Why Every Manager Should Hold 1:1 Meetings, And How To Do Them Well

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By Michael Timms

Throughout the first decade or more of my career, most of my bosses, even the lackluster ones, met with me individually on a regular basis.  This led me to believe that holding regularly scheduled one-to-one meetings with staff was a generally accepted basic management practice.  When I began my consulting work, I soon discovered this was not the case.

Having studied the principle of accountability for over four years, I have learned that holding regularly scheduled one-to-one meetings isn’t just a “nice to have” management practice, it is an absolutely essential component of effective leadership and key to getting the right results from those you lead.

For many people, the current pandemic has reduced the amount of one-to-one time with their manager.  And many managers are grappling with how to hold people accountable when they don’t see them as often.  The good news is that one-to-one meetings work just about as well over video conference as they do in-person, and they are the best way to maintain accountable relationships under any circumstances.

Meetings Are A Leadership Lever

Let’s be honest… meetings have a bad reputation.  Poorly planned meetings, and ones where people share information that could have been sent by email, are a waste of time. On the other hand, well-executed meetings have a carefully planned agenda and facilitate discussion and coordinated action.

Meetings are one of the most powerful levers at a leader’s disposal to influence others, and one-on-one meetings are the most potent and personal method.  If those in leadership positions do not hold regular one-on-one meetings with the people who report to them, they are not accessing one of their greatest methods of influencing people and the organization they preside over.

What Are 1:1 Meetings?

For starters, let’s be clear on what they are not.  One-to-one meetings are not a performance review.  They are not a quarterly check-in.  They are not a team meeting and they are not an unscheduled touch-point about day-to-day issues.  I hear many managers say “I talk to the people who report to me just about every day.  Why do I need to schedule a meeting with them?”  Let me explain.

First and foremost, one-to-one meetings are as much for the employee’s benefit as they are for the manager.  It is a dedicated time reserved for employees to get what they need from their manager in order to do their job well.  But more than that, this 1:1 time is set aside for employees to talk about things that are important to them, such as how they are enjoying their work and how events in their life may be affecting their work.  Employees may be reluctant to bring up sensitive issues with their boss when their boss hasn’t dedicated specific time, and provided a safe environment, to communicate freely.  This is why many managers are often blindsided when a staff member drops a letter of resignation on their desk.

For managers, one-to-one meetings are prime time to exercise leadership.  Leadership begins with building a relationship that goes beyond the employment contract.  “Ultimately” says Patricia Kaiser, VP of Corporate Development at The BOWEN Group, a search agency, “I’m trying to build trust so that they feel comfortable coming to me to tell me what’s working for them and what’s not, and so I can push them and stretch them to be their best.  You can’t do that in group meetings and you can’t do that over email.”

Kaiser was formerly the COO at a mid-sized IT consulting firm.  In all her leadership roles, Kaiser meets with each of her direct reports weekly for a minimum of 30 minutes, usually more.  She uses her one-to-one meetings to “paint a picture of who they are” so she can get to know their style, what gets them out of bed, and how to motivate them.  Several years ago, a high potential employee at her consulting firm received an offer from one of the world’s largest technology companies.  Kaiser’s firm couldn’t come close to matching the offer.  However, because she knew this person loved surfing, Kaiser said “Although we can’t compete with their offer, we’d love to keep you.  What we can offer you is that you can go and buy the best surfboard you want.”  This employee ended up staying with the company for many years not because of the $2,500 surfboard the company paid for, but because his boss cared enough about him to take the time to find out what he really cared about.  And that made the difference.

Craig Blize, COO of Earls Kitchen + Bar, a chain of about 70 restaurants across North America, follows the example of his boss by holding weekly one-to one meetings with his eight direct reports.  Blize says he approaches one-to-one meetings not as a boss, but as a consultant who is there to support them.  “This is your business” he says, “I’m here to help you prioritize and to help you identify holes in your thinking, not to tell you how to do your job.”

One-to-one meetings are a time for managers to provide coaching and support, and to provide each other with feedback.  “I generally won’t give them feedback until they ask” said Blize.  “But they ask for feedback a lot because we’ve established a trusting relationship.  When I provide feedback, I always try to give it in support of the people who report to me, not in judgement of them.”

One-to-one meetings are a reoccurring meeting held frequently, not monthly or quarterly.  Research and experience has shown that employee engagement (and by extension, performance) is highest when employees have weekly check-ins with their manager.  If a manager has more direct reports than they can meet with for 30 minutes each week, they should reorganize their reporting structure.  Both manager and employee engagement declines with teams of over 10 people.

