According to a recent internal study conducted by Microsoft, the shift to remote work has resulted in 18% more one-on-one meetings. With the increase in one-on-ones, it’s more important than ever to make sure the time spent in those meetings is valuable for both managers and team members.
“It turns out that the one on one meeting is not only a fundamental element in the manager/employee relationship but perhaps the best source for organizational knowledge that a manager can get. In my experience, managers who don’t have one-on-ones understand very little about what’s happening in their organizations.” — High Output Management by Andy Grove
Too often, one-on-one meetings fall flat because team members don’t feel they have a voice in the conversation, and managers are unsure how to give them one.
The thing is, giving team members a voice in the conversation is easier said than done. Simply saying, “You have ownership of this meeting, too,” isn’t enough.
So if you’re looking for a way to actually share ownership of one-on-one meetings, here are concrete steps you can take right now.
1. Give Your Team Members Ownership of the Meeting Logistics
You can give your team members more ownership of your time together by giving them input in scheduling decisions: the simple logistics of time and place.
- Location: For those working from home, the location is nearly always via video. But if and when you return to your offices, ask team members if they’d rather meet in your office; a neutral area, like a common room; or even outside. Find an atmosphere where you both feel comfortable speaking freely, as long as you’re both still able to take notes.
- Timing: Maybe your team member isn’t a morning person. Maybe they hate postlunch meetings. The last thing you want to do is schedule one-on-ones at a time that interrupts your employee’s most important work hours. So ask. Find out. And then schedule your regular meetings accordingly.
Collaborating on these logistics establishes a sense of shared ownership before the meeting even begins.
2. Have Conversations, Not Pop Quizzes
When one-on-one meetings fail, it’s usually because they’re either too casual or too rigid. You don’t want to have those “fly by the seat of your pants” style meetings, with awkward silences and too-long “how was your weekend?” chit-chat. But you also don’t want to run through your agenda like a checklist without giving your team member the opportunity to speak up about the issues on their mind.
The middle ground between these two extremes is to ask open-ended questions that prompt conversation. Stay away from yes or no questions —these invite one-word answers, the kind you can get via Slack. So instead of asking, “Were you productive last week?” ask, “What are you struggling with this week?” That open-ended question automatically gives a team member ownership, because they get to choose what kind of struggle to talk about. With that freedom, they can say, “I’m struggling to get everything done during the work day because the kids have started virtual learning again and require a lot of help.”
It’s important to also give your team members a chance to ask questions of their own. Always make sure to ask whether they have any questions or whether there’s an important topic you’ve forgotten to mention.
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3. Spend 90% of the Time in Your One-on-One Meetings Actively Listening
It’s tempting for managers to drive the discussion in one-on-one meetings, but in those moments of uncomfortable silence, pause. Reflect on what your team member is saying, and if they don’t continue the conversation, then return with an open-ended question.
Ben Horowitz, author of The Hard Thing About Hard Things, invented the 90/10 rule for listening in one-on-ones. “During the meeting, since it’s the employee’s meeting, the manager should do 10% of the talking and 90% of the listening. Note that this is the opposite of most one-on-ones.”
This style of listening is called active listening. Listening to colleagues sometimes feels like driving the car on your morning commute. You’ve done the drive a thousand times but then panic suddenly when you arrive at your destination and can’t remember a single thing about the drive. Now imagine that during the drive you pay special attention to the trees you pass, the way the wind is blowing, the cars around you. You’re actively participating in the drive. The same concept applies to active listening. You’re listening, yes, but you’re also deciphering the meaning of what that person is saying.
4. Share Notes from Your One-on-One Meetings
Managers and team members should take notes during one-on-ones. But rather than keeping them to yourselves, create a shared space that you can both contribute to.
If you’re keeping your notes in a journal, and your team member keeps notes in a scratchpad on their laptop, what happens when there’s a discrepancy? Whose notes are right? What if your plans to follow up are entirely different from theirs? The simplest way to remedy the notes-everywhere issue (and to save the planet!) is to keep your notes together in a shared online place.
Beyond just bullet points of your meeting, include the outcomes and next steps so you can share ownership of what comes after your meeting as well.
When you revisit the notes to prepare for your next meeting, you’re both preparing for the same discussion, and there’s no question as to what you discussed or where you left off. You both become equally responsible for the direction and success of your next meeting.
Team Members Excel When They Feel Empowered
Trust and autonomy are key to making team members feel empowered, and one-on-ones are one of the most productive ways to facilitate that.
“Decades of social science research show that knowledge-based workers will be more likely to think creatively and be motivated to be high-performing employees if management provides a balance of feedback and autonomy.” — U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board
As the time we spend in one-on-ones increases, we need to make sure that time is meaningful and productive, and that employees leave feeling empowered. Sharing ownership of one-on-one meetings is one simple way managers can help their reports build confidence in themselves and build trust in their professional relationships.
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