Effective 1-1s – Fostering trust and creating no-harm zone

Effective 1-1 is the cornerstone of a successful management career, and acquiring necessary competencies in order to have a great 1-1 with your reports is a great career enhancement technique.

I have referred to this topic many times in my posts and have couple of posts devoted to this topic (see Managing 1-1s and Effective 1-1s). Those posts talk about tips for making 1-1s effective and efficient.

One of the basic premises for a successful one on one is to be able to build the trust and openness that can let communications happen. This is what one of ex-boss called ‘no-harm zone’. This is the place and time when participants can be open, truthful, critical, candid and emotional, and still can rely on the other party to keep all this in confidence. Notice that I am not saying that only one party (your report if you are a manager) has to feel and act that way; both parties have to feel and act the same.

One of the realizations I have had in past 12-18 months is around ways of creating such a no-harm zone. What I have found work the best in creating the trusting environment for 1-1s is to open my conversations by talking about my own insecurities and concerns around the topic I want to talk about (mostly around organizational issues), thus setting the stage for people to reciprocate and share their own concerns and creating an environment where either of us can walk out and make life difficult for others by sharing what we just said with everyone in the company. However, this is where interesting aspect of human nature comes out: we respect each other, we reciprocate feelings, and we bond more we feel others are as vulnerable as we are.

Notice that I take the start in such conversations by putting myself at risk. This might sound strange and risky; the person might take your truthfulness, criticism, or emotion as a weakness and spread the words around. However, creating trust requires showing trust, and such a behavior shows the other person clearly that I trust him/her. In my experience, this is an acceptable risk if you are a manager. I think of this risk in this way: anyway I can’t stop others from talking about me right or wrong, so even if there is some such comments make its way into that pool of muddled information/rumors, it doesn’t matter too much. However, to be fair, such a risk has never materialized for me: all my 1-1s with people have kept my conversations in confidence and have been very insightful and honest.

Here are my thoughts on how to create no-harm zone in a 1-1 (or for any conversation) and make 1-1s more effective:

  1. Show your vulnerability – By opening up on topics and ideas that are controversial or put you in precarious situation for voicing them, you put your success/failure in the other person’s hands. Start small; visualize what will happen if someone quotes you in public on these comments and take only acceptable risks if you are doing this first time with someone. Showing vulnerability is one of the strongest ways of building trust very quickly.
  2. Reciprocate – This is kindergarten stuff: do unto others what you want them to do to you. When someone shows their vulnerability, thank them and reciprocate by showing yours. If someone shows passion or emotion, show yours if you are of passionate and emotional type. Such resonance has been known to put people in comfortable situations and this allows both parties to trust each other more.
  3. Show care by listening – When you listen, among other things, you show care. People appreciate this, because you are giving them time because you hold them worthy of such care. Do it as much as you can.
  4. Laugh at yourself, have fun – Nothing works better than a little laugh and fun in an 1-1 where situations can easily become tense and morbid. Self-effacing humor is one of the best ways I have experienced which keeps the 1-1s pleasant, and at the same time helps foster the trust environment. Laughing at yourself or putting yourself down is another form of showing humility and put yourself vulnerable and shows people that you are human.
  5. Show by action what you preach and cherish – This is very important, and works both for creating trust as well as making you an effective leader. If you model the behavior you want to see in others and which you keep talking about, people take you as an honest and genuine person; for ex, contrast this with someone who extolls the virtue of listening and then keeps talking in his 1-1.
  6. Be honest – This sounds very simple, but this requires care. Many times, we think we can fool others by not saying the complete truth, or not providing our honest opinions we are asked for. While this is not lying, and may be considered acceptable, they kill trust in a 1-1. People are smarter than we think, and they see through us much more than we believe. So if you don’t want to say complete truth, it is better to say ‘I can’t talk about it right now’ than giving a fiction about it.

A few caveats to be aware of:

  1. You need to be sincere and honest (in other person’s eyes) when you open up; otherwise you will be immediately tagged as phony and playing with emotions.
  2. You need to be aware: you can’t do this with everyone in the world. While most people in your organization will be worthy of you showing trust to them in this way, you will occasionally come across people who won’t. Read people, know them more, before you apply this.
  3. Trust can erode easily, so keep an eye on it and reinforce it with above principles (or whatever has worked for you) once in a while.

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