Benefits of 1:1 Meetings

Build Trust.  Having a dedicated time to discuss issues that are important to the employee helps create a psychologically safe environment where trust can be built.   Craig Blize recalled a time in his career when his boss only met with him every few months.  “If you’re boss isn’t meeting with you regularly, you start to make up stories in your head like ‘Does my manager not like me?’ or ‘Why do they meet with others more than me?’  If you’re not holding regular one-to-one meetings with the people who report to you,” he said, “you’re eroding trust and confidence, not creating it.”

Provide Reliable Communication Structure.  Regularly scheduled one-to-ones provides a system to keep each other informed about important things they should be aware of and reduces the need to interrupt each other throughout the week.  Anand Sanwal, the CEO and founder of CB Insights, a data analytics company in New York, describes one of his direct reports as a “rock star.”  “We throw a lot at him and everything he does, he does well.”  When he asked this employee what he enjoys most about his work, Sanwal discovered that his rock star employee felt he was being pulled in too many directions and that he wasn’t getting enough career development.  Had he not created a safe and reliable communication structure, Sanwal probably would have learned about this employee’s frustrations when that employee was on his way out the door.

Create Time For Strategic Discussion.  Far too much of manager and staff communication is focused on urgent, tactical issues and not enough time is spent on strategic matters.  Regular one-to-one meetings create dedicated time and space to focus on the strategic.  For instance, my brother, Jay Timms, oversees the Chipotle restaurant chain throughout B.C., Canada.  “Among other things” he said, “I use my one-to-one meetings with the GM’s who report to me to analyze financial and operational data to identify trends, mitigate potential problems, and exploit opportunities.”

Establish an Accountability Mechanism.  Accountability is the vehicle of execution.  If you want things done well, you must build accountability systems into your organization.  One-to-one meetings are essential to holding people accountable for results in a positive and productive way.  A study conducted by The American Society of Training and Development revealed that simply committing to someone that you will achieve your goal increases your chances of success to 65%. However, your chances of achieving your goals skyrockets to 95% when you regularly report your progress to someone else.

Make Performance Discussions Ongoing.  Most managers know they should provide their staff with more praise and recognition, but the right time rarely presents itself.  And most organizations are coming to the realization that performance feedback should happen more than a few times a year, but many are struggling to make it happen.  Patricia Kaiser uses her one-to-ones to regularly “give them a pat on the back” and give corrective feedback as needed.  She noted that it’s easier to provide negative feedback when you’ve made a habit of recognizing good work and when you’ve invested the time it takes to build trust.

Mitigate Risk.  Regular one-to-one meetings keep managers in the loop and reduce the chances of big screw-ups from happening.  Craig Blize shared the following anecdote: “I recently met with a key employee who shared a challenge he was having.  After asking him a few questions, we were quickly able to address the root of the issue—the real issue he wasn’t seeing.  Had we not scheduled a time for him to share his challenges with me, he would have been spinning his wheels for a long time.  Things like this happen regularly.  Weekly meetings make it possible to correct things quickly, and to roll out good ideas quicker as well.”

In short, one-to-one meetings are vital to help those in leadership positions ensure that the work is being done well and that the person doing the work is doing well.

1:1 Meeting Agendas

Effective meetings have an agenda.  One-to-one meetings are no exception, even though they should feel more casual than other meetings.  The key is that one-to-one meeting agendas are flexible and collaborative.

One-to-one meetings don’t need to have the same agenda every week.  Often, there are far too many important topics to cover with an employee than can fit into a 30 to 60-minute meeting.  This is why I suggest to my clients that they create a rotating agenda schedule.  Some things need to be discussed each week, some things only need to be discussed every couple of weeks, and still others may only need to be discussed monthly or quarterly.  The key to making a rotating agenda work is to have some place, preferably a shared digital platform such as Trello, to create a list of the important things you want to make sure to discuss throughout the year.  Then, you and your report should decide how often you want to address each subject and schedule your agendas accordingly.

If employees are to feel that one-to-one meetings are a benefit for them, they need to have some, if not most of the control over the agenda.  Again, this works best if agendas are stored on a shared digital platform where both manager and employee can add items they want to discuss.

