Read our complete guide to productive one-to-one meetings. What are they, how often you should run one-on-one meetings, and what to expect.
Introduction to one-on-one meetings
One of the most essential parts of my work is leading and making sure my team can grow. This includes giving and receiving feedback. It’s a two-way street. We have regular, effective one-on-one meetings where each and every employee gets the chance to sit down with the CEO and share their concerns, ideas, expectations, needs… It also allows me to give them individual feedback, identify areas for improvement or praise, and encourage approaches that are delivering results. It’s more than just a status update or a performance review. It supports employee performance, and employee engagement helps build trust, and job satisfaction while facilitating career development.
My first boss experience
You can often hear people saying that their (first) bosses have shaped their leadership and managerial style. Or at least influenced it. I’m not an exception here. Luckily, when I was just starting out, I had excellent bosses. In fact, I rarely call them “bosses” they were managers, and some of them were leaders. During my work at Microsoft in Denmark, I had the chance to work with an excellent leader and manager who was in charge of our UX team in Copenhagen. He was approachable, down-to-earth, smart, and was able to lead by example. His management style really resonated well with me.
Do you know those “leaders” and “managers” who yell and use scare tactics? Hans Mark was not one of those guys. I remember thinking back then – if I’m ever in a leadership position, I will do my best to emulate some of the situations and approaches. One of those was having regular one-on-one meetings with all your team members, individually. I remember, quite vividly, how much I appreciated the fact that someone who is so much more experienced and skilled than I am, actually, sets time aside for me. Who provides me with feedback and who can listen to my concerns.
Fast forward 10 years. I’m now in the position where I get to lead a team of more than a dozen smart, driven, and talented individuals. One of the first things I decided to do in this new company was to establish the practice of having one-on-one meetings with each and every employee of the company. From interns and juniors, all the way to the C-ranks. We also maintain an open-door policy, but that’s a topic for another blog post.
What are one-on-one meetings?
One-on-one meetings are regular, reasonably short (around 30 minutes) meetings where a manager and an employee sit together and engage in individual conversations. For some reason, one-on-one meetings still remain one of the most underused and undervalued tools in any leader’s and manager’s toolkit.
One-on-one meetings are the single most important meetings between team leaders/managers with employees. They are not just performance reporting meetings or one-way communication. They must be open, direct, engaging, and proportionally include both managers and employees.
From the management and leadership perspective, this is an excellent opportunity to convey your message, to establish and develop your managerial style. Additionally, it gives you a direct opportunity to learn and understand messages from your employees.
From the employee perspective, this is a valued moment where you get to share your concerns. You get to evaluate your own performance and discuss any open challenges you might be facing. It also allows you to exercise your influence and impact direction and changes at the company level. Only ignorant managers and leaders will ignore the information coming from you.
How to run productive one-on-one meetings?
Although there is no clear rule, I am learning from others and from my own experience that a good rule of thumb is 30-minute long meetings. Those 30 minutes are divided into three 10-minute intervals.
- The first ten minutes are for the employee to share their messages, feelings, and expectations.
- The following ten minutes are for the manager/leader to deliver their messages.
- The last ten minutes are for sharing information, building a mutual course of action, and planning a way ahead.
How often to have one-on-one meetings?
It depends on the size of your organization and do you have more team leaders and managers who are having one-on-ones with their teams. In general, there should not be a period longer than 30 days between two one-on-ones.
Personally, I’ve found myself struggling with this timeframe given the fact that we grew significantly in the past several months. I needed to balance the onboarding of new teammates, running and developing business, and managing the existing ones. One of the reasons why I am mentioning this publicly is because I want to hold myself accountable in this manner as well.
To all of you PJ’ers reading this – consider this a sealed deal. And expect one-on-one meeting invitations, soon 🙂
What topics should be covered during a one-on-one meeting?
Again, no clear rule here, and your mileage will vary, undoubtfully. However, speaking from personal experience and hundreds of one-on-one meetings, there are several evergreen questions and approaches. Let’s research them from both the manager/leader and employee perspectives.
From the manager and leader perspective
- Start by making an honest and genuine connection with your employee. Start with an open-ended question like “How’s it going? How are you?”. But keep in mind those should be honest – don’t ask them just because this is a good practice. As a manager, and especially as a leader, you should be genuinely interested in your employees and their well-being. By asking these questions, you’ll get an early insight into their current mental state, and feelings and be able to identify and spot patterns. It will give you a brief, but relevant, insight into their stress levels, morale, and general atmosphere. You honestly need to know how your employees feel.
- Discuss their performance. If you have previously identified goals, this is an excellent chance to see how they are progressing towards those goals. In cases where you didn’t have already defined goals, this is still a good opportunity to evaluate their performance. Are they completing their tasks on time, what about their estimates? Do you have some client feedback relevant to them that you’d like to share? How are they spending time on tasks and projects?
