How to Run one-on-one Meetings that Really Work

Running effective one-on-ones is one of the best ways for leaders to build strong, productive relationships with their team

The one-on-one helps managers and those who report to them connect on pressing issues, develop a strong relationship, and ensure that their team feel like they’re working toward their goals.

Although it has an increasing responsibility for results, often the one-on-one is conducted without an effective framework or agenda, simply becoming just another meeting in your day. Whats more, the one-on-one is often the first commitment to be pushed aside when more pressing issues arise, leaving our teams feeling unimportant and leaders feeling guilty for not making the effort.

We’ll explore the real benefit of one-on-ones and make the case they should be the most important meetings in our diary.

By the end of this guide you’ll have a tactical game plan to best prepare for your one-on-ones and you’ll be able to set an agenda that increases engagement and ensures action is taken by all involved. You’ll feel confident in your ability to stop larger issues from festering and to promote open communication in your team. You’ll be a leader who inspires their team to achieve their goals and be committed to the success of each individual.

Why One-on-Ones are Important

The importance of one-on-one meetings can be found in many workplace studies. In a detailed study inside two Fortune 100 companies, the Microsoft Workplace Analytics team found some stark contrasts between teams with and without 1:1 meetings. Employees of managers who don’t have 1:1 meetings are 4 times as likely to be disengaged in their work.

On the flip side, a Harvard Business Review study found those employees who have regular one-on-one meetings with their managers are 67% less likely to be disengaged. Gallup, the king of employee engagement reports, also has strong opinions on the value of 1:1 meetings. In their research across millions of employees, they found the difference in engagement for those having 1:1 meetings versus not was massive. They found, on average, only 15% of employees who work for a manager who does not meet with them regularly are engaged; managers who regularly meet with their employees almost tripled that level of engagement.

Think about where your team can be more engaged and how this will impact team results.

Companies want to attract and keep the best employees, people committed to excellence and engaged in their work. Individuals want to feel confident about their work and as leaders it's our responsibility to support each member of our team to achieve their goals and objectives. To accomplish that, we need to help our teams make the right decisions about what to work on and how to do so efficiently.

In the course of a year, managers and team members come together in a number different ways:

Often the most critical meeting for the performance of your team is overlooked: the one-on-one meeting.

What exactly is a one-on-one meeting?

It’s generally described as:

A meeting between two people, wherein one individual reports to the other. Normally held on a regular schedule, usually weekly, bi-weekly or monthly.

They can be held in a number of different forms, with peers, with mentors and between friends, however, for the purpose of this guide we are going to focus on the typical manager-employee scenario that is a part of an ongoing management process.

A one-on-one meeting isn’t a report or a presentation. The purpose of a one-on-one is to create an atmosphere of trust and personal connection in which you sincerely care about the development and success of each other.

There are a few basic facts concerning one-on-one meetings and the opportunities they create. Done well they will allow:

It’s the chance to come out of the daily grind and focus on specific and measurable actions - a true asset in your leadership toolbox. It is a small investment of time which can yield 10x the results.

Andy Grove, Co-Founder of Intel, who in 30 years grew revenues to over $30B, views regular one-on-ones as the highest value investment a leader can make.

90 minutes of your time can enhance the quality of your team members work for 2 weeks - some 80+ hours

What could your team achieve if each of member increased the quality of their work for just two weeks? My guess is a lot.

So far it seems pretty simple. Book a time in your diary with each member of your team and all is well. During a recent training session when discussing the importance of one-on-one meetings a client of ours said:

Alan this is great stuff we are talking about and I’m fully on board, but it’s not that easy.

He works in an ever changing industry that is fast paced, everyone is run off their feet trying to keep their competitive advantage and no two days are the same. I’d like you to think of some of the challenges you have with one-on-one meetings.

You’ve probably thought of a number of challenges, and over the years our clients have shared many including:

Most pressing is the fear of what would be discussed - the feedback, mutual accountability and responsibility which comes from effective one-on-ones. I’m confident many of your challenges fall within these categories. Perhaps the biggest challenge we face with one-on-ones is actually making them happen and recognising the true value they generate.

As a leader you hold the success of your team as a core responsibility and one-on-ones are the key to making this happen. Therefore, any challenge we face can be overcome if we commit to the importance of these vital meetings. It is our choice. Your team members do not grow from the meeting they do not have, your professional relationships are not strengthened without focussed discussion and results are not achieved without actions and follow up. All this can be achieved in a well-planned and structured one-on-one meeting.

Preparing for the Meeting

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.

This tried and tested quote is applicable in many areas of leadership. How we prepare for our meeting will influence our ability to execute with purpose and the focus required to outline clear objectives.

