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Three Ways Leaders Can Improve Their One-On-One Communication Skills

When we look at communication challenges and opportunities over the past year, we often look at the macro level: How do we communicate with the organization? How do we facilitate team interaction? How do we better engage our external stakeholders? Many of us have spent far less time considering how we can foster more productive one-on-one interactions between supervisors and direct reports.

I currently lead a team of 35 with seven direct reports within an organization of close to 7,000 employees. I also report up, which means I need feedback to be effective and to grow professionally. Based upon my own experiences, conversations with colleagues and previous consulting engagements, I have three recommendations for how supervisors can better facilitate one-on-one communication with their direct reports in an in-person, hybrid or virtual environment.

To be an effective communicator, one needs a well-developed sense of empathy. An effective communicator must understand the concerns of the audience and how a message will be received. Therefore, effective one-on-one communication should begin with a genuine concern for one’s team members. Leaders can manifest that concern by creating a regular and productive feedback exchange.

All leaders have responsibilities beyond talent management. The higher up the organizational chart one goes, the more demands they’ll face from external stakeholders. This means C-suite executives need to be particularly intentional about the engagement cadence they build with their direct reports.

I’ve found that regular and thoughtful engagement provides a sense of empowerment through predictability. When employees know exactly where they stand, they can develop a clearer sense of how to proceed in advancing their career objectives within the larger context of the company. Irregular feedback can breed uncertainty, which can quickly turn into fear or distrust. This can not only compromise performance but also impact employees’ general sense of well-being. If one is always fearful about what’s around the corner, anxiety will spike.

When leaders situation themselves between the intersection of well-being and performance, it becomes easier for them to prioritize communication, as the importance of communication becomes evident.

Provide Clarity

A supervisor’s time is scarce, and their words carry weight. A supervisor needs to be clear about what they want and intend. There can be no variance between what they mean and what they say. This means that their expectations need to be clearly articulated and understood. One of the most unsettling things an employee can experience is when they must guess how their performance will be judged. A supervisor who does not make their expectations clear can kill innovation, creativity and independence and relegate themselves to the role of micromanager rather than that of a leader.

When employees are dealing with a busy supervisor with lots of demands on their time, there are very few opportunities for them to seek follow-up clarification. A meeting should end with a clear understanding by both parties about what is expected. This means the supervisor must know what it is they want and clearly articulate their expectations. There is still room for compromise and discussion, but the supervisor should have clarity about their own vision and remain committed to what they and their employee agree to once the meeting ends.

In order to clarify thinking, leaders should do some preparation. A supervisor should write down a couple points about what they hope to achieve in the meeting and circulate that information ahead of time. No meeting should end before the leader has laid out the expectations and how those expectations will be accounted for. Not everything can be boiled down to a numeric KPI, but both sides need to walk away with a clear understanding of what success looks like. It is incumbent upon both parties to follow up with what they took away from the meeting. Follow-up is essential.

Provide Support

The effects of a meeting often carry over long beyond when the meeting ends. The direct report will need to carry out the actions they agreed to in the meeting. Whether this is a new initiative or a change in work style, they must take action after the meeting. Otherwise, there was no point in having the meeting. Even during quick check-ups, the supervisor can say: “What do you need from me today?” This requires them to follow this conversation up with action.

To make the direct report feel heard and like the meeting wasn’t a waste of time, the supervisor should make sure they provide support. For instance, if the two agree that they will develop a new product line, the supervisor should support this effort by taking the necessary actions when the CFO asks for approval to release funds. Or, if they agree to a new marketing direction, the supervisor could tell anyone who criticizes the new campaign that they personally agreed to it.

If the supervisor and the direct report don’t follow through with what was discussed in the meeting, the direct will know it was a waste of time and that the supervisor was just going through the motions to avoid appearing neglectful or to affect an air of care which, at its core, is disingenuous without proper follow-up.

The last year has exposed the importance of communication, as much of the technology we’ve implemented and new policies we’ve created have been focused on facilitating communication between teams and team members. But no tool can overcome poor communication. Supervisors who care about their teams are clear about what they say and providing follow-up support can create an environment of safety, trust, accountability and high performance.

BY Kyle Scott, PhD, is the Vice Chancellor of Strategic Priorities at Lone Star College, where he leads marketing and communications. First published at https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescommunicationscouncil/2021/05/17/three-ways-leaders-can-improve-their-one-on-one-communication-skills/?sh=128dcf16ab31 May 17, 2021