Improve Your Regular Management Conversations: The Power of High-Structure, High-Substance Communication

When managers build and maintain a high-quality, one-on-one dialogue with their direct reports, they almost always increase employee performance and morale, increase retention of high performers and turnover among low performers, and achieve significant measurable iprovements in business outcomes.

And here’s the really good news: They spend less time firefighting. They get ahead of the problems and prevent the fires. They break the vicious cycle. They start getting their management time back. Then, if they don’t slip up on the fundamentals, a virtuous upward spiral begins to build. Having those regular one-on-one conversations with your direct reports is your fire prevention, preparation, and training. That’s where real impact occurs. Not in the crucial conversations, but rather in the routine conversations.

But first, you have to make the quality of those routine conversations much, much better. The key is high-substance, high-structure communication.

What is High-Structure?

High-structure means regularly scheduled and conducted according to a clear, well-organized agenda. That doesn’t mean it should be a one-way conversation. Of course, you need to allow for give and take.

For your dedicated one-on-one time:

  • Set aside an hour a day
  • Concentrate on three or four people per day
  • Prepare in advance and make sure your direct reports prepare too
  • Follow a regular format with each person, customized for that person
  • Always start with top priorities, open questions, and any work in progress
  • Consider holding these conversations standing up, with a clipboard in hand (to keep them quick and focused)
  • Don’t do all the talking
  • Don’t let anybody go more than two weeks without getting together
  • If you manage people who work other shifts, stay late or come in early

How many people can you manage this way? How many dialogues can you maintain? The answer is different for every manager. Be honest with yourself. If you are not able to maintain and ongoing dialogue with an employee, you are not managing that person. That person is in a sink-or-swim situation.

If you have a chain of command – use it! Focus first and foremost on any managers you manage. Every day, coach them on the fundamentals – make sure they are having regular one-on-ones with their direct reports, too. All the way down the chain.

What is High-Substance?

High-substance means rick in immediately relevant content, specific to the person and the situation, with a clear execution focus.

Talk about what’s going right, wrong, and average. What needs to be done? What are the next steps? And the next steps after that? Spell out expectations in clear and vivid terms, every step of the way:

  • Remind each person of broad performance standards regularly
  • Turn best practices into standard operating procedures and teach them to everybody
  • Use plans and step-by-step checklists whenever possible
  • Focus on concrete actions within the control of the individual employee
  • Monitor, measure, and document individual performance in writing
  • Follow up and provide regular, candid, coaching-style feedback
  • Follow through with real consequences and rewards based on performance

Ask really good questions:

  • “What do you need from me?”
  • “What is your plan? What steps will you follow?”
  • How long will this step take? How long will that step take? And the next?”

Listen carefully:

  • Evaluate how well the employee understands the requirements of the task at hand
  • Pay close attention to the gaps in an employee’s approach
  • Keep asking questions; facilitate
  • Adjust as needed

One-on-ones are also where you answer employees’ questions as they come up. Learn from what your employees are learning on the front line. Strategize together. Provide advice, support, motivation, and even inspiration once in a while. Together you’ll need to regularly think through potential obstacles and pitfalls – make back-up planning part of every work plan. Anticipate and prepare. Train and practice.