Craig Blize has five regular agenda items:

  1. What were your top three successes from the previous week? This makes it easy for Blize to provide his reports with praise and recognition.  It also arms him with examples of how his people are providing value which he can share with the C-suite.
  2. What were your top three challenges last week? The purpose of this question is to provide an opportunity for Blize to offer some coaching if they need any.
  3. What support do you need from me? This is the golden question every manager needs to ask the people they lead each week.  This is how managers learn how to do their most important job, which is, in football terms, to “block and tackle” for the people they lead.
  4. What do you want to accomplish this week? This keeps Blize apprised of what his people are working on.  He also follows up on these items the following week to see if they end up being successes or challenges.
  5. Open Agenda. Blize and his reports can add anything else they want to discuss.  90% of the items here are added by his reports.

The Five Elements of Performance Development

No matter how a manager and their team member decide to organize their one-to-one meetings, I suggest one-to-one meetings accomplish the following five key things:

  1. Well-being Check-In
  2. Review Assignments
  3. Review Longer-Term Goals & Projects
  4. Discuss Career Development
  5. Request and Provide Feedback.

I refer to these as the Five Elements of Performance Development.  As mentioned earlier, not every element of performance development needs to be addressed every week. The key is to establish a habit of weekly one-to-ones so that each of the elements can be regularly addressed throughout the year. This way, check-ins can be brief but very productive as they focus on different elements of performance development.

  1. Well-being Check-In. Anand Sanwal asks questions such as “What’s your favorite part about what you do?”  Patricia Kaiser asks, “What’s working well for you and what’s not?”  Every few weeks, I ask my team members questions about their life challenges and interests.  The purpose is to a) stay in touch with your team members whole self, not just their work self, b) to demonstrate that you care about them, and c) to allow you to help relieve stressors in their life before they escalate to crises that blindside you.  Take the time to make sure your people are happy, engaged and healthy or nothing else you discuss will matter much.
  2. Review Assignments. Assign, prioritize and review progress on assignments.  This should happen weekly.  The purpose of reviewing assignments is to determine if what we wanted to happen actually did happen.  And if not, what can we do to get better results next time.  This is the essence of accountability.
  3. Review Longer-Term Goals & Projects. Strategic work can easily fall by the wayside if goals are not regularly reviewed and progress is not regularly checked against established milestones.  Most organizations do a poor job of executing organizational goals, and most individuals do a poor job of accomplishing individual goals, for the simple reason that they haven’t established a reoccurring meeting to review them.  In fact, only 20% of US employees have had a conversation with their manager in the last six months about the steps they can take to reach their goals.  I suggest reviewing longer-term goals every month or two.
  4. Discuss Career Development. Developing others is one of a leader’s most important responsibilities.  But like most strategic work, it often doesn’t happen because most people in leadership positions have not carved time out of their calendar to focus on it. Leaders who make a lasting difference in the lives of others make the time to help others grow and reach their potential. I suggest managers focus a full meeting on career development at least quarterly with those they lead and mentor.  The aim is to help them make plans to grow and reach their potential, and to keep them accountable to those plans.
  5. Request and Provide FeedbackFeedback is sure to land badly when it comes from someone who never asks for any themselves.  Blize regularly asks the people who report to him “Am I showing up in support of you, or am I not showing up that way?”  “When you get called out” he says, “you can’t make them wrong about it.  If you do, they’ll stop being honest with you and stop telling you what you need to hear.”  Requesting feedback is essential to creating a truly safe environment and a high performance culture because doing so dissolves the power imbalance that suppresses candor and inhibits trust.

Tips

Here are a few final tips that I and others have learned to help make one-to-one meetings more effective.

  1. Set Agreed-Upon Expectations. Giving and receiving feedback becomes much easier when managers and employees have agreed to expectations of one another and when they have agreed to regularly provide each other feedback on how well they are meeting those expectations.
  2. Don’t Cancel Or Be Late. Doing so sends a strong signal that “You are not one of my important priorities.”
  3. Eliminate Distractions. Keep the computer monitor out of view to reduce the temptation to glance at emails or be distracted during the meeting.
  4. No Surprise Agenda Items. Put everything you want to discuss on the agenda so they know what to prepare for.  Blindsiding people with sensitive topics that were not on the agenda creates distrust.
  5. Reduce Power Cues. Looking at the boss from across their desk is a visual cue of the power imbalance.  Try sitting in a different seating area or in your employee’s office if they have one.

Leadership does not happen spontaneously or haphazardly.  Leadership requires conscious effort and discipline.  Holding regular one-to-one meetings is evidence of both.