Make the most of one-on-ones

10 February, 2020

Thoughtful one-on-one interactions can vastly enhance your performance as a manager

In a desire for efficiency, many leaders end up sacrificing one-on-one time with their team members and managing the team through group meetings. Unfortunately, team meetings, while necessary, can never substitute for quality one-on-one discussions. I find that many leaders don’t fully leverage the power of one-on-one’s.

Done in the right manner, one-on-one discussions can become a powerful, high-impact tool in your managerial toolkit, allowing you to connect with each of your team members in a more in-depth way. Along with the opportunity to track progress, offer guidance and provide motivation, these interactions also give you a better understanding of individual concerns and the day-to-day realities within your team. In 6 Things Great Leaders Do In A One-On-One, Maynard Webb highlights the key aims of one-on-ones:

The purpose is to get alignment on, then calibration against, what success looks like. Weekly one-on-ones are a chance for your reports to receive dedicated access to you, which ensures they can ask for help where needed, and helps you to avoid any surprises.

Regular interactions that take place face to face are invaluable. They eliminate misunderstandings, pave the way for frankness, and help you retain talent by catching problems early.

So, this week, my message focuses on how leaders can optimise one-on-one meetings. In what ways can you boost productivity and collaboration? And how can you support the development and growth of your team members?

Even with tools like video chat, voice calls, instant messaging and email at our disposal, regular interactions that take place face to face are invaluable. They eliminate misunderstandings, pave the way for frankness, and help you retain talent by catching problems early. They also offer time for strategic questions: Are we focusing on the right things? Are we in sync with the organisation’s values and goals? Are we thinking enough about the future? When one-on-ones become a way of life, annual performance reviews become far easier!

As David Hassell notes in The Only One On One Meeting Checklist You Will Ever Need, these meaningful interactions build a culture of care at the workplace:

One on ones are a space for the growth of each employee with a manager who is personally invested in them. That means that you must meet whether things are good or bad. When things are going poorly, it’s time for a difficult conversation. When things are going well, use the time to appreciate the person’s accomplishments and delve into their career trajectory.

Here are 10 recommendations to help you make the most of these crucial interactions:

1. Schedule regularly

Block one-on-ones on your calendar as a recurring event. This has two big advantages: 1) routine check-ins improve performance and create trust, and 2) employees are less likely to interrupt you on other workdays since they know they have an upcoming meeting with you. The frequency of one-on-ones depends on multiple factors: how many team members you have, how experienced they are, how much time you have available, etc. Whether it’s half an hour a week or one hour a month, find a rhythm that works best for you – the important thing is to stick to it consistently.

2. Set the context

If you’ve never held regular one-on-ones before, be transparent about the new process, otherwise people are likely to get anxious and nervous. Explain why you’re introducing this (announce this at a team meeting or send a group email), and what to expect from these sessions (a place to resolve their problems and support their goals). Make it clear that you’re doing this with all your reports – it’s not a punishment, and no one is being singled out.

3. Protect this time

One-on-ones should be guarded in the same way as other important meetings. Don’t arrive late, and don’t cancel at the last minute – that sends the message that you don’t care. If something unavoidable comes up, reschedule at the earliest available date. Additionally, defend your conversation against interruptions and distractions: switch off the notifications on your devices, and don’t keep checking the screen during your conversation. Demonstrate through your actions that you value this time for connecting with team members.

4. Keep it casual, with a bit of structure

Unlike performance reviews, regular one-on-one interactions should be informal and relaxed. Here is a chance to get to know your team members better, build rapport and have frank dialogue. Your reports should feel comfortable enough to raise concerns or doubts that are bothering them. Some leaders like to switch the setting to set the right tone: consider heading to a nearby coffee shop or park if the office feels too stuffy and formal. (It is, however, important to ensure that the setting is reasonably private.) Keep a shortlist of 4-5 items you both want to discuss, even if it’s just jotted-down bullet points. Share these ahead of time or right at the start of the meeting, and create a loose structure to make sure the priorities are addressed.

5. Stay flexible

While an agenda offers a useful roadmap, it doesn’t need to be rigid. If the conversation starts moving in a direction that feels important, go along with it. A degree of flexibility will help you uncover potential issues – from simmering conflicts and possible product glitches, to worrying market trends. This is one of the biggest benefits of one-on-ones.

6. Listen first and ask good questions

As a manager, cultivate the willingness to listen actively and attentively to what your team members have to say. In Be a Better Leader by Mastering the 1-to-1 Meeting, Justin Bariso elaborates:

Some managers tend to dominate the conversation in a one-to-one. But by going in with a “listen first” mentality, you gain a new perspective and make sure any coaching is well directed. In addition, you give them the chance to “clean out the cobwebs” and air any grievances.

In the article mentioned above, Webb offers some insightful questions to kickstart focused dialogue in a one-on-one setting:

  • What does success look like a year from now? Three months from now? Next week?
  • How aligned are each of your employees with your thoughts on success?
  • Are you meeting due dates?
  • Are any cross-functional issues blocking your success?

 Other good questions include:

  • Which aspect of your work is most in line with your big goals?
  • How do you prefer to receive feedback? What’s the best way to have difficult conversations?
  • What is one thing I can do to support you better?

7. Resolve, act, follow up

Once you understand the challenge your team member is facing, offer constructive feedback and co-create solutions. Decide on actionable next steps and timelines together. Be sure to check in on these at the next one-on-one: by holding your team members accountable on an ongoing basis, you help them perform at their best.

It’s crucial for managers to follow through on the decisions taken during one-on-ones. Whether you offer to provide coaching, connect your team member with a contact, or simply email them a relevant article, get the ball rolling within 24 hours. Failing to follow through breaks the momentum and trust you’re trying to build. When you act rapidly, you also motivate your report to do the same. In Master the One-on-One Meeting, Julia Austin highlights another important point:

Do this with ALL your employees. Otherwise, some may wonder why they’re getting follow up emails and others are not. Consistency in leadership is critical!

8. Strike a balance

Pressing, immediate problems should be on the agenda, alongside longer-term questions like career growth. Professional development doesn’t need to be discussed at every single meeting; however, address it regularly enough to keep the dialogue alive. If you’re planning a big, serious talk, give a heads-up to your team member – that way, they have the opportunity to reflect and prepare their thoughts before the meeting.

9. Connect as people

Devote some time to checking in at a personal level. Take the time to know your team members as human beings by showing genuine interest in their life outside of work: you could talk about family, hobbies or even plans for the upcoming weekend.

10. Keep it confidential

One-on-ones are the only forum where team members can have a frank, confidential conversation with their manager. It goes without saying that it is important to mutually agree what can be shared and what needs to just remain between you and the team member.

What have you found helpful to guide your one-on-ones?


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