Throughout the first decade or more of my career, most of my bosses, even the lackluster ones, met with me individually on a regular basis. This led me to believe that holding regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings with staff was a generally accepted basic management practice. However, when I began my consulting work, I soon discovered this was not the case.
Having studied the principle of accountability for many years, I have learned that holding regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings isn’t just a “nice to have” management practice; it is an essential component of effective leadership and is key to getting the right results from those you lead. Of all the ways to influence people, one-on-one meetings are the most potent and personal method.
What Are One-on-One Meetings?
For starters, let’s be clear on what they are not. One-on-one meetings are not performance reviews. They are not quarterly check-ins, they are not team meetings, and they are not unscheduled touchpoints about day-to-day issues. I hear many managers say, “I talk to the people who report to me just about every day. Why do I need to schedule a meeting with them?” Let me explain.
First and foremost, one-on-one meetings are as much for the employees’ benefit as they are for managers. It is a dedicated time reserved for employees to get what they need from their managers, so they can do their jobs well. But more than that, this one-on-one time is set aside for employees to talk about things that are important to them, such as how they are enjoying their work and how events in their lives may be affecting their work. Employees may be reluctant to bring up sensitive issues with their managers when their managers haven’t dedicated specific time and provided a safe environment to communicate freely. This is why many managers are often blindsided when a staff member drops a letter of resignation on their desk.
For managers, one-on-one meetings are a prime time to exercise leadership. Leadership begins with building a relationship that goes beyond the employment contract. “Ultimately,” says Patricia Kaiser, VP of Corporate Development at the BOWEN Group, a search agency, “I’m trying to build trust so that they feel comfortable coming to me to tell me what’s working for them and what’s not and so I can push them and stretch them to be their best. You can’t do that in group meetings, and you can’t do that over email.”
Kaiser was formerly the COO at a mid-sized IT consulting firm. In all her leadership roles, Kaiser meets with each of her direct reports weekly for a minimum of thirty minutes, usually more. She uses her one-on-one meetings to “paint a picture of who they are,” so she can get to know their style, what gets them out of bed in the morning, and how to motivate them. Several years ago a high-potential employee at her consulting firm received an offer from one of the world’s largest technology companies. Kaiser’s firm couldn’t come close to matching the offer. However, because she knew this person loved surfing, Kaiser said, “Although we can’t compete with their offer, we’d love to keep you. What we can offer you is that you can go and buy the best surfboard you want.” This employee ended up staying with the company for many years not because of the $2,500 surfboard the company paid for but because his boss cared enough about him to take the time to find out what he really cared about. And that made the difference.
Craig Blize, COO of Earls Kitchen + Bar, a chain of about 70 restaurants across North America, follows the example of his boss by holding weekly one-on-one meetings with his eight direct reports. Blize says he approaches one-on-one meetings not as a boss but as a consultant who is there to support his employees. “This is your business,” he says. “I’m here to help you prioritize and to help you identify holes in your thinking, not to tell you how to do your job.”
One-on-one meetings are a time for managers to provide coaching and support and to provide each other with feedback. “I generally won’t give them feedback until they ask,” Blize says, “but they ask for feedback a lot because we’ve established a trusting relationship. When I provide feedback, I always try to give it in support of the people who report to me, not in judgement of them.”
One-on-one meetings are a recurring meeting held frequently, not monthly or quarterly. Research and experience show that employee engagement (and by extension, performance) is highest when employees have weekly check-ins with their managers. If managers have more direct reports than they can meet with for 30 minutes each week, they should reorganize their reporting structure. Manager and employee engagement tend to decline with teams of over 10 people.
Benefits of One-on-One Meetings
Building Trust. Having a dedicated time to discuss issues that are important to employees helps create a psychologically safe environment where trust can be built. Craig Blize recalls a time in his career when his boss only met with him every few months. “If your boss isn’t meeting with you regularly, you start to make up stories in your head like, ‘Does my manager not like me?’ or ‘Why do they meet with others more than me?’ If you’re not holding regular one-on-one meetings with the people who report to you, you’re eroding trust and confidence, not creating it.”
If you’re not holding regular one-on-one meetings with the people who report to you, you’re eroding trust and confidence, not creating it.
Providing a Reliable Communication Structure. Regularly scheduled one-on-ones provide a system to keep employees and managers informed about important things and reduce the need to interrupt each other throughout the week. Anand Sanwal, the CEO and founder of CB Insights, a data analytics company in New York, describes one of his direct reports as a “rock star.” “We throw a lot at him, and everything he does, he does well.” When he asked this employee what he enjoys most about his work, Sanwal discovered that his rock star employee felt he was being pulled in too many directions and that he wasn’t getting enough career development. Had Sanwal not created a safe and reliable communication structure, he probably would have learned about this employee’s frustrations when that employee was on his way out the door.
Creating Time for Strategic Discussion. Far too much communication between managers and staff is focused on urgent tactical issues, and not enough time is spent on strategic matters. Regular one-on-one meetings create dedicated time and space to focus on the strategic. For instance, my brother, Jay Timms, oversees the Chipotle restaurant chain throughout British Columbia, Canada. “Among other things,” he says, “I use my one-on-one meetings with the GMs who report to me to analyze financial and operational data to identify trends, mitigate potential problems, and exploit opportunities.”
Establishing an Accountability Mechanism. One-on-one meetings are essential to holding people accountable for results in a positive and productive way. A study conducted by the American Society of Training and Development revealed that simply committing to someone that you will achieve your goal increases your chances of success to 65%. However, your chances of achieving your goals skyrockets to 95% when you regularly report your progress to someone else.
