ask your employees ‘what is hard?’ you also need to listen for the answer.

Be ready for the answer.

Some things you might be able to help with. People might need flexible hours, a few days off or somebody to cover a meeting for them. Other people may be missing the human connection of being back in the office but are afraid to take public transit to get there. Other things you will perhaps not feel qualified to handle. If you think somebody needs professional help from a counsellor, psychologist or a coach then you can refer them to your employee assistance program.

Leverage professional support if you need it

If by asking ‘what is hard’ you uncover something that you are not sure what to do with, feel free to reach out to us directly at As C-Suite Executives and Master-Level Executive Coaches we have lots of experience with complex problems that leaders are not sure how to handle. I’m confident we can work together to quickly find a way forward.

Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith

Jeff is the Founder & CEO of SupportingLines. He is also a certified Master Corporate Executive Coach, seasoned C-suite business leader and yoga instructor.

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