One-on-one meetings can and should be some of your most valuable workplace interactions. They’re the time you get to check in on your employees’ overall professional well-being, have candid conversations you couldn’t have in front of the rest of the team, and establish the kind of closeness and trust that makes for an emotionally healthy and meaningful workplace.
But seizing the potential of one-on-ones requires you to utilize a different set of skills than the ones you use in the rest of your job. You need a clear vision of what you hope to achieve. Below, we’ll go over a few simple strategies to shift your mindset and start getting more out of these meetings.
Ditch the Status Updates and Have High-Value Conversations
Use one-on-one meetings to have the sort of candid, personal conversations you couldn’t have in any other context. Spending one-on-ones asking your team members for status updates is like paying for a therapy session but only talking about the weather; it might be pleasant, but you could be getting more out of that time.
One-on-ones are when your employees should be their most honest with you. They’re the place for employees to disclose parts of their personal life, share hopes and dreams, and tell you when they’re struggling. That’s all information you desperately need to have as a manager, so you can provide your team with support and catch potential issues before they get out of control. It will take time to build trust, but it starts with laying a groundwork of personal care and knowledge of your team members.
You can spend time in one-on-ones establishing this baseline with each employee, getting to know each of them as a human being. Ask how they prefer to receive feedback, whether they tend to ask for help when they get stuck or just dig in deeper, and how important praise/criticism is to them.
In an ideal world, you will have asked many of these questions during onboarding, but even if it’s an employee you’ve worked with for years, it’s not too late to learn about who they are and what they need. (For more high-value personal questions, take a look at our blog on the right [and wrong] questions to ask a new hire.)
Share Ownership of One-on-Ones to Your Team
Andy Grove, author of High Output Management and pioneer of one-on-one meetings, wrote that “the 1:1 should be regarded as the subordinate’s meeting, with its agenda and tone set by him.” That doesn’t mean that managers should come unprepared but that you need to be able to respond to whatever your report needs from you in the moment.
One week, your report might be overwhelmed with projects and will need your support to discuss solutions. The next week, they might have the bandwidth to think about larger goals, and you can advise them on big-picture issues.
The important thing is to recognize that this is their time, and it’s your job to be emotionally present and respond to the situation in real-time. We’ve written before about how managers need to be a little like improv comedy performers when holding one-on-ones, letting the scene go where it wants to. That’s why the best one-on-one meeting agenda for a manager to have is a simple list of questions, starting with the all-important: “how are you?”
Start putting your team members in control of one-on-ones by emailing them ahead of time and requesting that they come to the meeting with their own action items. Ask them what they hope to get out of their time with you. Even when there are important topics you know you’ll have to cover (for instance, delivering critical feedback), come ready to listen more than you talk.
Collaborate on Goals in One-on-One Meetings
Managers and employees alike spend most of their days dealing with the nitty-gritty, in-the-trenches business of work. One-on-ones are a chance to step back, reflect, and make sure everyone is pointed in the right direction. The best way to do that is to set time aside in their one-to-one to identify their short-term priorities and long-term goals.
What’s the difference? Well, if a goal is the mountaintop an employee is trying to reach, then priorities are the boulders they have to climb over to get there. Priorities are tasks that should be achievable within a week or two, while goals might take months or even years to accomplish.
To begin setting these long-term goals, start by asking a team member what their hopes are for their careers. Is there a position they’d like to attain, a new skill they’d like to learn, an idea they want to try out? Whatever their passion is, make it your business to harness it, and set them up for success. Managers and team members also need to make sure that the employee goals are in line with corporate goals. Goal-setting isn’t just about developing employee skills in a vacuum. Rather, it’s about finding the areas that will both help a team member advance in their career, and help the company grow.
Maybe your employee has always wanted to master a piece of software but doesn’t know how to begin learning on their own. Together, you can set a goal of learning that software in six months and set a priority of doing an introductory course in the next week. Just like that, you’ve proved your commitment to your report’s career development, and helped the company by training an employee to make greater contributions with more independence.
Of course, sometimes employees are too overwhelmed by day-to-day concerns to think very far ahead, and it’s your role to help them put out their most immediate fires. If that’s the case, ask your employee to come to the meeting with a list of their concerns, prioritize a few items, and come up with an action plan for achieving them. Offer a manager’s perspective on where they should start, and reassure them that you don’t expect everything to be done overnight, and they can walk out of that meeting confident that their focus is where it needs to be. Keep doing that until they’re back in control of their workload.
Document One-on-One Meetings
You can have the most meaningful, productive one-on-one of all time with an employee, but it won’t make much of a difference if you’ve forgotten what you talked about by the next time you meet. And when you’re managing a team of multiple people, it’s all too easy to lose track if you rely on memory. That’s why it’s crucial for both you and your team members to keep organized notes from these meetings that you can both reference at a glance.
Having a dedicated one-on-one platform like Uptick lets you easily turn the notes from one week’s meeting into the next week’s agenda. If an employee brings up an issue you want to circle back to, you can set a reminder for when to bring it up again.
Having personalized agendas that evolve from your notes is how you design one-on-ones that evolve naturally over time and are specific to each employee. These notes can also help you detect patterns you might otherwise miss. For example, if an energetic employee is withdrawn and demotivated three weeks in a row, it’s time to do some digging to figure out what the problem is.
Keeping notes on what you and your team members discuss, and what goals you agree to, is vital to maintaining accountability. That way, when it’s time for promotions, performance reviews, and project assignments, you can draw on those records. And accountability is a two-way street, so your notes will also remind you to follow up on giving team members the support they need.
With One-on-Ones, You Get What You Give
If you take one-on-ones seriously, they can be the site where you graduate from a “mere manager” to a true leader and mentor. At Uptick, we’re believers in the power of one-on-ones because we’ve witnessed it ourselves, and we’ve built our platform to enable managers at every organization to implement the lessons we’ve learned. With the right tools and the right attitude, you can take one-on-ones from “just another meeting” to the most rewarding part of your job.