We are going to explore how preparing will positively influence our ability to conduct confident one-on-one meetings that create trust between you and your team. Whether you’re a seasoned manager or seeking a new way to support your team, through focused preparation you’ll have the the proper mindset for a purposeful meeting, you’ll feel committed to the development of your team and be confident in your ability to be a manager who truly cares about their team.

There are three key elements we need to consider to have impactful one-on-ones.

  1. Preparation
  2. Agenda
  3. Action

Each plays a critical role in your success and we are going to focus on starting from a strong position before the meeting takes place: our preparation.

Before we explore the meeting itself, we need to focus on a few basic logistics:

The three questions are be relatively straightforward and will depend on your situation. However there are rules which will help guide our approach, the first is to schedule the one-on-one as a recurring meeting. Impromptu meetings can often seem adversarial. In contrast, scheduled meetings allow both parties to prepare. If one-on-one meetings only happen when there’s something “important” to talk about, the experience is viewed as a negative one resulting in poor morale. It’s far better for the one-on-one meeting to be part of everyone’s schedule rhythm and to establish predictability.

The frequency and length of your one-on-ones is important as you want them to happen as often as needed while being the right amount of time before becoming unfocused. One idea is to ask your direct report how often he or she would like to conduct the one-on-one and for how long. By asking for their input it will increase their engagement with the process and commitment to the meetings.

Whatever format the meetings take, keep it consistent so everyone knows what to expect and how to prepare.

The most important question to ask yourself while preparing for your one-on-one is: What is my strategy if the meeting needs to be rearranged or cancelled?

A Director on our Inspirational Leadership Programme shared her struggles making the time to do one-on-ones with her 10 direct reports. She was trying to speak each week for 1 hour as she thought this was the best way to stay on top of their work. Feedback we received from her team was the meetings lacked focus and were often cancelled. They felt uninspired and had no certainty the meeting would happen, saying they were more surprised when they actually took place. The Director continually felt guilty for cancelling because she didn’t have 10 hours a week to dedicate solely to one-on-ones. When she asked her team how often, for how long and where they should take place, they developed a plan that worked for all 10 reports: monthly meetings, set in their diaries for 60 minutes at their HQ offices. Simple, predictable and committed in the diary.

The most damning thing you can do to your managerial reputation is to cancel one-on-one meetings. Treat these as sacred. Canceling is the easiest way to communicate to an employee that they are not valued or respected. The one-on-one is an essential time to share what’s on their minds and if you minimise its importance, the team members feel hurt. That’s not to say that cancellations never make sense. Sometimes, things come up: doctor’s appointments, urgent deadlines, and so on. If the manager and team member have a relationship of trust, an occasional skip isn’t troublesome. Ideally, hold the appointment as sacred. Where there isn’t an appointment there isn’t a commitment. Get the one-on-one locked into both your diaries.

The last area we need to consider in preparing for our meetings is what we would like to achieve. A one-on-one is about your direct report and during the meeting we need to make every effort to make sure they feel valued and supported.

Here are 5 questions we can ask ourselves to help us support our team:

Whether you’re experienced with one-on-ones, looking for a small impactful change, or you’re brand new to the process, I want you now to make a note of your most important goal in improving or developing a one-on-one strategy.

Research has proven you are 42% more likely to achieve your goals if you write them down. It not only pushes you to be clear on what you want, it also motivates you to do the things necessary to be successful. With your one-on-one goal written down, we can now move on to the next step in having one-on-ones that really work.

Meeting Agenda

We are going to set the agenda for our meeting and provide our team with clarity and confidence before the meeting actually takes place. An agenda is defined as a list of items to be discussed at a formal meeting. Having this road map will make sure you have structure and consistency to your meeting, while providing the right amount of flexibility to explore all areas of mutual interest.

Why set an agenda? Why not just let the meeting flow naturally and see where it takes you both? Well in some situations that may be the best approach for a month or two. Perhaps it is best to give responsibility for agenda-creation to your direct report. This will give them total control of the conversation and reinforce that this is their meeting - increasing engagement and commitment.

Other scenarios require you as the manager to provide guidance to the team. In this case it is best to create engaging agenda points that still require your team to decide what exactly they would like to discuss.

This is our recommended agenda:

  1. Follow-up from our last meeting. You can create great rapport during the one-on-one, and perhaps brainstorm new ways to tackle ongoing problems. But this is still a business meeting, and someone has to be responsible for taking notes, turning them into actionable items, and making sure the items are acted upon. If this is your very first one-on-one or if you have never before set the expectation of following up, this will set the stage for our final agenda. If you have been doing this for a while, this opening point allows you to confirm actions have taken place or explore the reasons they have not. It’s a good idea to revisit the items you discussed in the previous one-on-one, particularly if those generated any kind of to-do list. If you made a commitment as well, discuss where that stands.

