One-on-one meetings are hard to get right. They can come across as intimidating, disorganized, or unproductive when one or both parties aren’t prepared. It’s hard to know how long they should last, how often they should be held, and what should be discussed. Because we know the struggle, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about solutions. We’ve written this article as a guide on how to have great one-on-one meetings with your direct reports.
And while this may not be completely comprehensive, we’re confident that following our outline will lead to better results. One-on-ones can provide a wealth of valuable information, can be a time to build relationships, and can provide direction and motivation for employees. Don’t squander the opportunity to better your business. Take one-on-ones seriously and you’ll reap the rewards.
Here’s what we recommend:
Hold Meetings Regularly
One-on-one meetings are often awkward, unhelpful, and unproductive because they do not happen with regularity. If you’re meeting with your team members at odd times, missing scheduled meetings, always rescheduling but never following through, or just not putting meetings on calendars, then your outcomes will be abysmal.
The first step to better one-on-ones is consistency. Hold the meetings regularly and schedule them ahead of time. The cadence of these meetings (every week, bi-weekly, once-a-month) is up to you. For some managers, weekly one-on-ones will be the best approach because the people you manage need regular coaching, emotional support, and motivation. For others, once-a-month will be plenty. The important thing is that the meetings happen on a regular schedule that is predictable and consistent for your employees.
Create an Agenda and Set Expectations
If you want to have a productive meeting, then plan accordingly. These one-on-ones will be somewhat useless without goals and expectations behind them. This responsibility starts with you as a manager.
The day before the meeting, share an agenda with the employee you’ll be meeting with. On that agenda, there should be some regularly covered topics (i.e. performance review, current projects, etc.) and some possible discussion topics (i.e. what are the strengths and weaknesses of your department).
There should also be time set aside for the employee to bring any topics, ideas, or suggestions to the table. In other words, the agenda should not just be a list of things you want to ask the employee. Leave gaps of time where the employee can voice their opinions and be heard.
If you want to discuss anything that requires an employee to think about or prepare well in advance, then make sure they have ample time to do so. This might include a discussion on the employee’s career path, a resume review, etc.
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The Leader Leads the Meeting
When you sit down with a direct report, be sure to make it clear that you’re going to lead the meeting. Too many one-on-ones start with an uncertain manager making small talk and seemingly waiting for their counterpart to jumpstart the conversation.
If you’re in charge, be in charge. Lead the meeting. There’s nothing wrong with small talk at the start of a one-on-one as long as it’s followed by a transition to, “let’s dive into the agenda for today” and then a discussion of the items at hand.
Whatever you do, don’t make your direct report feel like they need to guess at what they should say or what you want to hear. Don’t make them feel like they need to take charge of the agenda. Guide the conversation and allow your team member to participate in it, but don’t forget that you’re in charge. It’s your meeting.
Invite Two-Way Communication
Sometimes while following the guideline to “lead the meeting”, a manager might forget that there are two people in the room. They end up doing all the talking, sharing thoughts, ideas, feedback, and never leaving room for their direct report to say anything. Of course, this is the opposite of what the meeting is trying to achieve.
One-on-ones are a chance for two people to come together and connect. The connection should be built on a foundation of trust and respect. If you as the manager do all the talking, then your team member will not feel confident in that shared foundation. Don’t let your eagerness to lead the meeting get in the way of an opportunity for a productive conversation.
So how do you go about ensuring two-way communication?
The best way is to ask questions and actively listen. Active listening is a skill that many people think they have. The unfortunate reality is that most of us struggle with it. As we ask our questions, we like to anticipate what the response to the question might be, and then we immediately start to form our response to their response.
Active listening is the ability to delay the impulse of response formulation. Active listeners make eye contact, give their full attention to their subject, and patiently wait for the speaker to finish before trying to respond.
This is something that does not come naturally for most of us and it’s a skill that we can practice every day. By becoming a more active listener, you’ll notice that the quality of your conversations increase, that you talk less and learn more, and that your one-on-ones become productive two-way communications that add tremendous value to the business.
Ask Specific Questions, Get Specific Answers
One-on-one meetings are an excellent way to learn more about the inner workings of a business. As a manager, you might be more removed than you’d like to think from the critical issues of the team you’re managing. Your employees, however, will be keenly aware of what’s working and what isn’t.
So to get a grip on your team or department, you should come prepared with specific questions. Broad questions like, “What do you think the company could improve on?” are fine, but they often are responded to with broad answers that aren’t pertinent to your team. You can do better than this. Dig deep into what you really want to know. Ask questions that relate very specifically to the team or project the employee is working on. Here are some examples that you might use:
- What are one or two things you’d change in the [X] department if you were in my shoes?
- Which of your co-workers does [X] the best and why do you think they do it so well?
- How would you make [X] experience better for customers?
- What is your least favorite part of your job and why?
- Why did [X] project take so long to complete?
- Who are the people you go to for answers when you have questions?
- How can I improve as a manager?
