There are only two of us in my office. Why should I bother with a formal meeting? We sit right across from each other.
It’s easy for many managers to compile a long list of reasons not to meet with the people they supervise. But the volume of reasons does not outweigh the value and importance of a regularly scheduled tête-à-tête with a direct report.
Visible appreciation: Time is currency. Managers who carve out time for their people and are prepared when they meet show they value their direct reports.
Better thinking: Regular one-on-one meetings give managers and employees space to step away from the urgent and immediate and think more holistically and strategically about work, goals and development opportunities.
Stronger results: Accountability tends to improve when people have an opportunity or a requirement to report on their progress.
The perfect meeting
The first step is to execute these meetings in a way that works for the manager and the employee. Good one-on-one meetings are not one-size-fits-all activities. That said, there are a few guidelines that can make this type of meeting successful.
Pick a schedule and stick to it. One-on-ones shouldn’t regularly disappear from the calendar simply because something else suddenly comes up.
Choose a frequency that makes sense. For some people, meeting once a month may be enough. For others, meeting weekly may be more appropriate. Every relationship is different.
Furthermore, circumstances evolve. Depending on what’s happening inside and outside of the organization, an employee’s needs could change drastically. Meeting frequency should be looked at from time to time. If the rate of meetings is correct, managers and employees should not routinely find themselves with no reason to meet.
Follow a written agenda. Well-run one-on-one meetings are not free-for-all conversations. They follow an agenda just as any other good meeting does. A one-on-one meeting agenda might include such topics as current projects, progress on yearly development goals, current challenges and so forth.
Put employees in the driver’s seat by having them manage and document the agenda. As a manager, you may create the initial agenda format. But once you do, your employees should take ownership of the documents associated with their one-on-one meetings.
Reevaluate periodically. Like anything, one-on-one meetings can get stale. It’s important to look at the format and frequency from time to time and solicit feedback regarding what’s working and what isn’t.
If you’ve fallen out of the habit of holding regular one-on-one meetings or if you’re not getting all you could from them, now is the time to take another look. After all, can you really afford not to?
Troubleshooting meetings before you get started
One-on-one meetings rarely go from nonexistent or dysfunctional to perfect overnight. For that reason, managers should prepare to overcome a variety of obstacles.
Obstacle 1: Employees question the new meeting.
Solution: Reduce the surprise factor.
If a manager has never held one-on-one meetings, they might come as a surprise to employees. To avoid feelings of uncertainty or confusion, discuss the idea before loading the calendar. “This year, I would like to focus more on individual development. Within the next week or two, please expect to see a meeting request from me on your calendar. I believe we will all benefit if I spend time with each of you individually at regularly scheduled intervals. How often we meet will depend on each of your needs and what we decide together.”
Obstacle 2: An employee doesn’t take charge of the meeting.
Solution: Show them how.
A good agenda can go a long way toward making the conversation flow. Although employees should have the ultimate responsibility for keeping the agenda, this may take time. In the beginning, managers may have to model what they want to see. “For our first few meetings, I’ll prepare the agenda. Once we’ve found our groove, my plan is to turn it over to you to own. This means you’ll add to it between meetings and bring a copy for you and me when we meet.”
Obstacle 3: An employee gives short or general answers to questions.
Solution: Get specific.
The more focused a manager’s questions are, the better the conversation tends to be. For example, instead of asking, “What are you working on?” a manager might say, “Tell me about the project that is going best right now and why that is.”
Obstacle 4: An employee seems unresponsive.
Solution: Leverage silence.
When managers don’t get immediate feedback, they sometimes mistake silence for non-responsiveness. It’s important for managers to remember they already know the questions. The employee, however, is hearing them for the first time and may need some time to digest and think about what’s being asked. Instead of rephrasing questions that don’t produce an immediate answer, managers need to get comfortable with letting silence sit in the room.