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When You’re Bored in One-on-Ones with Employees

Dear Scott,

I have an employee who tends to talk a lot and drift off topic in our one-on-one meetings, to the point where I can’t focus. I have tried to keep them on track, but it is very difficult. They often take up an hour instead of the scheduled 30 minutes, and I completely lose track of what they are saying. I try hard not to look bored (thankfully we are wearing masks so they can’t see my expression). I even structured the meeting by providing discussion points in advance, but this still hasn’t helped. I find myself consistently saying things like “Let’s get back on track, “What can I do to help you?” and “How can this be applied to your work?” I’m concerned that I’m getting distracted because I’m bored. Please help.

Signed,
Bored Boss

Dear Bored Boss,

This is an interesting predicament. My first thought was that you should probably reach out to each and every one of my past managers, as I’m sure they may have had similar experiences in their meetings with me.

Let me share a guiding phrase that has helped me in all aspects of my life: “On Purpose, With Purpose.” Too often we navigate life—and particularly our jobs—by going through the motions. We do what we do because we have always done so, and we never ask ourselves why. “On purpose” means you know why you are doing what you are. “With purpose” means your actions align with your why.

On Purpose

What is the purpose of your one-on-one meetings? I think these meetings with your employee are one of the most important you have during your week. The gaps between what we expect and what we experience often occur because of either a failure to communicate or a misunderstanding of purpose. So, what is your purpose? Effective one-on-one meetings can do many things, including but not limited to the following:

  • Connect, build trust, and strengthen relationships
  • Inform and update
  • Provide mutual feedback for growth and improvement
  • Discuss career development

Once you are clear as to your purpose for your meetings, the next step is to ask your employee what they want for the meeting. I believe that one-one-ones are more for them than they are for you, so let them be in the driver’s seat. Just make sure they know where you want to head and are aware of the navigation lines on the road (boundaries). It’s important that together you establish the purpose.

Ask your employee what they would like to have happen during your meetings. Listen well, make sure you clearly understand, and then add your intentions. Now, together, you can create a mutual purpose for your meetings. With a mutual purpose in place, ask your employee, “Can we agree that from this point forward we will stick to the purpose of our meetings?” Also agree that should either of you take the meeting off course you will remind each other to stay on course.

It’s probably also important to remember that people are craving human connection right now. Social distancing, masks, and working from home leave many feeling disconnected. Try asking yourself, Why is my employee behaving this way? As you ponder possible answers, consider that they might need to talk and share. This may help you focus when they are sharing. I also suggest that you ask your employee, “How are you doing?” Giving them an occasional outlet may allow your meetings to stay on point.

With Purpose

Some cars today are equipped with Lane Departure Warning Systems. These sensors detect when the car is leaving its lane and give the driver a warning. This allows the driver to correct course. When you find yourself drifting in your meetings, try these two course-correction strategies.

  1. Be curious. Conflict and frustration often come as a result of a lack of curiosity. Curiosity encourages us to put ourselves in another’s shoes and to take interest in their ideas and motives rather than focusing only on our own.
  2. Listen to understand, not to respond. We know that we can process faster than others can speak. This can make it difficult to stay focused. Don’t just listen for details, listen for the big picture.

I once heard someone say, “I’ve never been in a boring meeting.” Immediately I thought, They have never been in one of my meetings. In seriousness, I’ve reflected on that numerous times throughout my life and have come to the conclusion that my experience in meetings, whether large group or one-on-ones, has less to do with the person delivering or the content they’re sharing and more to do with me. When you find yourself straying in meetings, remember to be curious, listen to understand, and be on purpose with purpose.

All the best,
Scott

Scott Robley

“I’ll make you laugh. I’ll make you think. I’ll make it real. But not necessarily in that order.” Scott Robley is a speaker, coach, and master trainer at VitalSmarts. With more than twenty years of experience in education, training, and public speaking, Scott brings to the table energy, fun, and professionalism. He is a master storyteller and committed to changing the world by changing behavior.

The ideas expressed in this article are based on the skills and principles taught in Crucial Accountability. Learn more about Crucial Accountability.

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5 thoughts on “When You’re Bored in One-on-Ones with Employees

  1. Another strategy I found helpful was to share my screen with the fields (or questions) I needed summary information from them for during that 1×1 time. They saw this every time they came in and could even bring it to the meeting (or email me ahead of time) which ensured I received what I needed, but then freed up time for the essential networking time. The freedom to relate – engage with them in a more relaxed conversation/discussion.

  2. Here’s another idea: I utilize a project meeting template that keeps me on track and helps keep my boss informed of the status of all projects. It includes the project name, status (Inflight, on hold, complete) and any background notes. I update the project template each week and email it to my boss prior to meeting face to face, or in today’s world, a virtual meeting.

    I also include the template in meeting invites for individuals on my team.

  3. While 30 minutes of off-topic discussion is too much, another consideration is that this employee needs to connect on a personal level before they are going to be open to discussing business. I once had a manager where we didn’t ever seem to see eye to eye. She is very focused and it can come across as impersonal. Once she asked me what she could do to make our 1 on 1s better. I suggested that we spend 5 minutes talking about life outside of work. We found that we had a mutual interest in books that allowed our relationship to grow. This made it much easier for me to connect with her on business matters as well.

  4. I also allow time in the beginning of the meeting to just talk about life in general, what they did over the weekend, how the family is and then bring the meeting to an official commencement where I give the managers time to give feedback on what is going on in their respective spaces. I ask questions, make suggestions and we discuss it. Once work is done, we go back to being informal and say our goodbyes. It has really build trust and strong relationships to our management team. We do this every Monday. It works very well.

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