  2. Challenges since our last meeting. So we have now hit the ground running and our meeting is starting to take shape. Some may assume that discussing challenges so early in the meeting will lower the tone; however, we are going to flip the negative assumption most have with challenges. They can be tough and we all would prefer an easy life with fewer challenges. In relation to supporting our team we have to understand why challenges are important to personal growth. A challenge offers a great opportunity for idea generation, solution-oriented discussion and learning within your team. Facing challenges early gives us ample time to discuss. We know this will be on the mind of your direct report, why not get it out of the way and then we can focus on solutions and exciting work. If you feel like you’re getting stuck on one particular point, simply set an action to come back to it when you have more time to explore the challenge.

  3. Progress on major initiatives, input needed, and next steps. As mentioned this is a business meeting and should included business objectives important to your direct report’s role. Therefore this gives you the opportunity to discuss their current workload with a detailed understanding of the challenges they have faced since your last meeting. Notice the first word is “Progress” - this is deliberate. There can be a tendency for all of us to get wrapped up in the busyness of our day to day tasks that we lose focus on the work that brings us satisfaction and progression. When we add an agenda point which brings with it the expectation of progression of work projects, we are leveraging this consistent meeting to ensure progress is being made. Our reports feel supported because we are offering our input and guidance moving forward while confirming what next steps are going to happen with this project so you can follow up at an agreed time or at your next one-on-one.

  4. Growth and development opportunities. To best do this we must ask What is one area you can improve upon? We all have areas in our lives we can improve and your role as a manager will be to sit and listen or sometimes provide guidance based on the challenges your direct report has experienced since your last meeting. The more consistent your meetings, the more comfortable you will both be in exploring this vital area for progression and development.

  5. What can I do to be effective or support you better? Now the spotlight shines on you as the manager. You play a critical role and this is an opportunity to show that you’re invested and committed to their development - not only with your time and energy but also your actions. This gives your team the opportunity to share how you can be most effective in supporting them, giving you a roadmap to be the best manager and leader. Don’t promise solutions on the spot. This is an opportunity for each of you to raise issues; you don’t have to fix them immediately. But then both of you should go away and think about how to facilitate some solutions. Do not skip this step, fully listen to the suggestions, because when you fulfil the request you’ll develop a level of trust that will make your future meetings more impactful.

Setting an agenda adds consistency to your meeting, and specifically follow up, discussing challenges and major initiatives, while exploring how you both can be better will set in motion a level of focus and job satisfaction often unachieved. Now we are going to look the glue that keeps this all together.

Never confuse motion with action.

The sage words of Benjamin Franklin. Motion and action, feel similar in nature, but they are very different. Motion is when you're busy doing something, but that task will never produce an outcome by itself. Action, on the other hand, is the type of behaviour that will get you a result. Far too many people are in constant motion thinking they are being productive, when in reality they never truly achieve anything. Our one-on-one meeting is the motion with our team and it is our responsibility to ensure action is agreed and executed to bring your direct report closer to a result.

There are two important questions you should ask at the end of your meeting that will share the responsibility between you and your direct report - focussing on action.

  1. What action will you take to make process on what we talked about today? Much of what is shared could have already been discussed in the previous agenda points but it is never a bad strategy to have future actions restated. This allows both of you to be clear on what is going to happen, making the follow up at your next meeting easier.

  2. What action can I take to make process on what we talked about today? Once again this allows you to show that you are committed and will take action just like your team. To further build trust, encourage your direct report to outline what you can do, agree to it and make sure it happens.

Now that we have our agenda points and two questions to ensure action is taken, make a note of the first person in your team you will use this agenda with. This may feel different as you look to increase the accountability within your team, so choose someone you know will be committed to you in the process and give it a go. Through practice you’ll become confident and the results that follow from your actions will give you and your team the enthusiasm and commitment to your new one-on-one process.

Judging Your Success

One of a manager’s key responsibilities is to help their team develop and achieve results in their job. There’s no better feeling than knowing you’re helping people be more productive and proud of their work. As part of the overall process we must continually assess the impact our meetings are having on the overall success of our team and organisation.

So how do you know you’re succeeding? Of course there are many metrics we can use to measure effectiveness and impact: regular 360 assessments, KPI’s, and surveys but we’re going to explore elements we can measure individually or with our direct report.

Here’s a checklist for assessment:

These areas can be assessed by you as the manager and as part of a team discussion - with metrics and statistics attached as you see fit for clarity and assessment.

Think about 2 or 3 areas that are most important to you and the team.

We covered the importance of one-on-one meetings on the performance of our team, how to prepare, execute your agenda and ensure success through action and continue assessment and review.

All this is vital to your success and, more importantly, the success of your team. However, nothing will come from the meeting that doesn’t happen so to end I would like you to make a note of one action you will take that will put you on the path to holding one-on-ones that really work. Commit to completing this action today, big or small, and start feeling confident you’re the manager making an impact and supporting your team to achieve their goals.