Blowing Off Employee Check-Ups? Prepare for Disaster Ahead

Last Updated Oct 5, 2010 5:30 PM EDT

Like changing your oil every 3,000 miles, managers know that they should schedule one-on-one time with their team members. And just like an oil change, it's a task easily pushed off. (Just to prove the point, in 1992 I actually blew out the engine in my 83 Nissan Sentra this way.) Actually, there are a lot of similarities between those seemingly unrelated activities:

It's easy to rationalize not doing it. Whether it's the myriad articles claiming to debunk the 3,000 mile magic number as an evil plot by Jiffy Lube or just that we're late for the kid's soccer practice, it's easy to ignore that little sticker in our window that tells us we're overdue for an oil change. We can always find reasons not to make a scheduled call with our remote reports, too. We're traveling, or we're in the middle of something else. So what's the big deal? Just as when we delay an oil change the car doesn't suddenly stop running, our employees are bright capable people and won't fall apart if we blow off one little telephone call. Right? Well, maybe...

You get more done than just a lube and filter. How often do you just get your oil changed? I know that when I bring my car in, I find out that a bulb is burned out, or that the fluids are low. Oh, and I get my car washed while I'm there. By checking in when I do, I can do a number of little things at once that save me time. They're also a lot cheaper than getting a ticket for a non-working signal light. The same goes with employee one-on-one time. By regularly checking in with your people, you find out all the little things going on with your team. Some of them are minor and you can take care of them simply, some you only want to keep an eye on for now, and some could become big problems if you let them go, so you'd best handle it. Wouldn't you rather know what's going on than run on assumptions?

Even minor neglect starts to show eventually. I have no scientific proof for this, but I suspect that if the world is divided into two kinds of drivers -- one fanatical about maintenance, and one who doesn't care much -- you can tell which is which by looking at their cars. Which one will be full of Taco Bell wrappers? Which one will have "Wash Me" written in dust on the back window? If you care about your vehicle, it shows in a lot of little ways. Luckily, a car is a non-sentient being (with apologies to Pixar). But people know when they're cared for and when they're not. If you're always blowing off time with your employees, they're going to feel like that rusty Gremlin with the duct-taped bumper in the neighbor's driveway.

By the time the warning light comes on, the damage is done. Your car has sensors that tell you when there's a problem, so what's the big deal? The deal is that those sensors don't go off until things reach a predetermined level of crisis. It costs a lot more to replace the motor in your Civic than it does to do regular maintenance, and you get to determine when the car is in the shop. With people, you often don't know there's a problem until the damage is done. It can show up as reduced productivity, project delays or even turnover. Having someone quit in the middle of a project is every bit as expensive and frustrating as breaking down by the side of the highway, and often as easily prevented.

So yeah, you can occasionally put off an oil change. You can even reschedule a one-on-one call when something important comes up. Do it too often, though, and it can lead to bigger problems. Better to suck it up and take the time while it's not a crisis.

You don't want that critical project to end up like my poor old Nissan, do you?

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