If you’re like me, you’ve probably experienced a variety of terrible one-on-one meetings.
As an employee, maybe you’ve seen the calendar reminder pop up and you’ve rolled your eyes, hoping that your manager will cancel or something else will come up. Or when the meeting actually happens, it quickly devolves into a boring status update. Or maybe you’ve been in a different situation where you really need to talk with your manager and are looking forward to finally getting a chance during your one-on-one meeting, only to have it canceled for the umpteenth time.
As a manager, you’ve probably maybe you’ve viewed these meetings as good opportunities to get status reports or “touch base.” Or maybe a quick chance to check in and then check it off the list so you can get onto other things, without giving it much thought.
Given how ubiquitous one-on-one meetings are, why are they so bad? And what can we do to make them not suck?
The Purpose of One-on-One Meetings
But before we can dissect why these meetings suck, we need to better understand the true purpose behind the meetings. Why are we having them in the first place? Or why should we be having them?
Why They Suck
I’ve already touched on a few of the reasons, but let’s dive into why these meetings suck.
All of these things can be fixed, and I’ll discuss how we can address them below.
How to Make One-on-One Meetings Rock
I originally was going to say “how to make one-on-one meetings not suck”, but that felt like a low bar that, even though it kept with the theme of the article, really didn’t get us to the point I want to be at. So let’s make these meetings rock. Let’s make them something to be excited about and to look forward to. I love them as a manager. I’ve loved them (at times) as an employee. It would be great if everyone could look forward to them as an opportunity to grow and develop.
Make Them Regularly Scheduled
One-on-one meetings should be regularly scheduled. Most of us get that already. You must find the right cadence for your group. It may be every week, it may be every other week. You should meet with your direct reports that often. If you can’t, take a hard look at whether you have too many direct reports or other responsibilities and need additional help.
For non-direct reports, it’s a great idea to also regularly schedule some time.I’ve done this with folks and also had managers a few levels above me schedule time with me monthly to check in. It is highly appreciated. It is very helpful.
Finally, while you can’t always get out of the office, take time occasionally to move your meeting out of the office. Grab lunch or coffee or simply go outside. It’s nice to get a change of scenery and it helps make the conversation more personal every once in a while.
Show Up and Fully Focus
As a manager, now that you’ve got your meetings scheduled, show up on time and don’t make a habit of canceling them. Most folks understand if you need to move things occasionally. But if you make a habit of it as a manager, it will give the impression that you don’t care about your employee.
I had a manager many years ago who not only wouldn’t regularly schedule one-on-ones, but whenever I would schedule a meeting with her, she wouldn’t show up. No notice or anything. So I’d have to reschedule and reschedule to even get her to acknowledge it. It was more exhausting than you can imagine. And when I gave up trying to get time with her, I got in trouble for that too. Don’t be like that.
In the meeting, both as an employee and a manager, focus your attention. That may mean closing your laptop and putting your phone away unless you need it for your agenda or notes. But if you do need it, close down Slack or Teams or Outlook or whatever else might call your attention. Because it is too easy to get consumed if you don’t. This is time to focus attention, not to answer emails.
Have a Loose Agenda
Create a shared agenda and keep it in a place where you both can edit it to prepare for your meeting. I’ve used a variety of tools for this, so anything from OneNote to Evernote can work. You just need somewhere you can both access it and make changes.
As an employee, you should be driving these meetings. Your manager is there to help and guide you, so take advantage of that. As a manager, you should be letting your employees direct. They may need some help, so establish an outline if they need. It can follow something like below.
Life Updates: Some might view this as small talk, but I mean it to be actual real talk. Take time to actually get to know each other and what is going on. This goes both ways. Remember, this meeting is about establishing rapport. It’s a two-way street.
Status Update: I know I said these meetings aren’t about status updates. To avoid devolving into a status update, I suggest actually posting a status update somewhere else. Maybe wherever you’re storing your shared agenda. That way the manager can have visibility into what is going on without having to take up too much time in this meeting. But we all know that it will likely be a topic of discussion here. So let’s just add it to the agenda, time box it, and get it out of the way.
