Have you ever had a conversation that goes something like this: ‘Hey Mike, I don’t have anything to discuss in our 121 today, is there anything you wanted to chat to me about?’ ‘Erm, no I don’t think so’ ‘Okay so shall we wait until our next one?’ ‘Yep, sounds good’.
I’ll take a punt and say that the chances are, you probably have!
It’s my aim that by the end of this guide, you will only ever cancel a 121 if lives depend on it (okay, there are other exceptions but you get my drift!).
Let’s first consider the aim of 121s. A common pitfall is that 121s turn into status updates. It is all too easy to fall into this trap. It’s not necessarily done intentionally but as a manager, you want to know answers to the questions you might get asked from above; where is that project at, what’s the latest with a potential lead, how is web performance this week..? By approaching our 121s in this way, we become our team’s monitors which can deflate people’s energy, zap their creativity and drive them to do their minimum.
There may be times when you do need to run status update meetings on a 121 basis. When I worked in an agency, a member of my team found it challenging to keep on top of all the client requirements so to help, we met every Monday morning to go through key priorities for the week. This was a half hour, action focused meeting to help them prioritise their time and keep on track with deadlines. Before long, these meetings were no longer required as my team member developed the skills to be able to do this themselves. Regardless, we continued to hold separate 121s throughout this time to ensure that we got time together that wasn’t focused solely on deliverables.
A more effective way to think about your 121s is that they help people to get – and stay – engaged.
Common mindset: I hold 121s to monitor the progress of my team
Effective mindset: I hold 121s to help people get, and stay, engaged
As leaders, it is our job to create the conditions for engagement. And your 121s are prime opportunities for you to understand a) what level of engagement a team member currently has and b) what motivates them and will increase their level of engagement?
FranklinCovey have developed a spectrum to rate employees levels of engagement.
The dotted line in this spectrum is key; anyone who sits above the line is doing the job because they want to. Anyone below the line is doing the job because they have to. People can move up and down the spectrum. Let’s be honest, we all have days where we’d take indifferent compliance! But the key is creating an environment in which your team members can move up the spectrum.
Take a moment now to think about where your current team members sit on the spectrum. Why not use this to have an open conversation with your team? Ask them where they would rate their current level of engagement and what conditions would need to change in order to increase this. Consider revisiting this every quarter.
How do you raise engagement through 121s?
121s are the ideal time to create an environment for your team members where you can draw out challenges through open ended questions and guide people to solve problems. This is moving the dialogue from a transactional conversation to a coaching relationship, which in turn helps to heighten levels of engagement as you begin to unlock their potential.
Preparing for your 121s
Let’s start with the basics. Scheduling your 121s on a recurring basis will hold you accountable. When you’re in the whirlwind of management, miss scheduling one 121 and all of a sudden two months will have passed by so make use of recurring meetings functionality!
Also, consider the time of your 121s. When are you and your team members at your peak? I remember a manager of mine scheduling a recurring 121 at 4.30pm on a Friday; do you really think we both brought our best energy to that meeting?!
121s can often sneak up on you so block some recurring time in your calendar to prepare for them. To get the most out of your time together, ask your team to collect their thoughts ahead of the meeting and you do the same. Let them be a part of creating the agenda for the meeting – or even invite them to take the lead. Just remember that the aim of the meeting is to lift engagement
I provide my clients with a 121 planner framework to help them to get the most out of every 121 (and also make it easier for them to keep track of conversations when they have so many other things going on). It can be a good idea to keep a separate notebook to avoid notes getting lost. If you prefer to keep notes on your laptop, be sure to close any tabs that might be distracting and let your team member know that is what you are doing so that you being on your laptop doesn’t get misconstrued!
Coaching in your 121s
As new managers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you always have to have, and always have to give, the answers. Go back in time, and this was the way of the manager; they rose up the ranks by having the most expertise in an area and that meant always having the right answers. But as 21st century managers, we are faced with constant, rapid and disruptive change meaning that we simply don’t have all the answers.
Instead, we need to develop the skills to be able to support and guide our teams, asking questions rather than giving answers in order to unlock new ideas and energy.
Coaching means respecting your team’s abilities and believing they have the capacity to grow. It encourages them to problem solve, think in new ways and develop their strengths and weaknesses. It builds their confidence and reduces their dependencies.
In short, managers who coach during their 121s are more likely to have a highly engaged team than those who simply monitor performance and tell others what they would do.
Coaching is a skill that you will develop over time as you progress as a manager. In this section, we will consider two key elements; listening and questions.
Listening as a coach
To coach well, you have to be truly present. This means listening with your undivided attention; you might be looking at a person but if your mind is off thinking about your next meeting, you will not be an effective coach.
Make a habit of closing your laptop, putting your phone on silent and out of reach and removing any other distractions.
Technology can be a huge curse when it comes to our ability to listen. I once had a manager who was constantly looking at her Apple watch as messages pinged through. Not only that, but she also would make faces and often exhale deeply when she read them! It became a bit of a joke among her direct reports but the reality is that it had a huge impact on me as a team member. I would rush through what I had to say, giving bare minimum information because her behaviour made me think that she had other more important things to do. And I would never feel comfortable talking about anything personal. I actually left that organisation a few months after she became my manager…
Being as prepared as possible for your 121 will make it much easier for you to stay present as opposed to wracking your brain to think about what you need to discuss.
