How to Use Psychology to Create a Great One-on-One Meeting Agenda

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Great one-on-one meetings are like jazz: spontaneous, collaborative, and exhilarating. Bad one-on-one meetings are like someone talking to you about jazz: stuffy, pedantic, and unproductive.

Yet even though we’ve all sat through good and bad meetings, it can be challenging to pinpoint exactly what makes them different. For managers, that can make good one-on-ones feel like magical occurrences that we don’t know how to replicate. 

That’s a problem, because you want to be having the kind of one-on-ones where great ideas come out, where difficult issues get dealt with, and where both parties come away feeling inspired and understood.

That is why understanding some of the key psychological theories that underpin one-on-ones can help you design your agendas to bring out the best in you and your employees. So let’s go over some of the most widely followed psychological tenets and how to build them into your one-on-ones.

Create Psychological Safety

Have you ever been in a meeting and had an idea that excited you, but you didn’t say it out loud because you were afraid of being laughed at, shot down, or criticized? You probably didn’t feel psychologically safe. 

As a manager, it’s crucial to create the kind of work environment where employees feel comfortable voicing their ideas and sharing their true selves without fear. But for employees to be willing to take risky leaps, you have to first assure them that you’re standing under them with a net. 

The theory

Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson originally defined psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” 

In 2012, a team of Google researchers set out to improve team productivity at the company through an initiative called Project Aristotle. They studied 180 teams from throughout the company and discovered that the one thing the successful teams had in common wasn’t hierarchical structure or a specific blend of personality types; it was group norms rooted in psychological safety. 

They sought to implement policies to facilitate psychological safety among team members by introducing surveys and holding off-sites, where employees could be more emotionally open. The results were dramatic: Colleagues shared more about their inner lives, and cohesion improved as a result. As one Google employee said, “[Before] I had separated things in my head into work life and life life. But the thing is, my work is my life. . . . If I can’t be open and honest at work, then I’m not really living, am I?”

Putting it into practice

Project Aristotle’s researchers started taking the measure of psychological safety by issuing surveys like the Team Learning and Psychological Safety Survey, developed by Edmondson. Using a tool like this can help you gauge whether employees feel safe taking risks, and measure how highly they rate their team’s communication.

Once you’ve established a baseline and learned where your team’s strengths and weaknesses are, you can practice psychological safety in your one-on-ones with team members. 

Harvard Business Review suggests several guidelines to structure your approach, including the following:

  • Speak human to human.
  • Anticipate reactions and plan countermoves.
  • Replace blame with curiosity.

In practice, “speak human to human” means remembering that you are talking to an individual with hopes, dreams, and anxieties, not just a work-output machine. Like the Google employee above said, it’s about remembering how much of our lives take place at work, and taking our work relationships as seriously as our nonwork ones.

Anticipating reactions and planning countermoves is crucial to preparing for potentially difficult interactions and handling them calmly instead of reacting defensively. So when making an agenda, you should not only be clear on what your talking points are but also consider how your team member might respond. Paul Santagata, head of industry at Google, explains the value of this exercise: “Looking at the discussion from this third-party perspective exposes weaknesses in my positions and encourages me to rethink my argument.”

Finally, “replacing blame with curiosity” means using one-on-ones to ask why something isn’t working, instead of assuming you already know. Then, solicit your employee’s help in coming up with a solution. When they feel safe and listened to, they’re much more likely to be able to think their way through problems.

Sample one-on-one agenda items

Ask: “How are you doing/feeling overall?” (Speak human-to-human.)

Ask: “I’ve noticed you consistently falling behind deadlines recently. Why do you think that is?” (Replace blame with curiosity.)

When bringing up any difficult topic where you’re likely to encounter pushback, don’t forget to briefly sketch out three possible ways your report might react, such as defensive, apologetic, and surprised, so you’ll have responses ready for all three scenarios.

Practice Radical Candor

As a manager, you want to be encouraging and supportive whenever possible, so some of the most difficult one-on-one meetings come when you have to tell people things they don’t want to hear. Maybe they didn’t get the assignment they’d been hoping for, or their work has been missing the mark lately. How can you have these difficult talks in a way that is sincere but doesn’t damage your relationship? Radical candor.

All healthy relationships should include radical candor. It’s the kind of honesty you expect from the people you trust: telling you the things you need to know, not just the things you want to hear.