Career Focus: This should be much of the meeting. This is a chance to review goals, check progress, and talk about next steps for progression. Remember, this is a strategic meeting. It should be focused on the long-term. Way too often we set goals at the beginning of a year or quarter (since we’re required to in whatever HR system we use) and then forget about them until we have to review them for annual reviews. Sound familiar? Of course it does. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t be that way. We should be setting meaningful goals and then we should review them regularly together to see how we’re doing. This is a great opportunity to do that.
Feedback/Coaching: The one-on-one meeting also offers managers the opportunity to regularly coach and mentor their employees. However, feedback should be ongoing and real-time. These meetings should be more of a chance to review feedback from the week and see how it’s gone. As a manager, I shouldn’t save my feedback from last week’s meeting until my one-on-one. I should give it immediately, good or bad. And then we can talk about it again when we meet in our one-on-one to see what progress has been made.
Jam Session: Finally, one-on-ones offer the chance to bounce ideas off each other. As an employee, it gives me the opportunity to get feedback on ideas I may have. As a manager, it gives me the opportunity to get feedback on ideas for the team or organization from individual employees. The setting is perfect because everyone can be much more open than they otherwise may be in a bigger team setting. We can talk about important changes that may be coming up or other items that may be on our minds.
Prepare and Take Notes
To make these meetings meaningful, it is important to prepare ahead of time. Having and creating and agenda is one key part of this. The one-on-ones where I’ve had agendas have always been more organized than the ones where I haven’t. Why? Because it has forced me to prepare beforehand. So prepare an agenda.
Give yourself a few minutes to get ready before as well. This is just good advice for any meeting, but especially for one-on-ones. These aren’t meetings that you can bluff your way through or just show up to. You need to put in some time, look over your agenda and notes, and be ready for. That goes for both managers and employees.
As I just mentioned, you also need to take some notes. Take notes during the meeting. This goes for managers and employees again. You’ll both likely have takeaways and to-dos. So write things down. Put the to-do list in the agenda so you both have access to it and can see it! That way you won’t be starting from scratch in the next meeting. You can pick up from where you left off and have a meaningful conversation.
As an employee, I’d suggest you prepare to share some success or win. It will start the meeting off on a great note and get the energy up. Even if you’ve got some bad news for the meeting, sharing wins is a good place to start. It can be personal or professional.
As a manager, I’d also suggest you prepare something to share as well. I had a manager who always had an interesting story to share when I met with him. It usually had nothing to do with work, but was just an interesting fact or story that he had learned that he wanted to share. It was a nice way to start a meeting. Find something that fits your personality and go with it.
Ask Good Questions and Ask for Feedback
Ask good open-ended questions. This goes throughout the meeting. It may help to kick things off by asking a question to start. There are a number of sites that offer good questions. But it is helpful to have a number of questions ready to ask throughout the meeting as well. Some examples include:
Finally, wrap things up by asking for feedback. Both as an employee and as a manager. There are always areas to improve, so be open to ways to improve them.
To make this successful though, be ready to offer feedback. And that is where it gets difficult. So you need to think of ways that your employee or your manager can improve. And then be willing to share. Which can be uncomfortable. But is so necessary.
I had a manager who would always ask for feedback at the end of every meeting. He was a great manager, and I rarely had anything to offer. But he would always press the issue. It was tough because he only would occasionally let me off the hook without giving feedback. I’ve adopted that same practice now. I know that I have many areas for development, and I expect others to offer candid feedback.
One-on-one meetings have the tendency to suck if you don’t put some effort into them. But they don’t have to. We can make them awesome with a little work. It just takes some preparation, thoughtfulness and feedback. But by putting in the work, we can get so much more out of the time we put in. We can grow as employees and as managers. And in turn, we can see incredible returns within our teams and organizations.
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My personal musings on a variety of topics.