Building Trust Through Skip-level Meetings

Building trusting relationships at work is essential for productive teams. In his book “The Speed of Trust,” Stephen M.R. Covey writes, “trust impacts us 24/7, 365 days a year. It undergirds and affects the quality of every relationship, every communication, every work project, every business venture, every effort in which we are engaged. It changes the quality of every present moment and alters the trajectory and outcome of every future moment of our lives – both personally and professionally.”

Skip-level meetings, if done well, can enhance trust among teams. Skip-level meetings are between a leader and one or more direct reports of a manager who reports to that leader — without that manager. They are an excellent tool to add to leaders’ arsenal, because in addition to building trust, they can deepen relationships and understanding of challenges and accomplishments and make leaders more accessible to employees by opening lines of communication. Leaders who regularly conduct skip-level meetings can use them as opportunities to learn about the professional and career development needs of the team, share new strategies or initiatives and gain feedback, and identify areas of opportunity or improvement from the people who are more “in the trenches” than they are.

One-on-one and team skip-level meetings are used for different reasons. One-on-one meetings allow for more open and deep dialogue and help to build relationships between individuals and the leader, but they are more time-consuming. Team skip-levels may be helpful when a leader would like to gain the group’s perspective on a particular topic or topics or when they want to witness how a team functions together and learn about the challenges the group faces.

“Winging it” doesn’t work well with skip-level meetings, but preparing in advance shouldn’t be overly cumbersome. Here are some simple ways to prepare for the meeting:

Inform the manger that you’re having the meeting, and tell him or her what you hope to gain from it.Decide, with the manager, who should attend the meeting.Explain to identified participants why you’re inviting them to the meeting and what your expected outcomes are.Create and share an agenda for the meeting.Draft questions you’d like to ask during the meeting, share them with the manager for feedback and send them to the meeting participants in advance.

During the meeting, restate its purpose; lay down ground rules; ask open-ended questions; and keep a “parking lot” of ideas, suggestions and important issues that should be addressed after the meeting. Here are some potential questions to ask during a skip-level meeting:

What is contributing to your team’s results?What challenges or obstacles are you facing?What have you tried already to decrease or eliminate those challenges? What would you like to try that you haven’t already?What support do you need from me or senior leadership?What are your development needs as a team? What are your individual career development needs and goals?What do you think of X (new initiative/project/product/offering)? What do we need to consider? How will it impact you and your team? What else do you think we need to know before launching?If you could change one thing about how your team functions, what would it be?What have we not covered that you’d like to talk about?

Remember during the meeting to stay at a high level, to avoid discussing the manager’s performance and to listen more than you talk. This meeting is your opportunity to tap into the minds of the people who are closer to or on the front lines and to do what you can to support them.

Skip-level meetings should not be used as complaining sessions or to gain performance feedback on a manager. If you learn some negative feedback about one of the managers, it’s important to acknowledge the concerns and address them with the person who raised them in a separate and private meeting later. Let the manager know you’re having that meeting, and follow up with suggested action items after the meeting. These steps will enhance trust and decrease fear and uncertainty about the process, both for the managers and for the people reporting to them.

Meaningful and timely follow-up to skip-level meetings is critical. After each meeting, share an update with the manager of the employees who participated, discuss challenges that arose and a plan to address them, and work with the manager to follow up on important items. Also, let the group know when you’d like to meet with them again and what you hope to accomplish between now and then.

Skip-level meetings are an excellent opportunity to create deep, trusting relationships with employees while supporting open communication and continuous feedback. Preparing for the meetings, sharing constructive updates and action items, and following up with both the manager and the team will enhance the success and reputation of skip-level meetings within your organization.

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