Few managers and leaders are conducting useful one-on-ones and when they do, often miss the mark in making them effective and productive. There is value in learning how to facilitate a one-on-one that provides value for all involved.
Two of the most important, yet under-rated skills for managers and leaders are listening and questioning. To be present and focused and know what key question to ask at the right time add value to any relationship and discussion. They are particularly important during one-on-ones with your employees and offer a couple of great examples of development opportunities. Yet, there are many more growth areas that can be learned and practiced as a leader through focused, individual time spent with each team member.
One-on-ones are a tool and a process. When conducted well they are an incredibly useful and effective part of leadership and developing effective relationships. The opposite is just as true. When avoided, gaps and misunderstandings often exist as a direct result. Your willingness to learn how to conduct one-on-ones effectively will have a direct impact on your team and your results. Outcomes and benefits include; each team member will be more engaged; trust is increased; the leader an employee earn the right to be heard; influence improves; and you both earn the right to discuss relevant, meaningful topics.
The most effective one-on-ones are action-oriented and holistic in their approach. This means that all aspects of the employee’s performance and mindset are discussed.
If you aren’t having one on ones with your team, you’re missing out on an incredible motivating, problem solving, pressure relieving opportunity to help and grow your team. But even if you’re totally bought into starting them, it can be intimidating to actually get started. Like the first time for many things, when you start, it’s easy to feel unsure what to do. When you start, there can be many questions like:
- What do I talk about?
- What do I say to my team?
- How often should I have them?
- What if my team doesn’t want to talk to me?
- When should I schedule them?
- …and many more. (3)
All good questions that are addressed in this blog. But, first things first.
It is of great interest to me how few managers bother with meeting formally in any capacity on a regular basis with their team members. Taking this one step further, it is a shame how many managers avoid this key part of their role. It is too easy to get caught up in the operational and tactical aspects of management. Being a leader compels contact and connection with your direct reports. Although many fail to make the time for this, it is in fact an obligation of being a leader. To feel the many benefits and rewards requires a conscious plan to engage and persist whilst practicing the skill-sets that make it work.
To see time dedicated to each team member as somehow negotiable misses the point regarding being a leader.
Worldwide, the percentage of adults who work full-time for an employer and are engaged at work — they are highly involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace — is just 15%. That low percentage of engaged employees is a barrier to creating high-performing cultures. It implies a stunning amount of wasted potential, given that business units in the top quartile of our global employee engagement database are 17% more productive and 21% more profitable than those in the bottom quartile.
Businesses that orient performance management systems around basic human needs for psychological engagement — such as positive workplace relationships, frequent recognition, ongoing performance conversations and opportunities for personal development — get the most out of their employees. (1) If spending time with your team members is not your key priority you are missing one of the most valuable aspects of your role as a leader.
Communication, clarity, context, expectation setting, checking for understanding and similar key requirements form part of this discussion.
Consolidation and reinforcement occurs in between formal sessions, during ad-hoc catch-ups. They are extremely valuable and important. However, there needs to be a formal, established rhythm where real and honest discussion can take place. This should be done in a private setting where both the leader and employee can feel comfortable to raise any relevant points. These discussions form the basis for most performance reviews and development opportunities. The chance to reduce or remove assumptions is also of great benefit.
An effective one-on-one is a discussion with purpose. It has two-way communication and feedback; invites self-assessment; invests in the relationship; and has actions and outcomes.
There is something to be said, however, about occasionally changing the setting. Some of the best one on one discussions I have had occurred during a walk around the block or at a cafe’.
As with all relationships, it is important to know your team members well enough to know what their preferences are.
Clearly, going for a walk with an employee with health issues might be challenging and potentially do more harm than good, for example.
I often hear statements from managers like, “my door is always open”. The assumption that this style creates opportunity for meaningful discussion is flawed.
Not all of your team members will approach you proactively to raise all of their issues and successes. Quite often the key few will ‘pop into your office’ to vent or raise concerns.
Regularly the same employees will chat about the same challenges and points, visit after visit. Reactive conversations based on specific issues become the norm.
Of course, not all of your team will approach you just because you ‘offered’, One-on-ones provide the alternative options. Personal and professional points are discussed.
You need to give these meetings a fair amount of time to make sure you really dig into issues that are bothering them, fully explore ideas with them, and have a good opportunity to coach them when needed.
You’ll also build their confidence and trust in you that when they come to you with a problem you will not only listen, but help them do something about it. (3)
One-on-ones are proactive in nature, identifying and addressing things before they escalate.
The ‘door is open approach’ is reactive and covers the select few issues that your team members choose to raise – it assumes too much and is quite a lazy approach. It is often an approach based on the manager – their fears, self-doubts and lack of confidence to manage the conversations. The one-on-one should be mostly about the employee. Conversely, relationship-based one-on-ones are proactive as they delve and discover opportunities that may not have been identified without facilitating and questioning.
The discussion is meaningful in that it maintains flow and momentum in actions, progress and meeting goals.
The ironic part of this mindset is that a focus away from your team rarely ends well. The most relevant and impactful way to be able to influence outcomes and results is via the effectiveness, capability, competence and confidence of each team member. This takes focus and development. To assume that this growth will occur without your guidance and assistance as their immediate manager/leader reflects inexperience or avoidance. Related to this, emphasis on results and outcomes without understanding the inputs and contributors drives managers towards the wrong focus. This could appear as an unsupported challenge or even worse, a threat or coercion.
I have already touched on a few key benefits of one-on-ones. However, the most important element references the risks if you don’t formalise these discussions.
