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

Cover image for The Psychology Behind a Great One on One Meeting Agenda blog post

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 had 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. 

What you need is the ability to craft the right one-on-one meeting agenda for every employee, under every circumstance. To do that, you have to understand what makes your team tick, so you can understand their positions and anticipate their reactions.

Understanding some key psychological theories can help you design one-on-one meeting agendas that bring out the best in your team. 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 exciting idea, but you didn’t say it out loud? Were you afraid of being laughed at, shot down, or criticized? You probably didn’t feel psychologically safe. 

As a manager, it’s crucial to create an environment where employees feel comfortable voicing their ideas without fear. But for employees to be willing to take risky leaps, you have to assure them that you’re standing under them with a net. 

The theory

Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson 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 sought to improve team productivity at the company through an initiative called Project Aristotle. They studied 180 teams from throughout the company and discovered that what successful teams had in common wasn’t hierarchical structure or a specific blend of personality types; it was psychological safety. 

They sought to encourage psychological safety among team members throughout the company. They introduced surveys and held 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 measured psychological safety with surveys like the Team Learning and Psychological Safety Survey, developed by Edmondson. A tool like this can gauge whether employees feel safe taking risks, and measure how they rate their team’s communication.

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

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. When you know someone might be upset, you can handle it calmly instead of reacting defensively. So when making an agenda, don’t just practice your talking points. 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 meeting 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, sketch out three possible ways your report might react. Plan for reactions such as defensive, apologetic, and surprised, so you’ll have responses ready for all three scenarios.

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Practice Radical Candor

Managers want to be encouraging and supportive whenever possible, but sometimes 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. You expect the people you trust to tell you what you need to know, not just what 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 in not shying away from tough challenges but making 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. 

Your employees will probably be reluctant to be “radically candid” at first. But encourage them by rewarding even small acts of truthfulness. It’ll take time and trust to develop this dynamic but it’s a way to break out of rigid power dynamics

Naturally, you’ve got to balance radical candor with psychological safety. You should always encourage employees at least as much as you challenge them. As the Radical Candor blog suggests: “Praise in public, criticize in private.”

Before you bring up hard topics in a one-on-one, champion your employee in public, so they know you’re on their side.

Sample one-on-one meeting 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.

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 their teams’ dissenting opinions. 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 former type of advantage manifests in your title and the perks it provides. Meanwhile, inherent advantages might include 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. Still, 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 level out the power dynamic by paying close attention to your body language and facial cues. Make sure everything about you shows 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. That way, 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 bounce ideas off each other until you find something that works.

Sample one-on-one meeting 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.

Make a Better One-on-One Meeting Agenda Today

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 about the questions you ask. It’s about all the subtle ways you set the stage. To create the right environment, be mindful of your position, the physical cues you’re sending, and, above all, your attitude. When you collaborate, challenge, and listen, one-to-ones will feel less like a chore and more like jamming with a band.

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