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Management 101

Erm, so what should we talk about?

Just like meeting any human being for the first time, your first 1 to 1 can go in a multitude of different ways. You might be lucky enough to instantly gel with your direct report; the conversation flows and away you go. Equally, you might be unlucky enough to both sit down, stare at each other and not really know what to say. Depending on people’s experience within their career and the current organization, their cultural background, and their personality in general, they may approach this meeting in different ways.

If you have started your role in a new organization then you will not know your direct reports on a personal level yet, making it challenging to judge the right level of formality to bring into this meeting. You don’t want to be too serious as you might cause alienation, but equally, being too jovial might come across as strange in particular workplaces. If you have been promoted from within your current organization then you may face further awkwardness as your relationship is changing between yourself and some of your colleagues, especially if those colleagues have become close friends over years. Well, this is getting complicated already! What should you do?

Rather than risking getting off to the wrong start, there is a useful exercise to follow that allows both parties to openly talk about what they expect from one other and their wants and needs from the relationship. This exercise is called contracting.

What is contracting?

Contracting is simply a set of questions that provoke a conversation about what is expected from you and your direct reports. These expectations come from both sides of the relationship, and the contracting exercise aims to create the space for this to be talked about honestly and openly.

When sitting down in your first 1 to 1, explain that you’re going to do a short exercise to understand how best you can support that person as their manager. You can leave it until the meeting itself to reveal the questions, or you could forward them to your direct reports ahead of time so that they can prepare. The choice is yours.

Let’s have a look at each of the questions. I’ve used these myself in contracting sessions and they only act to serve as a guide. You, of course, can change them to suit your needs.

1. What are the areas that you would like support with?

This is a broad question on purpose: it lets the other person think of potentially any area: for example, it could be with technical challenges, resolving difficult relationships with colleagues in their team, or even their self-confidence at work.

Try your best to keep the thought bubble over their head at this point; resist the urge to suggest items yourself. Note down everything they say, but don’t offer any solutions yet. You can later turn these talking points into more lengthly conversations at future 1 to 1s, thus building a thread of continuity through your meetings beyond status updates.

2. How would you like to receive feedback and support from me?

This is about working out how the other person likes to operate. There are a range of personality types, and it is important that the other party feels comfortable with how you interact with them.

You may notice a variety of responses here. One response could be that they don’t mind, which is usually not the case given more probing. If they are resistant to give a clear answer, try and frame the question with some examples. Let them imagine, for example, that they were in a meeting, proposing something in front of the room on a whiteboard. Would they be more comfortable with you, their manager, calling them out on an inconsistency in front of the whole room, or alternatively would they prefer you to tell them privately face to face afterward? Would they prefer your comments on a document they have shared face to face, or by email? Once you dig deeper, you may find that your direct reports are all very different.

It is important that you find out the best ways to deliver your feedback and support so that you can have the greatest impact when doing so. Since you’ll want to have a relationship where direct and honest feedback is given at all times, you’ll want to operate in the way that allows the feedback to land in the most impactful and humane way possible.

3. What could be a challenge of us working together?

Like the first question, it’s good to give them the airtime to think properly about this. They may have some first impressions of you that frame their interactions; for example, they may be a less confident public speaker and therefore be afraid of challenging you publicly. Alternatively, your background could be in Javascript and theirs in Java, and they feel that you might not be able to offer much support in terms of their technical development. All of these concerns are valid and now is your opportunity to discuss them in detail and develop some strategies. In the last example, one suggestion could be to delegate technical mentorship to a senior engineer of the same skillset.

4. How might we know if the support I’m offering isn’t going well?

If the relationship is taking a turn for the worse, then it’s good for both of you both to be aware of the signs. It could degrade in numerous ways. You could be frequently experiencing negative emotions from your interactions, or they could not be benefiting from your particular coaching style.

If the situation was getting worse due to conflict, then this is an opportunity to explore how both of you react to a variety of negative emotions such as disappointment, frustration, and anger. One person may become furiously vocal in a conflict situation whereas another may say very little but the issue is boiling inside. You should be aware of each other’s signs so you can spot them.

If your coaching and support are not working out, then it may be as simple as agreeing that it is OK to openly tell each other, and then further steps could be taken to improve the situation or for them to receive mentorship from elsewhere in the organisation.

5. How confidential is the content of our meetings?

A number of sensitive issues may be raised during your meetings. For example, your direct report may say that her colleague’s performance has been getting worse over the quarter. However, how confidential do they consider this information? Would they feel uncomfortable if you went and followed up directly with that information? Would they feel uncomfortable if they mentioned that the feedback came from them?

Running through some of these scenarios can help tease out the answers if they are unsure.

In summary

We’ve run through an exercise called contracting that can be used to break the ice, increase understanding, and set expectations between you and your direct reports. It’s useful to use when starting a new role, but it’s also useful to revisit it with time since both of your needs will adapt and evolve.

In addition to getting the relationship off on the right foot, it should provide plenty to talk about in the coming weeks. Next time, we’ll look at 1 to 1 meetings, and how to make sure they go swimmingly.



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