Make Performance Discussions Ongoing. Most managers know they should provide their staff with more praise and recognition, but the right time rarely presents itself. And most organizations are coming to the realization that performance feedback should happen more than a few times a year, but many are struggling to make it happen. One-on-ones are the perfect vehicle to regularly recognize employees for their effort, progress, and contributions and to give timely corrective feedback, as needed.
Mitigating Risk. Regular one-on-one meetings keep managers in the loop and reduce the chances of big screw-ups happening. Craig Blize shares the following anecdote: “I recently met with a key employee who shared a challenge he was having. After asking him a few questions, we were quickly able to address the root of the issue—the real issue he wasn’t seeing. Had we not scheduled a time for him to share his challenges with me, he would have been spinning his wheels for a long time. Things like this happen regularly. Weekly meetings make it possible to correct things quickly and to roll out good ideas quicker as well.”
In short, one-on-one meetings are vital to help those in leadership positions ensure that the work is being done well and that the people doing the work are doing well.
One-on-one meetings ensure that the work is being done well and that the person doing the work is doing well.
One-on-One Meeting Agendas
Effective meetings have an agenda. One-on-one meetings are no exception, even though they should feel more casual than other meetings. The key is that one-on-one meeting agendas are flexible and collaborative.
One-on-one meetings don’t need to have the same agenda every week. Often, there are far too many important topics to cover with an employee than can fit into a 30- to 60-minute meeting. This is why I suggest creating a rotating agenda schedule. Some things need to be discussed each week, some things only need to be discussed every couple of weeks, and still others may only need to be discussed monthly or quarterly. The key to making a rotating agenda work is to have a place, preferably a shared digital platform such as Trello, to create a list of the important things that you want to make sure to discuss throughout the year. Then you and your employees should decide how often you want to address each subject and schedule your agendas accordingly.
If employees are to feel that one-on-one meetings are a benefit for them, they need to have some, if not most, of the control over the agenda. Again, this works best if agendas are stored on a shared digital platform where both managers and employees can add items they want to discuss.
The Five Elements of Performance Development
No matter how managers and their team members decide to organize their one-on-one meetings, they should address the following Five Elements of Performance Development.
- Well-being Check-In. Anand Sanwal asks questions such as, “What’s your favorite part about what you do?” Patricia Kaiser asks, “What’s working well for you and what’s not?” Every few weeks I ask my team members questions about their life challenges and interests. The purpose is to a) stay in touch with your team members’ whole self, not just their work self, b) to demonstrate that you care about them, and c) to allow you to help relieve stressors in their lives before they escalate into crises that blindside you. Take time to ensure your people are happy, engaged, and healthy, or nothing else you discuss will matter much.
- Review Assignments. Assign, prioritize, and review progress on assignments. This should happen weekly. The purpose of reviewing assignments is to determine if what you wanted to happen actually did happen. If not, what can you do to get better results next time? This is the essence of accountability.
- Review Longer-Term Goals & Projects. Strategic work can easily fall by the wayside if goals are not regularly reviewed and progress is not regularly checked against established milestones. Most organizations do a poor job of executing organizational goals, and most individuals do a poor job of accomplishing individual goals for the simple reason that they haven’t established a recurring meeting to review them. In fact, only 20% of US employees have had a conversation with their managers in the last six months about the steps they can take to reach their goals. I suggest reviewing longer-term goals every month or two.
- Discuss Career Development. Developing others is one of a leader’s most important responsibilities. However, like most strategic work, it often doesn’t happen because most people in leadership positions have not carved time out of their calendars to focus on it. Leaders who make a lasting difference in the lives of others make time to help others grow and reach their potential. I suggest managers focus a full meeting on career development at least quarterly with those they lead and mentor. The aim is to help employees make plans to grow and reach their potential and to keep them accountable to those plans.
- Request and Provide Feedback. Feedback is sure to land badly when it comes from someone who never asks for any themselves. Blize regularly asks the people who report to him, “Am I showing up in support of you, or am I not showing up that way?” “When you get called out,” he says, “you can’t make them wrong about it. If you do, they’ll stop being honest with you and stop telling you what you need to hear.” Requesting feedback is essential to creating a truly safe environment and a high-performance culture because doing so dissolves the power imbalance that suppresses candor and inhibits trust.
As mentioned earlier, not every element of performance development needs to be addressed every week. The key is to establish a habit of weekly one-on-ones so that each of the elements can be regularly addressed throughout the year. This way, check-ins can be brief but productive as they focus on different elements of performance development.
Here are a few final tips to help make one-on-one meetings more effective.
- Set Agreed-upon Expectations. Giving and receiving feedback becomes much easier when managers and employees agree to expectations of one another and when they agree to regularly provide each other with feedback on how well they are meeting those expectations.
- Don’t Cancel or Be Late. Doing so sends a strong signal that employees are not a priority.
- Eliminate Distractions. Keep the computer monitor out of view to reduce the temptation to glance at emails or be distracted during the meeting.
- No Surprise Agenda Items. Put everything you want to discuss on the agenda, so employees know what to prepare for. Blindsiding people with sensitive topics that were not on the agenda creates distrust.
- Reduce Power Cues. Looking at the boss from across their desk is a visual cue of the power imbalance. Try sitting in a different seating area or in your employee’s office if they have one.
Leadership does not happen spontaneously or haphazardly. Leadership requires conscious effort and discipline. Holding regular one-on-one meetings is evidence of both.