One-to-one meetings (sometimes called a One-on-One, or 1:1 meeting) are a staple in almost every manager’s calendar. They’re a fundamental pillar of effective management, and a key tool for driving performance. I believe it’s one of the most important tools you have at your disposal, and if you could only do one thing to improve your team’s performance, it would be to make better use of your one-to-ones.
From handling difficult conversations, to turning up unprepared, there are a number of pitfalls that managers fall into. So how can you ensure that your one-to-ones are actually effective? How do you get the most out of them?
Here are a few ideas drawn from my own experience as manager, and coaching first-time and experienced leaders alike. But first, what exactly is a one-to-one and why is it important?
What Is a One-to-One Meeting?
A one-to-one meeting is a regular, scheduled meeting between a manager and their direct report. You’ll meet to discuss progress, ongoing priorities, and roadblocks anywhere from 45 minutes to 1 hour at least twice a month, if not every week. It can be intimate and free-flowing, but as a manager you need to make sure you cover a baseline of topics, and are asking the right questions for both you and your direct report to get the most out of the meeting.
It’s also important to remember what a one-to-one is not – it’s not a status meeting. You should have other systems in place, such as team meetings, project tracking, and status emails that tell you the overall status of ongoing projects. A one-to-one is about developing your team and uncovering roadblocks, not getting updates.
Why Are One-to-One Meetings Important?
One-to-one meetings are crucial for effective management because they’re the foundation of regular communication between you and your employee. They provide a space where you can learn about their work, share feedback, and coach them on what’s working well and what’s not. This regular communication is crucial for building trust and addressing any issues that might adversely impact their progress.
One-to-ones are also an opportunity to develop your employee’s career. Employees usually have goals they’re working towards, even if they are not documented in a formal performance review. One-to-one meetings provide space to talk about these goals and support your employee on their path to success.
The outcome of one-to-one meetings is actionable next steps for both parties. You will leave the session with a clear idea of what you need to do to help them progress, and they’ll be more aware of your expectations for their role.
How to Structure Effective One-to-One Meetings
Effective one-to-ones are about creating a space for your team members to give honest feedback on what’s working well, where they’re struggling, and how you can help them perform better in their role.
One of European soccer’s most decorated coaches stated that one-to-one meetings were an integral part of his management style. In his management coaching sessions with Harvard Business school, Sir Alex Ferguson, who won multiple trophies throughout his career, explained how his players benefited from 1:1 meetings – the players thrived knowing they had the ‘coach’s shoulder.’
Having these conversations away from the rest of the team paid dividends for Ferguson’s results on the field. Similarly, engaging with your staff will likely prove equally as fruitful.
Here’s how to ensure your one-to-ones are as effective as possible.
Optimal 1:1 Agenda
When conducting a one-to-one meeting, it’s essential to have a set agenda. Setting an agenda will allow the discussion to flow organically, rather than simply be a status update. Again, if you cycle through the employee’s task list in a one-to-one session, you risk eating up time and failing to identify the real issues, ultimately preventing great results.
The First 5 Minutes
How you start the meeting determines whether you’ll engage in a productive dialogue or whether it will stay at a surface-level.
First, it’s paramount to create a safe environment for your team members, so take care with how you start out the one-to-one – don’t jump into discussing work right away.
Ask about things outside of work. How’s their family? What did they think about the game last night? Do they have any kids? If so, where do they go to school? Life doesn’t start and stop at work, and life outside of work affects how people show up at work.
Good leadership is about showing people they are valued. Ensuring your team feels supported will not only result in a positive work culture but will also encourage them to deliver their best. After all, if your employees feel you’ve got their back, they’ll reciprocate and want to be successful for you and the rest of the team.
Challenges and Roadblocks
Next, ask open-ended questions to understand the key issues that might be impeding their progress. It can be tempting to go into solution mode, but the aim is to prompt the employee to come up with their own answers. You are there to guide and help the staff learn and grow. If they cannot think of any challenges, or are hesitant to bring them up, ask more direct questions such as, “how do you feel about your upcoming deadlines?” or “how are things going with your new hire?”
This part of the meeting not about getting project updates – it’s about helping your team set priorities. In most businesses, there are more projects and new ideas than there are hours in the day. Even the most disciplined employee can take tangents and get distracted by shiny new ideas. This is your opportunity to talk through their current project list and understand how they set priorities. Some of the best coaching opportunities come from helping your staff align their priorities with those of the business.
Career goals and personal development
Too often managers skip this step, which can leave people feeling like there’s nowhere to grow in the organization, or that you don’t care. Not every meeting needs to talk about career goals (though you should be touching on this at least 4 times a year), but you should be talking about some aspect of their personal development. For example, if they are struggling with having difficult conversations, and have committed to work on it, now’s a great time to follow up – what did they take away from the book you recommended? How did their last difficult conversation go?
The Wrap Up
The final step in a highly effective one-to-one is review the key takeaways and agree on commitments. Ask the employee – “what were your key takeaways from this meeting?” Letting them summarize the meeting, rather than you, is a great way to see if you’re on the same page. Then ask “what are you are actioning from this meeting?” Having someone articulate, in their own words, what they are committing to, often has a very different outcome than you telling them what to do.
Avoid Common Traps
There are a few common pitfalls where one-to-one meetings can go off the rails. Here are four to look out for:
Avoid jumping straight to solutions
You know what people say about when we assume things.
This is your opportunity to understand what makes your staff tick, how they think about their work, and what might be holding them back. Don’t assume you know what they are thinking and feeling, and jump to conclusions about what they need. Ask clarifying questions. Dig deep.
Don’t ignore your high performers because they are “low maintenance”
Another dangerous assumption is thinking your high performers don’t need a regular 1:1 conversation. Every member of the team has blind spots. It’s tempting to focus all your time and energy on employees you feel need the most help or might be underperforming. Remember, it is the strong performers that you’re trying to retain. Don’t let yourself fall into a situation where key players exit the firm due to a lack of engagement from higher management because you labelled them “low maintenance”.
Be present. One-to-ones only work when you devote your full attention. Silence your phone and close your laptop. Try to use a paper notebook so you’re not tempted to look at your emails and Slack messages. Try not to be thinking of the next thing to say, and try not to dominate the conversation. If you’re talking more than 50% of the time, it’s an at-versation, not a conversation.
Try not to take on their work
Employees who fail to follow through on objectives might try to shift the blame, or shift the responsibility back on you. For example, ‘I haven’t got the answer I need from marketing, can you help?’ The team member is putting the onus on you to fix the issue. Don’t let them put that responsibility on your back.
Teach your team that they are ultimately accountable for the work. If they are not getting the answers they need from other departments, or from clients, it’s on them to follow up relentlessly to get what they need. If you start taking on that responsibility, not only are you teaching them that they have an out, but you will ultimately become the bottleneck as you chase down issues for your team.
We hope this article has been enlightening, and you can take something away to improve your 1-on-1’s. Remember, the key to having effective meetings is that you are prepared, focused, and present. It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time. Try this agenda, keep these strategies in mind, and iterate your way to success. The most important thing is to make them a priority.
If you are new to 1:1s, or you feel like you’re not getting the most of the 1:1s you’re having with your team and would like to have a focused coaching session to dive deeper into 1:1s, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org