Empathetic listening is something that all managers should strive to develop in order to be the most effective leaders. To listen with empathy as a manager means to suspend your own needs and check into someone else’s. It requires self control, discipline and a level of curiosity to truly understand someone else’s point of view. When preparing for a 121, really try to put yourself in their shoes; think about how they might be feeling about anything that has happened over the week and then ask them in the meeting about it. Don’t put words in their mouth; instead ask open ended questions without any presuppositions to get a true reflection of how it’s going for them.
Empathetic listening can sometimes result in long silences, but this is often where you discover the golden nuggets that will help your team members in the long run. As hard as it can be, try not to feel the need to fill these silences; to reflect, people often need time to think so give it to them!
A great way to practice empathetic listening is to clarify your understanding of what someone has just said. This is a fantastic habit to get into as it can act as a reminder to stay present. Clarifying questions include:
‘Let me check I am understanding you correctly…[repeat back what they have said in your words]’
‘So what you’re saying is [X], is that a fair summary?’
Alongside paying attention to what someone is saying, consider how they’re saying it and their body language too:
‘I can sense some frustration around X, is that right?’
One caveat here, try not to overuse these phrases! If you do, it’s likely you’ll come across as robotic rather than being authentic and having a genuine interest in what someone has to say.
Listening to create action
If you’re reading this questioning how you will ever get things done if all you’re doing is listening, don’t panic! Listening is the catalyst for action. It helps you to share relevant insights, ideas and frameworks.
If you sense frustration, is it because someone is struggling with hitting targets? In which case, how can you devise a plan together to help them reach their goals? If you are hearing that there is conflict, how can you coach someone to look at the situation from a different perspective?
Listening is the first step to truly understanding what someone needs in order to perform their job more effectively. And if that means the best thing to do is take action, it means you can do that in an informed way.
Another important skill to develop as a manager is the ability to ask great questions. Great questions are those which encourage reflection and invite team members to do the majority of talking and solve their own problems. They are typically open ended and can’t be answered with a yes or no.
Try to avoid starting a question with ‘why’. ‘Why’ questions can put people on edge as they can come with judgement. Consider changing questions like ‘why did you do it that way’ to ‘what did you learn from approaching from that angle’. This is more likely to encourage a deeper level of reflection which can then lead to better insights and next steps.
Here are some more examples of open vs closed questions which may be used in a management context to aid your understanding:
- Are you liking your job?
- Is everything going okay?
- Do you feel like you’re developing in your role?
- Do you have enough support from me?
- Have you done X?
- What do you like about your job?
- What’s the biggest opportunity and challenge you’re facing right now?
- In what ways do you feel like you’re growing, or not growing, in your role?
- In what ways do you feel supported, or not supported, by me?
- What progress have you made on the next steps we discussed last week?
We will dig deeper into question types in the Coaching for Managers guide.
Keep the thread going
We all probably know someone who has an uncanny ability to retain information. I had a dentist who was brilliant at this; despite only seeing him twice a year, he would always follow up on our last conversation. As the receiver of this, it makes you feel like the other person has a genuine interest in you which is so powerful (let’s be honest, the dentist probably kept notes on record but the point stands!).
The deepest need of the human heart is to feel understood
Dr Stephen R. Covey
The most effective leaders will pick out themes they hear during 121s and set goals based on these conversations, implementing changes effectively. They will take notice of small details and recognise nuances.
Wrap up your 121s with any actions from the previous week. If there are any outstanding actions, listen, understand the reason and if appropriate, coach your team member on how to move forward. By addressing issues early, you will prevent habits from forming.
Finish by agreeing next steps; let your team member articulate their commitments to you to prevent you from falling into the trap of telling them what to do.
Think how much more effective your 121s will be if you approach them as a continuous conversation, rather than something you ‘have’ to do because it’s in your diary…
I have so many other things to do. Can I really not cancel a 121 if they’re doing well and we have no burning issues to chat about?
Cancelling a 121 is a clear communication to your team member that they’re not important. Even if you sit next to them and know exactly what is going on from a work perspective, there are things that people wouldn’t feel comfortable talking to you about in an open office. Remember the story I shared about my manager and her Apple watch? Maybe, if I had felt like I was listened to, I would have stayed within the business. So ask yourself when you next think about cancelling a 121, is saving half an hour today worth losing a valued team member 3 months down the line?
Coaching is more than asking questions and listening. It’s about keeping each other accountable for what you’ve discussed and taking action. Focusing on engagement rather than status updates in your 121s helps people to take ownership of their responsibilities, and motivates them to accomplish their goals. Don’t be surprised to find that you actually have more knowledge about your team’s progress as a highly engaged team will want to share their achievements and challenges with you.
Want further support in your role as a manager?
Our Intentional Manager Programme, developed for new and aspiring managers, or for those with up to 3 years’ experience is a unique, year long partnership to help maximise potential and deliver effective, lasting performance improvements.