While being a manager, at times I observed some feelings of awkwardness during one-on-one meetings. Some of my reports didn't know what to expect, or what the purpose of the meeting was. Some thought it is the time when they had to report on their work progress in detail. Others didn't set any agenda topics and clearly didn't try leveraging this time staying quite passive. And while reporting to different senior managers, I had also inconsistent experiences! Some of the managers encouraged me to bring an agenda (good!), others filled the time with their topics and I had only some time closer to the end to squeeze in some of my agenda.
Another common temptation for managers (and I had the same feeling many times) is to deprioritise checkpoints in favour of "more urgent" work. Because for many it feels like a waste of time and on top of it awkward and a bit painful. But the research I saw the other day showed that people who don't have regular checkpoints feel less secure on the job. They are more likely to leave the organisation. On top of it, managers may lose an opportunity to build trust and align with their employees, which in my view is one of the main purposes of one-on-ones.
What are the important ingredients to make one-on-ones effective, e.g. serving the purpose of building trust?
Take time to align on the shared purpose of the meeting. I always liked to say: "This is your time and your agenda.." At the same time, I assumed certain agenda items in my mind but never explicitly aligned with a person: what topics are more of an interest for them at this time? Is this more about check-ins to build personal connections or more about career development and goals? I see there is no one-fit-all approach and every one-on-one should be tailored based on the needs of the employee.
Once I had a direct report and I was too focused on certain topics from the "standard playbook" (e.g. performance goals and growth) during one-on-ones and almost didn't pay attention to his personal well-being. Later this person gave me feedback: "My manager didn't seem to care much about me as a person.." which was a knock-on effect as I felt I cared about his career progression but he didn't seem to feel it this way! I think the key reason for this was misalignment. We should have agreed on what we both wanted to get out of those meetings and stick to it.
Agenda setting - both ways
It's important to promote agenda-setting both ways as it gives an opportunity to bring up the topics that matter. I liked the approach of one of my peers that encouraged agenda setting for his directs: he asked his direct report if he had any agenda items for the meeting? If he didn't - it was a reason to cancel their one-on-one.. After a couple of times of cancelled meetings, this tactic is believed to work and people started thinking about the agenda upfront. But not always though..
One of my past managers used a nice but simple technique: a shared GSheet where both the manager and the employee can write and share notes, feedback, and agenda at any time. I found it quite a nice and transparent way and am using this approach in my practice today.
Let me share a few topics that one (unnamed) research found a top priority during one-on-ones which I found quite valid in order of alignment :
- Checking on tactical details and priorities (both managers and employees found this useful)
- Discussing the feedback and how to learn from it (both managers and employees found this useful)
- More context about what's happening in the team and company (more interest came form from employees)
- Discussing long-term development goals (more interest came from employees)
- Life outside of work and feeling overall (more interest came from managers)
- Celebrating a recent milestone and job well done (more interest came from managers)
This is an interesting list that spots some misalignment between managers' and employees interest. So alignment is important.
On the internet, you can probably find a set of typical questions to set some structure for a typical one-on-one. But I think the key point is to use the questions that are really valuable to both sides (ideally)
Frame the discussion around outcomes and goals
One-on-ones are a good way to empower employees to achieve their goals and the team's goals. Empowerment means defining clear outcomes and focusing the discussion on them. At the same time, there is a temptation to start discussing how these outcomes should be achieved. I had the same. And this is a path to micromanagement. Empowerment starts when managers give freedom to their employees to achieve the outcomes the way they find best.
There is nothing worse than when the discussions have no follow-up actions. Ideally, a productive one-on-one has one or more follow-up actions from both sides. Shared notes I mentioned above help to have follow-up actions noted. During the next check-in, both sides can check the progress on the actionable items. A follow-up is important as it shows that the manager cares about this. It helps to nurture trust.
Effective one-on-one meetings require alignment, preparation, two-way agenda, and discussion focusing on outcomes and actionable items. By prioritizing these attributes, managers can build trust with their direct reports, promote open communication, and achieve better outcomes.