You might be running one-on-ones and feeling like you’re stuck in the mud, wasting your (and your team’s) time. Maybe you’re doing ok with them, but things aren’t quite gelling and you’re sure they could be better. Or, you’re not even running them at all, put off the idea by your own bad experiences in the past. This post is for all of you.

Transforming your team with one-on-one meetings

The idea of one-on-one meetings with a manager does funny things to people. It can evoke:

  • fear (what am I going to be hauled across the coals for this time?!)
  • frustration (I’m smashing this project right now, I can’t believe I have to drop it so you can listen to yourself talk)
  • apathy (ugh, another hour of my life wasted…whatever)

Rarely is the concept met with excitement, which is sad. Actually, it’s a travesty. Done well, regular one-on-one meetings can transform morale, communication, creative input and performance in your business.

I’ve been through plenty of those bad experiences myself and, regrettably, have probably created a few for others too.

I’ve also learnt a bunch about what works and what doesn’t, and I’ve become pretty passionate about the positive effect regular (fortnightly, for my team) one-on-one catchups can have on both managers and their teams.

It’s not a status check-in…

If you take one thing to heart from this post, make it this.

A one-on-one meeting is not a vehicle for status reports.

It is not a chance for you to robotically run through your direct report’s to-do lists, shaking your head and tsk-tsking when you can’t tick the box against them all.

This is not a time for you to feel self-important.

Treat a one-on-one as a status report and you’re wasting everyone’s time. Really want that report? Ask for a weekly email, or set up a 15Five account and get it that way.

Aside from saving your team from another awkward experience, just imagine the financial savings. Would you rather have one person spending 15 minutes on a weekly report, or two people spending an hour sitting across from each other, when the end result is the same?

…it’s a conversation…

Good one-on-one meetings are a place for discussion. Ideally, you’ll have a prepared agenda to work through – tangents are great, but you’ll both get more bang for your buck if there’s a general thread to work from.

If you find that you’re the only one who ever talks, you’ve got a problem. The person sitting across from you has already started retreating internally, closed down any potential interest, openness and creativity. They’re probably fully disengaged and halfway through planning their evening meal.

…led by them, not you…

No matter how much you want to help, this is no place for ego. The agenda I alluded to before should be prepared by each of your team, a list of items they want to talk about. Run one-on-ones from your own agenda and watch the interest drain from their faces. It was chilli con carne last night, wasn’t it? Think I’ll go with burritos tonight.

One-on-ones are a place for your team to be open with you – how they’re feeling about their role, the project they’re working on, their teammates, the company direction, the yoga class they just signed up for, or the winter trip to the slopes they’re planning.

This is a chance to get to know what drives or frustrates your team, what drags them down or gives them a buzz.

Little of that would come out in a meeting that you prepared the agenda for.

You’re there to listen more than you talk.

So they’ve arrived with a list of things they’d like to chat about (or they’re super prepared and they sent it through to you the day before). Now it’s time to shut up and listen.

But…but I’m the boss…I have so much to offer, I’ll just jump in here on this one point and –

Go read the line on ego again. I’ll wait.

You’re there to support and to help. Ever tried helping someone by telling them what their problem is, how to fix it, talking over them when they try and contribute, and then walking away? It sounds ridiculous, but that’s the default one-on-one style.

Don’t be that manager. Sit back, be present, and listen.

Truly listening to your team keeps your finger on the company pulse, and in a position to actually help.

As businesses grow, the lines of communication break, shift, get rebuilt and break and shift all over again. One of the constants? One-on-one sessions between team leads and their teams ensuring everyone is kept in the loop and on the same page. Feedback, going both ways all the time. A growing company without that level of communication (without that focus on listening) would be an unimaginable mess.

And boy, are there some messes out there.

…and when you do talk, you’re the coach.

Remember, you’re listening so that you can help. Help untangle issues, develop half-formed ideas, motivate, inspire, and remove nagging blockers. You’re there to make sure people have what they need to be the best version of themselves. Kind of powerful, right?

Your team are the athletes, you’re the coach.

You have the experience and the context. They have the energy and the talent. Together, you’ll move mountains.

Listen, discuss, then do.

Done right, a one-on-one won’t awkwardly lurch from one agenda point to the next and wrap up abruptly – it’ll ebb and flow, you’ll head off on interesting tangents, things will surface that weren’t on the list but are no less important, and you’ll grab opportunities to go into a heap of detail together on something you never even expected to be talking about. The time will disappear, and you’ll want to capture as much of the magic as possible.

So, make some action points. Jot down a couple of things you’ll each head away and be responsible for. Then, put some onus on those things happening by checking in with each other on how you both progressed when you next meet.

Hey, look at that! You just created a jumping-off point for every one-on-one you have together for the rest of time.

One last important note before I go – change the scenery up! Don’t get stuck at the same desk (yours) in the same office (also yours) week in, week out. Hit a cafe, hit another cafe, take a stroll through town while you talk, use the office again but sit by a whiteboard, or meet somewhere inspiring like my team did last week at the Dunedin Botanic Garden.

This morning’s 1:1 meeting table ☀️ ☕️ #startup #startuplife #remotework #newzealand #timelylife

A photo posted by Israel Butson (@israelbutson) on

Feel the balance of power shifting away from you, towards an even keel? Good. That’s the goal.

Ben Horowitz famously made not running regular one-on-ones a fireable offence for his managers, and I can understand why. Great one-on-ones can be transformative for your business. They encourage openness and trust, give your team a real voice (and a chance for them to hear yours more clearly), provide a forum for half-formed ideas to become whole and actionable, and grow a culture where personal radars are aligned across the board.

It’ll take time and practice (for both of you) to relax and get into a rhythm of open, honest, inspiring discussions, but stick with it. You’ll be glad you did.