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Harnessing the power of effective one-on-one meetings

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You already hold regular team meetings. Plus, you’ve cultivated an open and transparent workplace where everyone is free to speak their mind. You’ve done your part, you reason. So why would you want to add something like regular one-on-one meetings to your packed calendar? The answer, as it turns out, is because you probably can’t afford not to.

With the rise of remote and hybrid workplaces, along with the growing share of employees demanding deeper connections, greater recognition, and a sense of shared purpose from their job than ever before, more organizations are realizing the value and importance of the simple one-on-one. 

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But what is it about this kind of meeting that makes it so effective? And how can you make sure you’re doing it right? We’ve put together a guide to answer these questions and help you make the most of your one-on-ones.

The purpose of one-on-one meetings

One-on-ones are regularly recurring meetings that typically take place between a manager and their employee. Unlike team meetings, which must often cover a broad agenda, the more personal nature of the one-on-one makes them ideal for having deeper, more meaningful conversations about the employee and their work. 

This could include many things. For example, you might want to get into the finer details of a project they’re involved with, particular challenges they are facing, their goals or aspirations for their career, or even personal discussions that help you get to know each other better. Ultimately, the goal is to create a more productive and rewarding dialogue between you and your team members so that they are happier, more engaged, and more effective at work. 

Benefits of one-on-ones

They may feel like they take up a considerable amount of your time, especially if you have a large team, but the benefits you can get out of holding regular one-on-one meetings are numerous. Here’s how they can help both you and your employees.

For managers

The following are some ways one-on-one meetings make managers better:

  • They help foster trust. The simple act of sitting down with an employee and giving them your full attention can do wonders. It not only shows that you are interested in them, but that you are committed to their success. This goes a long way toward building a stronger, more trusting relationship.
  • They reveal strengths and challenges. It can be difficult learning about the talents or struggles of your individual employees when you’re focused on team issues. But when you start having personal conversations with them, you may be surprised by what you learn. This will allow you to better tailor your leadership approach to them.
  • They provide a platform for feedback. Regular constructive feedback is vital for a team’s growth, both for employees and managers. The one-on-one format gives you a perfect opportunity to talk about performance, acknowledge accomplishments, and provide guidance for improvement. And your employees can give you the same.
  • They develop coaching experience. As you hold regular one-on-ones and get to know your employees better, you can go beyond your managerial role and really start to coach and develop their skills. This may involve helping them create long-term career plans, address more complex situations, or simply acting as a soundboard for their ideas. Either way, it will enable you to level up your employee performance.

For employees

The following are some ways one-on-one meetings make employees better:

  • They improve their productivity. Employee productivity can falter for many reasons. They may be lacking certain skills or not know how to navigate a particular challenge. Or they may simply lack motivation. Whatever it is, one-on-one meetings give them the chance to voice their issue, get clarification, and work toward a solution.
  • They can set collaborative goals. Employees are often too wrapped up in their day-to-day work to think too much about their long-term career plans. But regular one-on-one meetings with managers can break them out of this habit, giving them the opportunity to set goals, review progress, discuss challenges, and make adjustments as needed.
  • They provide them with recognition. Even when a team is performing at a high level, individual contributors can feel lost in the crowd. One-on-one meetings help prevent this by giving managers the chance to directly acknowledge and appreciate employee contributions. This will help create a more positive and inspiring work environment.
  • They encourage accountability. When employees are expected to discuss their goals and progress face-to-face with their managers, they’ll be more likely to take ownership of their work. This will help create more autonomous employees throughout the team.
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How often should you hold one-on-one meetings?

You should hold one-on-one meetings as often as you think they’ll be useful and productive for your employees. Most often, one-on-one meetings take place on a monthly or quarterly basis, usually as part of regular performance reviews. But they can occur as often as bi-weekly or even weekly if necessary, although this is usually only necessary during sprints or in the midst of more demanding and complex projects.

Regardless of how often you meet, it’s important to make sure you establish a regular cadence. This will ensure both you and your employees are prepared to listen to each other, communicate your thoughts and feelings clearly, and have a productive conversation. It will also make it easier to build off of previous meetings, giving your employees a greater sense of personalized attention, guidance, and long-term support.

Tips for improved one-on-one meetings

Like any type of meeting, one-on-ones are something you can practice and learn to become better at over time. Just as long as you remember that this time should be reserved, first and foremost, for focusing on your employee and their needs, you’re already on the right path. 

But let’s break down what else you can do to make sure you’re getting everything you can out of your one-on-ones.

Prior to the one-on-one

In order to hold effective one-on-one meetings with your employees, you’ll need to put in some work before you’ve even sat down. Here are some tips for how you can properly prepare.

Establish a regular schedule.

As previously mentioned, a regular and predictable cadence for your one-on-ones can give them a cumulative power that makes them much more effective. Your employees will be more likely to remember what was discussed before, and will leave each meeting already thinking about how they can improve for the next one. All this is a good reason to set the expectation early that these meetings will happen on a regular basis.

Build an agenda. 

Ideally, your one-on-one conversation will be loose and free-flowing. But both you and your employee will arrive better prepared if there is some semblance of an agenda to get you started. A few days beforehand, reach out to them to ask them what they would like to discuss or accomplish during the one-on-one. Try to get them to suggest the topics by asking them to fill out a shared document with their most important items. You don’t have to get to everything during the meeting, but this will at least serve as a guide.

Write out some questions.