- Help them recognize and clear possible obstacles. Closely related to the previous point, to achieve their goals and/or improve their performance, they might be facing hurdles. Let them explain those to you and, together, devise a plan on how to mitigate or remove those. Create a list of action items if needed.
- Be specific and concrete. Discuss particular issues regardless of the origin. It can be misleading to evaluate relationships and situations at a too broad level. “We should be more productive” is less valuable feedback than “We should cut the time we spend on project ABC reporting and administration.” These issues can be mundane like “We’d like to have more fruits in the kitchen” to more serious ones dealing with interpersonal relationships, work environment, or salary negotiations.
- Provide objective feedback. Don’t sugarcoat things. If some elements are not as good as they should and could be, be sure to communicate that clearly. Providing feedback is one of the best ways to ensure professional growth. This applies both to managers/leaders and employees! Do the same thing with positive feedback and reinforcements. Every single person has their strong and weaker points. Emphasize their strengths. See both of these sides as an opportunity to coach them. Their success is, in fact, yours, as well. With this mindset, you’ll be much better positioned to understand them and help them grow. In fact, you can use the feedback as your blueprint for coaching and development.
- Various other topics are relevant, as well. Use the opportunity to share more information, both formal and informal. Planned company outings and gatherings, quick updates on current projects and client negotiations, pretty much anything and everything sensible and relevant.
- Set-up actionable goals, achieve mutual agreements and be sure to follow-up. By the time you are done with the meeting, you will have a clear(er) picture of the situation. Use the opportunity to let your employee summarize and share what they are taking out of the meeting. This will enable you to see if you have achieved mutual agreement and understanding. Don’t miss the chance to assign responsibilities and ownership. – It must be clear who is in charge of what. Agree on shared points of what needs to be improved by the time you meet again, and define those goals. After the meeting, send a brief email – this will serve as an opportunity to document the one-on-one you just had and its significant take-outs. See this as a step in the process of building mutual relationships and accountability.
From the employee perspective
This is your chance to share your feedback, influence the company’s direction, and grow.
- Come prepared. One-on-one meetings work only if both parties are prepared. Since the first ten minutes of the meeting are your time, make sure you make the best of it.
- Share what was good and what motivates you. Just like you, your managers are human, and they appreciate hearing what works well for you. It’s their job to make sure you thrive as well as the company. Giving them honest feedback can only benefit you all. Be sure to share what was most engaging and motivating for you. It can be colleagues, types of projects, financial compensation, anything really.
- Now, a bit opposite – share what could use improvement, what didn’t work right, and what would you like to change. In an ideal situation, you will be able to freely express your concerns and critique without the fear of being considered whiny. Without fear to be labeled as someone who is always complaining. In reality, you might need to tread carefully. But in any case, you should be sure to voice your concerns. Share what is draining your energy, what demotivates you, and what is tiring. Be as specific as possible. If you are looking for a promotion – describe why you think you deserve it. If you feel you are not treated fairly – be specific. Explain the concrete situation. It is the only feasible way for you and your manager to identify challenges and work together toward solving them.
- Set your own development goals and align them with your manager. Be clear in defining your desired path within the team and company. You’d like to take that project management course? Say it so. You would like to take on more responsibility? Great, let your manager know! Ask for help, guidance, resources, and coaching if needed. Excellent leaders will try to align your goals and expectations with the team and company expectations.
- Get (somewhat) personal. Ask your manager about their perception of you, what they see as your shortcomings, and what they see as your greatest strengths and weaknesses. This will help you get an understanding of how they perceive and see you. Use this moment to self-reflect and share with your manager what you think is your most prominent shortcoming and how’d you like to tackle it.
While one-on-one meetings are considered to be a part of the manager/leadership toolbox, they are an equally reliable and vital tool for each and every employee. Both managers and employees must be present at the moment – not only physically (Hello, Captain Obvious!) but also mentally and stay involved. Having one-on-ones just for the sake of having them and for ticking the box, is not meaningful. Rushing them is also a bad idea. It shows that you don’t have enough time for your employees. Letting em run too long will, on the other hand, send a message that you don’t appreciate your employees’ time. That’s why I suggested the 10-10-10 distribution of time. You can always easily schedule and arrange follow-up meetings if needed.
There is a growing body of research suggesting the value of one-on-one meetings and their impact on productivity, company culture, and more. Elizabeth Grace Saunders claims that nothing beats the good ole face-to-face meetings – even though we live in a digitally connected world. In her book How to Invest Your Time Like Money, she claims:
“One-on-ones are one of the most important productivity tools you have as a manager.”
Even the Harvard Business Review reflects on one-on-one meetings. You can check out more in this article.
I suggest you read that article – it is lengthy, but offers excellent insights.
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