The Room Where it Happens


As leaders, much of the magic happens in the one-on-one conversations either in the privacy of a physical of virtual room (think Skype or Zoom) or on a walk-about as a more neutral setting and where you also benefit from the energy of being in Motion. These conversations should sometimes be as non-threatening as a walk in the park and other times be as invigorating as a race up the stadium stairs.

We should consciously and actively have a genuine interest in helping our team members develop and find what motivates them. It is vital that you establish the trust such that the person you’re working with has no doubt you have their best interest at heart (rather than having them wonder if you might be solving towards getting more work out of them). This sets the context for together solving challenges and finding opportunities. If you don’t establish the trust in that intent, you’ll be starting at a place where they will be defensive about your calling out challenges they have.

The room where it happens is perhaps not quite the same as the free-association couch, but still a good place to connect.

One thing to keep in mind is what not to talk about – things typically discussed in other meetings.

Effective 1-on-1s - What not to talk about

Google suggests What do you want? as an opener. I tend to prefer starting with understanding what they do and don’t enjoy at work to help them consider what it is they want. I like, especially in skip-levels, to start with Start with: Are you happy? I have found the most passionate and productive engineers are the ones that really enjoy what they’re doing. If there’s hesitation, then it’s a great thread to pull to unravel a good insightful story.

The Coach’s Training Institute has a collection of sample powerful questions to help spawn a conversation,

In Google’s Project Oxygen, the top three items on their list of an effective manager come out to be:

  1. Be a good coach.
  2. Empower; don’t micromanage.
  3. Be interested in direct reports, success and well-being.

Underlying causes of unhappiness can be that be beneficial to explore; areas where I’ve often uncovered some frustration that benefited from some attention include:

  • Purpose: why am I doing what I’m doing? Often an engineer may not appreciate the value of what they’re are working on by itself or relative to other things. This is a great conversation to have because either you haven’t explained it well enough in the past, or they’re right, there are more important things they could be working on. Either outcome adds value.
  • Motivation: people can lose their drive or hunger for something they’ve been doing for a long time. It;’s great to explore what may interest them as soon as possible so that you can together look for opportunities.
  • Craft: Employees take pride in their craft. If they feel rushed into doing a quick and dirty job or not challenged to enhance their craft, the engagement may fade.
  • Efficiency: No employee likes external influences getting in the way of them doing their job. It’s good to know if/when they feel systems are too slow, resources too constrained, processes too cumbersome, test and/or build runs too long, … These are all great opportunities for a manager to improve an employees effectiveness and engagement.
  • Autonomy: Another thing that can drain an employee’s motivation and make them less effective is if they feel to dependent on others for collaboration, support, approval, unblocking, etc. Here too a manager can offer value by reducing or eliminating obstacle to autonomy.
  • Conflict: There can be conflict within the team or with other teams. This too is a great opportunity for the manager to coach the employee through conflict resolution.

In her book Radical Candor – Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity Kim Scott dives into the notion of how be the nice manager who empathizes may not be the most helpful to our employees that also could benefit from the true compassion of being willing to have more candid conversations. See also my post on Meaningful Feedback Conversations. 
Note, there is also benefit in making it a two way street by building a trust relationship where you also encourage getting some radical candor coming back on things you could do better.

Radical Candor in the Mirror

Martha Duesterhoft also talks about 5 Coaching Skills Every Manager Needs:

  1. Take an Ask vs. Tell approach (or as Intuit calls it Sell vs Tell).
  2. —Focus on the employee vs. the task
  3. It’s not about “fixing” anyone.
  4. Set up a clear accountability structure for action & outcomes.
  5. Coaching can/should happen as needed and in-the-moment (but not in public

Which is also reminiscent of what I learned at Intuit about Sell vs Tell – it’s more effective to see someone on the merits of doing something than to simply tell them to do it – you get more buy-in, engagement and often a better outcome as they appreciate what you’re trying to solve for and find the best solution rather just implementing the solution you had in mind…

I have also found it useful to sometimes do a five whys analysis of understanding the root causes of why someone may be frustrated, unhappy or demotivated.

See also:

Precision Questions and Precision Answers where JD opens with:

“It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.”
– Eugene Ionesco –

3 Questions to More Insightful Team Management where Ferhan Elvanoglu suggests asking:

  1. Where is your heart ?
  1. What does growth look like for you ?
  2. Aside from financial rewards, what is the best way to reward you ? And what is the best way to give you bad news or feedback ?

In Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Dan Pink explores interesting aspects of what motivates us:

  • Autonomy (Don’t micromanage – it’s a sure-fire way to take the wind out of their sails.)
  • Mastery (Help find ways to master their craft; show genuine appreciation for it.)
  • Purpose (Why do you come to work, why do you work for this company and not another, what, in your eyes, is our business’ purpose, how does that align with what you see as your prupose, and what do you hope to impact by working at here?)

See also TED Talk by Dan Pink: The puzzle of motivation or for those a slightly more fun/visible interpretation:

Show-Personal-Interest-2-1024x541 copy
National award-winning Palo Alto teacher takes unusual approach

Levels in the Room
Another level of thinking about the Room Where it Happens comes in the context of framing styles of leadership in the fish story:

  • Level 1 leading – The Micromanager – tells them what to do – gives them a fish. There are some leaders that can be surprisingly effective in this mode if they happen to be experts at what they do, fast on their feet and full of energy. I’ve seen successful VPs operate at this level.
  • Level 2 leading – The Instructor – shows them how to do it – teaches them to fish. Now they can repeat the task themselves.
  • Level 3 guiding – The Eye-Opener – bestows the grit, confidence and experiences, insight and tools allowing them to solve whatever may come – teaches them to learn so they might obtain various forms of food.
  • Level 4 guiding – The Leader of Leaders – enables/teaches others to become level 2. 3 and 4 leaders.
  • Level 5 guiding – The Master Whisperer – operates at levels 3 and 4 with such subtly that the recipient often doesn’t notice they are being guided by shining a light on possibilities and possible perspectives. A level 1 or 2 leader may also not recognize when there’s a level 5 leader on their team.

Level 1 and 2 leadership often leads to underutilized or diminish the potential of members of their team.

Level 3 and above leadership empowers, inspires, grows and scales teams and organizations.

One way to test if you’ve have a level 5 connection, is to start a conversation by saying: “Close your eyes, recognize that you know me, know yourself, know what’s transpired, you what you intend to ask me or talk about and recognize what I’d say and where we’d end up. Try that for 10 minutes.” Surprisingly often, people you’ve spent enough time with will be able to do that. This means they can carry you with them as a subconscious guide. For people who miss the guidance of a parent or partner that has passed, this exercise usually helps them realize that person is still there to be called upon for guidance.

See also:

Hamilton - The Room Where It Happens

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