The theory 

This idea was developed by Kim Scott, a Google veteran and founder of the blog Radical Candor. The key to this communication philosophy is facilitating direct communication that doesn’t shy away from tough challenges but instead makes it clear that those challenges come from a place of genuine personal care. The Radical Candor blog illustrates this sweet spot in graph form:

Putting it into practice 

For this policy to work, you also have to encourage feedback about yourself, because if you’re not ready to accept it, you’re not ready to give it. 

Of course, your employees will likely be initially reluctant to be “radically candid.” But encourage them by rewarding even small acts of truthfulness. It’ll take time and trust to fully develop this dynamic but it’s a way to shake one-on-ones out of rigid power dynamics and change them into real growth opportunities. 

Naturally, you’ve got to balance radical candor with psychological safety by encouraging employees at least as much as you challenge them. The Radical Candor blog suggests the following rule: “Praise in public, criticize in private.”Before you bring up hard topics in a one-on-one, make sure your team member already knows that you believe in them by championing them in group settings.

Sample one-on-one agenda items

Ask: “What could I start or stop doing to help you work better?” (Solicit feedback.)

For every piece of critical feedback you add to a one-on-one agenda, find something to praise in your employee’s performance, either in or outside the meeting.

Say: “Thank you for your honesty.” (Reward truthfulness.)

Check your seniority

Legendary Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn famously quipped: “I don’t want any yes-men around me. I want everyone to tell me the truth—even if it costs them their job.” This quote gets at the heart of why employees are often reluctant to speak up in meetings; it’s hard to forget that you’re talking to the person with the power to fire you.

Managers are rarely aware that their position makes them intimidating to their junior reports. According to a Harvard Business Review survey of 4,000 professionals, “two-thirds reported they are never or rarely scary to those junior to them.”

Even if you pride yourself on being approachable and egalitarian, there is always going to be a power imbalance between you and your reports. Successfully making the most of your one-on-ones means dealing with it. There are two main psychological threats to be aware of here: confirmation bias and advantage bias.

The theories

Confirmation bias is the tendency to accept any information that supports your thinking, and ignore any information that contradicts it. Everyone suffers from a bit of confirmation bias, but it has a tendency to creep up on managers because they aren’t strictly obligated to listen to the dissenting opinions of their team members. For example, your confirmation bias might lead you to assume that a project is running late because you believe an employee has poor time-management skills instead of probing to see what’s really at the root of the problem.

Advantage bias is the tendency of people in authority to be blind to the advantages they experience, and to the inherent advantages that got them there. The latter advantage manifests in your title and the perks it provides, while inherent advantages might be your race, gender, or even height. (The classic example of advantage bias is the guy who “was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.”) These advantages might not be something you consciously communicate, but it’s something your employees are inevitably aware of, and it can make you intimidating.

Putting it in practice

In one-on-ones, you can work to level out the power dynamic by paying close attention to your body language and facial cues to show that you’re engaged, warm, and receptive. Sitting with your arms crossed and your face impassive will likely make you seem more intimidating, whereas leaning forward, smiling, and making eye contact will open up the conversation. 

You can also tailor your requests for feedback to acknowledge these inherent power dynamics. So, instead of asking for blanket feedback, ask employees to give you specific guidance on their needs so they can voice any issues without having to directly criticize their boss.

Steel yourself against confirmation bias by listening to and discussing any ideas an employee brings you in a one-on-one. If you dismiss an employee’s idea out of hand, they may not bring you another one. But if you use it as a springboard for further discussion, you can start bouncing ideas off each other until you come up with something that works.

Sample one-on-one agenda items

Ask employees for their ideas to solve problems. “Yes, and” their responses. (Avoid confirmation bias.)

Ask about your report’s interests and hobbies to build a connection. (Defuse power dynamics.)

Practice welcoming body language.

Better one-on-ones start with you

The concepts we’ve discussed here should help guide your one-on-one agendas. But as you’ve hopefully gathered, your agenda isn’t just defined by the questions you ask, but in all the subtle ways you set the stage. To truly create an environment for great conversation, you have to be mindful of your position, the physical cues you’re sending, and, above all, your attitude. Once you’re fully prepared to collaborate, challenge, and listen, you’ll start having the kind of one-to-ones will feel less like a chore and more like jamming with a band.

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