Too much one-on-one can damage team dynamics

Aug 05 2014 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

Every good manager knows that the secret to maintaining a close working relationship with their individual team members is to spend time with them “one-on-one”. But what if we are spending so much time focused on individual communication that we inadvertently create a problem for the team as a whole?

Our work with clients around the world shows an unusual pattern of team behavior. When participants rate their managers highly on their working relationships with each other as individuals, you often see a corresponding drop in the team’s trust and ability to work with each other independent of the manager. What’s up?

Here are some of the reasons that diligently focusing on individual team members can cause unforeseen problems with your team dynamics:

Team members become reliant on the manager for information and resources. One of the ways we build trust with teammates is to see how helpful and smart they are when you need assistance. Frequently, though, it’s easier to ask your manager for assistance since you’re speaking to them anyway. While this makes sense, over time it may create a situation where going to the manager is the default for any need, rather than reaching out to teammates. As a manager, don’t forget to encourage and even delegate tasks to other team members as a way of building those ties.

Keeping meetings short can often mean limiting productive interaction. No one wants to waste time on virtual meetings. As a result they are often short and to the point, which is great. The challenge is that in the interest of saving time, we often limit conversation or don’t indulge in the kind of social interaction that builds trust and working relationships. Does your team have an opportunity to hear from, and get to know, each other? If not, think about spotlighting one team member per meeting or some other way of helping the whole team appreciate what you know about them.

You learn things in your one on ones but that doesn’t mean the team learns about them. Often your one on one conversation will allow you to offer assistance, information or even praise with the employee. You uncover problems they’re having and offer assistance. The problem is, that the only person who hears it is the employee. There’s no chance for anyone else to demonstrate their competence or willing to help. They don’t hear your effusive praise for the team member’s problem solving skills.

So don’t be in such a rush to solve every problem yourself. And if you hear something terrific or newsworthy, share it with the team (in a way that won’t embarrass the person in question).

You become so helpful that you become a communication bottleneck instead of a hub. When people know they can reach out to their boss rather than each other and still get their questions answered, why wouldn’t they? It’s not for simply nefarious reasons, but we get a lot of those “while we’re talking…” situations.

So when someone asks you to ask someone else for information, or avoids talking to a teammate in order to discuss something with you, it might be time to take a deep breath and engage in some constructive delegation. Suggest a teammate they can get assistance from.

One important question to ask is “why don’t you ask so-and-so?” You may uncover problems within the team you wouldn’t otherwise see until it becomes a serious problem.

None of this is to suggest that you should have fewer coaching calls, or “one on one” check-ins. What I am suggesting, is that you be more thoughtful about what those calls are telling you about the dynamic within the team, not just between you and your individual employees.

Whether you’re doing these calls in person, on the phone or via webcam (and if you’re not, why not?), be aware of how these individual conversations impact the entire team, and respond thoughtfully.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.