The one-on-one isn’t an interrogation or an interview – it’s an even-handed conversation that should invite the employee to share their feelings and concerns. To this end, you should come prepared with open-ended questions that can spark a productive discussion and help you develop goals and objectives your employee can use. For example, you could start out by asking them if they need support anywhere, or if there are any challenges they are currently dealing with. Alternatively, you could ask them if there is something they’re particularly proud of currently.

For more examples, see below.

During the meeting

Once you sit down together, your job as a manager is to create a safe place where you and your employee can have a productive, open-ended discussion that helps them with their work. Here are some tips for doing just that.

Practice active listening.

One of the best ways to ensure a successful one-on-one session is to stop talking and start listening. Try to make it your goal to speak less than half the time as your employee. A great way to accomplish this is by practicing the tenets of active listening. This includes making eye contact, showing visible interest to encourage them to open up, and taking notes throughout the conversation. If the conversation lulls, use an open-ended question to get it back on track. Your goal here is to make your employee feel valued and heard throughout.

Make it personal.

The one-on-one doesn’t have to be all about work. In fact, using some of the time to talk about personal issues or share relatable experiences can be a great way to get to know your employee and establish a more direct connection with them. This, in turn, will make it more likely for them to open up about issues they may be having, roadblocks they’re experiencing, or concerns they might not otherwise feel comfortable sharing. 

Lead them toward actionable goals.

As you wrap up the one-on-one, you should start thinking about how you can turn the discussion into a set of actions they can take on their own. Summarize what you went over with them during the conversation, then ask them what they think they could do to keep moving forward toward their goals. Don’t be afraid to weigh in with your own insights, especially when you think you can help align the employee with your team’s or organization’s larger goals. End by asking if they have any questions or concerns about these goals in order to ensure they’re set up for success.

Following up

After the meeting is over, you can help ensure its impact continues to be felt by making the effort to monitor and follow up with them. The following tips can help out with that.

Give them a summary.

Immediately after their one-on-one, send your employee a list of key highlights, takeaways, or action items for them to review. Alternatively, you could ask them to send you their own summary of what was discussed, as well as what they see as their next steps. Either way, this is a quick and effective way of making sure you are both leaving the meeting on the same page.

Challenge them. 

Don’t be afraid to push your employees toward progress. By giving them a challenging task to accomplish or a lofty goal to reach, you can make sure they don’t stagnate from one meeting to the next. For example, if they want to increase sales, tell them to reach out to 30 new prospects each week. Or if they want to work on their leadership skills, put them in charge of a new project. You may be surprised by how much they learn.

Share your expectations.

Lastly, make sure you communicate the progress you’d like to see your employee make – not just from meeting to meeting, but also over the long-term. Make sure your expectations are realistic and aligned with larger organizational goals. But also try to push your employees further than they might push themselves. As their manager, you should leverage your influence to get the most out of your employees that you can.

Mistakes to avoid

Ensuring your one-on-one meetings remain effective also means understanding what not to do. Here are some common mistakes you should try to avoid:

  • Talking too much. Although you may have a lot of advice to bring to the table, dominating the conversation can hinder the meeting and even make it seem like you don’t care what the employee has to say. Instead, listen more and focus on making it a two-way discussion.
  • Focusing on problems. Making the whole meeting about the employee’s issues or challenges can risk discouraging them from pursuing any future growth. Avoid too much negativity by making sure to also acknowledge their accomplishments.
  • Avoiding difficult conversations. You should also be wary of when you aren’t bringing up issues that need to be addressed. Although it can be hard to talk through performance challenges, doing so is sometimes the only way to work through the problem.
  • Infrequent meetings. Putting off your one-on-ones or otherwise scheduling them at different times can make it harder to build strong relationships, address employee concerns, and establish open communication. Make sure you schedule your meeting regularly instead.
  • Ignoring feedback. Just as it’s important for your employee to listen to you, so should you listen to them. Dismissing or otherwise ignoring the feedback they give you can lead to a sense of disengagement or even a lack of trust, undercutting the very effectiveness of the one-on-one.

Example questions for effective one-on-ones

Coming up with the right questions to ask during a one-on-one is important for getting the most of the meeting. Although no list can capture every kind of question you should ask, the following should give you a general idea of the kinds of questions you should pose to your employees.

Personal questions

  • How’s your day going?
  • How are you feeling?
  • What do you think of your work/life balance?

Professional development questions

  • What are your career goals, and how can I support you in achieving them?
  • Are there specific skills you would like to develop or areas where you feel you need additional training?
  • What do you think you excel at the most?

Goal-setting questions

  • What are your short-term and long-term goals for this quarter/year?
  • How can we align your individual goals with the overall team and organizational objectives?
  • Do you feel like your current role or responsibilities align with your career goals?

Feedback and improvement questions

  • Is there anything specific you would like feedback on regarding your performance?
  • How can we work together to improve any areas where you feel you could be more effective?
  • Do you have any feedback for me?

Challenges and opportunities questions

  • What challenges do you foresee in the coming months, and how can we address them proactively?
  • Do you see any opportunities for improvement or innovation within our team or projects?
  • Is there a challenge you’ve tackled recently that you’re particularly proud of?

Future aspirations questions

  • Where do you see yourself in the next few years, and how can we help you move toward those aspirations?
  • Are there specific roles or projects you would like to be involved in to further your career?

David is a freelance writer and PI contributor. When he’s not writing, he’s probably thinking about food. He believes pretzels are superior to potato chips and you can’t convince him otherwise.

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