- What is something that you’re seeing in our department that others, including myself, might be missing?
Use these suggestions to have better conversations. They’ll spark ideas and help you understand your organization on a whole new level.
Of course, don’t feel pressure to ask all of these questions or even most of them during every one-on-one meeting. It may become exhausting for an employee to come up with something new to change in your department for the 10th week in a row. Add some variety. Focus on just two or three points. If you’re doing your one-on-one meetings regularly, you’ll have the chance to ask more questions in the future.
Finally, approach your one-on-one with a humble attitude. You might be the manager, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn a lot from your direct reports. If you have good questions prepared, you’ll get insightful answers that will improve the way you manage your team.
Share Honest Feedback
One thing that many employees agree on is that they don’t get enough feedback. Employees want feedback for a variety of reasons, but most importantly it’s so they can be aware of their performance level compared to their manager’s expectations. No employee ever wants to be caught off guard and fired for poor performance. If there’s a problem with how they’re completing their work, they want to know about it.
The opposite of this is also true. Employees crave recognition for a job well done. If they outperformed expectations and went above and beyond to finish a project, they’d like to be celebrated and recognized.
One-on-ones are a great place to provide feedback of both kinds. Honest and constructive criticism of underperforming employees will not only shine a light on the issue but will hopefully spark change. Rewarding, praising, and celebrating an employee for great work will encourage them to continue to perform at a high level in the future.
One-on-ones can also be a great time for a manager to ask for feedback on their performance. Direct reports might be shy to give suggestions, but if you can create a safe and positive environment for them to speak freely without fear of retribution then they’ll begin to open up on ways you might be able to improve. Seeking and welcoming feedback is a sign of a good leader. Your direct reports will build trust in you if you humbly accept and respond to their feedback.
Build the Relationship
The majority of your conversation in a one-on-one setting will likely be work-related. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to build and improve your relationship with your team members. Do you know about their family? Are you familiar with their likes and dislikes? Do you know about any traumatic or difficult experiences that they’re currently going through? Do you know where they like to go for lunch?
It’s human nature to want to build relationships and form connections with people you spend time with. Your team members do not have to be your best friends, but they should certainly feel like you value them as a person. These conversations will also make you appear a little less intimidating. Sharing vulnerable details about one’s personal life is a sign of trust. It’s a message that there’s more to life than hitting next month’s quota.
If your discussions and conversations with fellow employees never stretch beyond work, it’ll be hard for your team members to feel as if they really matter. They’ll think that you’re using them as a means to an end. Humanize yourself by asking questions that aren’t related to work, and offer up information about your life to help others be more comfortable sharing information about theirs. Relationship building is not just good for business, it’s just a good way to live.
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Set a Time Limit
Like any other meeting on your calendar, your one-on-one meetings should have a start and end time. Be aware and respectful of these times. It’ll not only be good for your productivity, but your direct reports need to know that their day won’t be disrupted for longer than expected.
It’ll be easier to abide by time limits as you become more consistent with your meeting schedule. If you only meet with your team members once every three months, they’ll likely want more time than the standard 30-minute block. But if you’re meeting together every week, 10-15 minutes should be plenty of time to catch up and work through the agenda.
A final tip for one-on-one meetings is to take notes during or after each interaction. We recommend doing them after so that you can be fully present while in the meeting. The one-on-one will ideally be free of distractions and electronic devices (including phones and laptops) to focus solely on the conversation.
When the meeting finishes, give yourself five minutes to record some notes from the interaction. You can use software to store these notes or you can jot them down in a private notebook.
Start by writing down your overall impressions of the meeting. Was your direct report upbeat and positive or did they seem down and uninterested? Write down how they responded to your questions, what questions they asked you, and what suggestions they had for the business. You should also write down anything you learned about the employee personally so that you can remember and review it.
Over time these notes will become an extremely valuable resource. As you compare notes from previous meetings, you’ll be able to see how both you, your direct report, and the business has grown or changed over time.
Taking notes after one-on-one meetings is also important if ever there are disciplinary or performance issues that were addressed during the meeting. Let’s say for example that after three months of unsatisfactory performance, you decide to fire an employee. That employee may be so upset by their firing that they bring a lawsuit against the company for unlawful termination. If, however, you’ve consistently conducted one-on-one meetings and you’ve taken notes from each event, you’ll be able to show a clear, documented pattern of underperformance that will build your company’s case for termination.
One-on-one meetings are not rocket science. The biggest challenge for most companies is simply having the discipline to do them. If you can commit to regularly scheduling these meetings you’ll already be ahead of the curve. Prepare agendas and set expectations beforehand. This will help guide both you and your direct report. Ask questions that matter. Get specific if you want specific answers. Give feedback. Be human and talk about things outside of work. Be respectful of your co-workers’ time. Take notes so that each meeting can build upon the previous one, and so that you don’t cover the same topics time and time again.
Like anything else in business or in life, you’ll get better with practice. The key is to get started.
You’ve got this!