What causes some people to fully commit to the team and give their max effort while others don’t? It’s trust. In research conducted by The Ken Blanchard Companies and Training Magazine, over 60% of respondents say the most important factor influencing the effort they give to a team is how much they trust their fellow teammates.
Having high trust in your teammates frees you up to focus on your own contributions without worrying about others following through on their commitments. Trusting your team gives you freedom to take risks, knowing your teammates have your back and will support you. Team trust allows you to have open and honest dialogue and healthy debate that leads to better decision-making, and conflict gets resolved productively instead of people sandbagging issues or sabotaging the efforts of others. But developing trust in your teammates doesn’t happen by accident; it takes an intentional effort to proactively build trust. (2) It is a very similar factor when considering the relationship between a leader and direct report…but, more impactful in most cases.
Trust cannot be built from afar or in spite of the effort to develop effective relationships. Regular one-on-ones provide that opportunity.
When you have scheduled the sessions, commit to them. Cancelling or constantly moving the one-on-ones sends a very clear message about your priorities. Remember, most leaders have around 160+ hours / month to accomplish their work. Focusing on the single greatest impact on the success of that work (hint: your team members) for 10-20 hours / month seems like a pretty solid investment! Let your team know you want to have one on ones to help them. If they’ve never had them before, they may not know what to expect, so it helps to give them a little background before the first one. (3) Over time, you can shift the accountability of scheduling and agenda-setting to your employee.
Regular conversations that contain actions and outcomes create a baseline for development. The CoachStation REOWM Leadership Accountability model provides a solid framework to assist in your one-on-ones. Access a copy of the REOWM model and explanations for each of the 5 steps here.
It is important to spend a few minutes preparing for each one-on-one.
Leadership expert, Kevin Eikenberry correctly states that: the best meetings have agendas, and while your one-on-one meetings likely won’t have a formal agenda (although they could), for them to be most effective and productive, both parties need to be clear on the expectations, goals, and outcomes for these meetings. Since you are likely having these meetings already without this clarity, make this a topic of conversation the next time you meet.
As a leader, don’t just assume others know what you want from these meetings – talk to them and share your needs and goals for your one-on-ones.
As a team member ask for what you need. If you are hoping for/need something from these meetings (like more direction, for example), ask for it. (4)
I have found that a consistent agenda containing 3 key elements works well in establishing a standard, expectations and agreed outcomes:
What’s on your mind?
What would you like to discuss?
How have you gone since we last met?
Did your actions work?
What did you learn as a result?
How do you know they worked?
What do you need to do to reinforce and consolidate recent learning and actions?
What have you taken away from today’s one-on-one?
Are there any new potential actions?
There is value if your team member takes control of the meeting. It may take a couple of one-on-ones for them to get comfortable and understand your expectations and how best to apply them, but it is their time, so your employee should own it. Support them into this though, being fair and clear about how this looks and what they should do.
Too often the one-on-one meeting becomes tactical and just about day to day issues and tasks.
Self-assessment and reflection is generally more useful than solely providing feedback. You will find that through asking the right questions and listening well, there is much to learn about each person. You can then provide your own thoughts and feedback throughout the discussion, in response to your employee. It may seem subtle but is actually a significant shift in accountability and ownership. It also makes the session easier for the leader as they quickly learn that they don’t have to have all the answers. These details are important, but if you want to have more effective and valuable one-on-one meetings, think bigger picture.
As a leader, be observant, and make coaching and feedback a part of the list of things you routinely talk about in these meetings. Consider asking for feedback on your performance too.
As a team member, if you want more feedback in general, or specific guidance on a situation, ask for it. The one-on-one meeting is a time you will have your leader’s attention, so use it to get the feedback you need. (4) Regular follow-up and development of accountability provides momentum and progression.
Monthly meetings are ok, however fortnightly is best in my experience. It is generally better to conduct fortnightly one-on-ones of 45 minutes in length compared to monthly sessions of an hour or longer.
This does depend on the number of direct reports, employee tenure and competence, amongst other judgements you must make. Finally, a good rule-of -thumb to follow is to make sure that each one-on-one covers 3 key categories. Assuming a 60 minute session is scheduled, break the session into thirds or 20-minute segments:
- 20 minutes: Tasks = Focus on results, tasks and operational work i.e. the things that your employee does.
- 20 minutes: Self = Self-reflection and discussion regarding the employee themselves – how do they feel? What is going well? What isn’t?
- 20 minutes: Others = Feedback and self-assessment regarding their relationships – with you as their leader; with their peers; with their direct reports; other relationships e.g stakeholders.
The timing of 20 minutes for each segment can be adjusted. The critical aspect is that all 3 elements are covered.
Without a doubt the biggest challenge for most managers is to conduct a one-on-one at all.
Feedback I receive is that most managers don’t conduct one-on-ones and if they do, they are not that useful because they focus solely on segment 1 – results, KPI’s and tasks. Greater improvement and objectivity is gained when the leader focuses on how the results are achieved. You cannot influence a number or historical result. This information is important to identify insights and trends, leading to potential actions. But, in itself, it offers little direction or future action. Identifying why the results are what they are has purpose and potential for goal establishment.
One-on-ones are a critical aspect of leadership. This time together provides opportunities that do not present themselves to the same depth through casual, ad-hoc discussions. If you are a leader and have read this far, I encourage you to reflect on the progress and effectiveness of your one-on-ones and your team.
It’s a problem to be unaware of this aspect of your role. However, it is negligent to gain awareness and continue to miss the opportunity. As always, it is your call, but your team members will ultimately thank you for meeting your responsibilities and assisting them via facilitating useful, engaging and purposeful one-on-ones.
(1) State of the Global Workplace 2017: Gallup Global Report