5 Kick-ass Kick-starter Questions for your One-on-Ones

Leaders have expressed to me that they struggle with how to get their employees talking in one-on-one discussions.  Here is an example of a typical exchange between the leader and me:

Leader: My employees tell me they don’t need a one-on-one. They either don’t talk at all, or they tell me they have nothing to bring up or discuss.

Me: So then what happens?

Leader: Well, I just cancel them because clearly they don’t need them….or want them.

What’s interesting about this exchange is that, as an HR professional, the feedback I would hear from employees, especially from engagement surveys, was that they wanted more one-on-one time with their managers.  The less one-on-one time managers had with their staff, the lower the engagement score for that team.

With one-on-ones being an engagement booster, managers want to find a way to get their staff talking. Here are five kick-ass kick-starter questions that will no doubt fire up your one-on-ones:

1. What’s on your mind?

In The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way you Lead Forever, author Michael Bungay Stanier highlights this question as an easy conversation starter as it gets right to what is immediately in your employee’s peripheral vision. It might be something that just happened that day, or that week. It may be an interpersonal issue that’s bothering them, or a work-related problem. Regardless, something must be on their mind so at least it starts up a conversation that you can dig into.

2. Describe some moments over the past week/month where you have pleasantly surprised yourself.

I like this question because it puts employees in a positive mindset. Sometimes you may even catch the employee smiling as it allows them to reflect on their accomplishments.

3. Let’s review your career development goals; in which areas did you get some exposure and/or training in the past month? Where do you want to explore next?

This question gives you the opportunity to discuss your employee’s development progress by having them recollect tangible examples to talk about.  I recommend this as a regular one-on-one question so that you can stay on top of the employee’s progress on their development plan, and fine-tune it as necessary.

4. Is there a particular person or department in the organization you want to work with or get to know better?  How can I help get you connected to them?

When we are caught up in the day-to-day, networking can be off our radar.  One-on-ones are a great opportunity to remind employees to connect with others in the organization to create visibility.  Visibility leads to career development opportunities as others in the organization get to know your employee, his skills, and abilities.  This may open up opportunities to be on organizational projects, or present promotional or lateral moves within the company.

Throughout the year, help your staff find at least one person to network with so that they can increase their visibility. As a further step, help them to prepare for their meeting with the individual by planning some areas of discussion and questions with them.

5. Tell me about a day recently when you felt deflated/out of steam?  What happened that day?  What did you do to re-energize yourself?

This is a great question to find out what barriers or obstacles your staff may be facing. When your employee starts talking about the day, listen to what specifically brought his or her energy levels down.  It could be an interaction with another employee, or that they couldn’t make a certain deadline or deliverable for a project or task.  On the flip side, discussing what re-energizes the individual gives you more intel on how he or she relieves stress, or what he or she enjoys doing.  This can be a great foundation for a discussion on how the employee can use his or her energizing tools to get through a tough day in the future.

BONUS TIP (For those that made it this far and didn’t get sidetracked by email!)

Contrary to what most articles out there say, you don’t need to ask a bunch of personal questions about what the employee likes to do at home or in their personal lives.  If or when they are comfortable, they will share with you – trust me!  Some employees don’t like to talk about home life, others thrive on it.  Don’t push it, it will come as they get more comfortable expressing themselves to you.

Also, instead of discussing workload, reviewing production numbers, and asking your employees how they feel about their work-life balance, try asking the above kick-starter questions.  From their answers, you will be able to see if your employee is too overwhelmed or busy with their day-to-day tasks to focus on their development.  If you find that at every one-on-one the employee has had no progress around their development, ask them:

1. What barriers are you facing when it comes to achieving your developmental goals?  What has been making it difficult for you to focus on this?

2. How can you get more time or opportunities to focus on your development?  How can I support you?

Try these tips and before you know it, the employee will be rattling things off at your one-on-ones before you even have a chance to say hello!

Do you have some kick-ass questions you want to share with us?  Drop them into the comments section below and give us a like if you enjoyed this article!

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