If you’re new to the world of management, or have managed a team of people for years, there’s a seemingly simple process that can dramatically change how your company operates. It’s called a one-on-one meeting.
I’d argue it’s so simple that most people overlook it. Many people tend to overcomplicate things, when in reality, effective solutions can be incredibly simple.
At Friday Feedback, we are huge fans of one-on-one meetings. Most of the people using our software also hold these meetings. So, we decided to collect all the research and articles scattered across the internet, and create a massive guide that you can learn from, no matter if you’re a new manager, or someone with ten years of experience.
What are One-on-One Meetings?
First, let’s define what a one-on-one meeting actually is. As the name suggests, it’s a meeting between a CEO, director, or manager and one of their reports that happens on a consistent basis (weekly/bi-weekly/monthly).
The primary goal of the meeting is to check-in with employees, listen to them, and discover ways that you can help them be successful at work. They are also a fantastic way to uncover areas where you can improve as a manager.
Ben Horowitz has a great blog post on this topic and describes them this way:
“The key to a good one-on-one meeting is the understanding that it is the employee’s meeting rather than the manager’s meeting. This is the free-form meeting for all the pressing issues, brilliant ideas and chronic frustrations that do not fit neatly into status reports, email and other less personal and intimate mechanisms.”
A few quick rules:
- They generally should last about 30 minutes, but if important discussion is happening, don’t feel bad if they take a little longer.
- These meetings are for the employee primarily – let them drive.
- Avoid cancelling them at all costs (more on this later)
Why have them?
Think of all the areas of life where you rely on feedback to guide you to a better outcome. If you run a company, talking with customers and understanding their pain-points is a way to collect feedback in order to create a better product. If you stop talking to customers and try to build a product without their feedback, how well do you think that’s going to work?
Likewise, a football coach will make a decision about a specific play to run, and within seconds, there’s feedback that confirms if they’ve made the right decision or not.
These same principles apply to being a manager. If you collect feedback on your performance once per year (through a traditional performance review), you’re getting some feedback, but it’s so infrequent it makes change tough . You need a consistent way to collect feedback and make corrections. A one-on-one meeting is a way to accomplish this.
Small Improvements vs. Fighting Fires
Wildfires start out as a small spark. The same principle applies with employees and problems at work. For example, Susy may not mind she can hear Jack’s music through his headphones the first time, but after the fifth day of overhearing the music, she may get upset.
If you manage people, conflict is unavoidable. It will happen. The question is – are you proactive or reactive? Would you prefer to fight wildfires, or instead discover and fix potential issues before they become a wildfire?
The simple practice of meeting regularly with employees through one-on-ones turns you from a reactive manager, into a proactive one.
Build Strong Relationships
An often understated aspect of one-on-one meetings is that they are great way to build strong relationships. By taking the time to learn more about someone’s goals and dreams, you can strengthen relationships and improve productivity.
For example, let’s say one of your employees enjoys brewing beer in her free time. It’s a passion of hers. As a manager, this is unrelated to the day job, but if you genuinely show that you care about this side activity, she will be more willing to “bat for you” at work.
Running Successful One-on-Ones
Now that we’ve finished the reasons why you should hold regular one-on-ones, let’s dive deeper into the mechanics of what a successful one looks like. Please note, these are guidelines, and after you have a few under your belt, ask employees what they would do differently.
Establish a Cadence
Creating habits take time and effort. When getting up and running with 1:1’s, the first few times will be the most awkward. We highly recommend creating a re-occuring event on Google Calendar (or Outlook) for each employee, and then inviting the employee to the event.
There’s two key ingredients. First, if must be a re-occuring event, so it’s not something you manually need to do every single week. Otherwise you will forget. Secondly, the employee must be invited. They too need reminders.
Don’t be surprised if you’re a manager, and forget about a meeting only to see the employee hovering outside your office (or saying “you ready for the meeting?” over email or Slack).
It’s not all about work
Here’s a fun fact – situations outside of work play a role in how successful someone is at work. We see responses in Friday Feedback all the time about people having personal issues/highlights outside of work. You don’t need to understand the nuance of the situation, but it helps if you as a manager are aware (and care).
One-on-ones are a great way to uncover what motivates employees. What motivates them at work? What do they love doing outside of work?
Show you’re a human – don’t be afraid to talk about things outside of work. It’s a great way to strengthen relationships, and is a awesome signal to the employee that you care.
Build empathy with employees by trying to understand their day-to-day life at work. It’s common that you can discover a process that can be improved with not that much effort. For example, you could ask them:
“What is the worst part about your job?”
It’s a quick way to see uncover the biggest pain. Imagine if you could help them discover a better way of doing the task (or even removing it from their plate).
Make sure you zoom out every few months. Try to understand what motivates them as an employee, what they want to be doing in 3-5 years, and how you can help them achieve their career goals. If you help others achieve their goals, they will pull you along and help you achieve yours too. That’s the beauty of helping others – it all circles back around (eventually).
Example question: “What do you want to be doing five years from now? How can I help you get there?”
Make sure to prepare before these meetings. It doesn’t need to be anything too intense, just set a few minutes aside to review the notes you made (or should have made) from the previous week.
Many managers use pulse surveys to help them prepare for one-on-ones. It’s an easy way to ask a few questions in advance, and then you can jump right in vs. asking generic questions at the beginning. Some people are better at having time to answer questions instead of being put on the spot.
Questions to Ask
Below are a few sample questions you can ask during a one-on-one:
- If you were me, what would you change about our company?
- What’s one thing we should stop doing? This question is important because everyone is always busy.
- What’s the worst part about your job?
- Do you see yourself here in three years? Why or why not?
Open-ended questions @ Beginning
Continuing on the theme of asking questions, make sure they are open-ended in the beginning. The goal is to get the employee talking and warmed up to the idea of giving feedback. I think of the manager as a detective – not interrogating, but instead, someone who is genuinely interested in helping.
Find ways to Improve
It may not come easy for some employees, but an important part of a one-on-one is to get feedback about where you as a manager can improve. Ask them questions like:
- How can I help you?
- How can I become a better boss?
- Is there anything specific I can do to improve at my job?
One-on-ones are a fantastic way to build a high-performing team. They are a simple communication mechanism that pays dividends.