“People complain a lot about meetings. Unfortunately I haven’t discovered a more high bandwidth, high leverage way of sharing knowledge than a face-to-face meeting. What I think actually bothers people is bad meetings”
– David Lynch, Engineering Manager at Intercom
1 .......... Introduction: the trouble with big meetings
2 .......... 5 key reasons to have 1-on-1 meetings with employees
3 .......... What is the purpose of a 1-on-1 meeting?
4 .......... Common misconceptions about 1-on-1 meetings
5 .......... Manager corner: questions for 1-on-1 meetings with your employee
6 .......... If you want to have effective 1-on-1 meetings, don’t…
7 .......... Employee corner: questions for 1-on-1 meetings with your manage
8 .......... Resource: a 1-on-1 meeting template with guidelines
9 .......... 1-on-1 meetings done right: the long-term benefits
10 .......... Over to you & next steps
11 .......... Further resources
“1-on-1s are the single most powerful thing we know a manager can do to improve their relationship with direct reports and get better results"
– Mark Horstman, One-on-One Meetings (Podcast: Part 1)
The trouble with big meetings
It’s a story many of us know well: first, a meeting invitation goes out to everyone in the department. Employees sigh as they think of all the work they were planning on doing that afternoon. It feels like barely any time has passed since the last big meeting - and that was hardly enlightening for the team. The meeting itself takes a while to get underway, and yet again it feels like much of what’s said is irrelevant, or could’ve been more easily explained in a memo. To make matters worse, the meeting overruns by 15 minutes and several employees are late to their next task.
The pain points of big group meetings often come down to size: it’s difficult to hold a meaningful conversation with more than a few people in the room, and much of the discussion might not directly relate to several participants. In a piece by the New York Times, we learn that the frequency of group meetings had more of a negative impact on Microsoft’s employee satisfaction than working longer hours overall. Interestingly, 1-on-1 meetings (meetings involving just two people, usually a manager and direct report) were excluded from this fact. In fact, frequent 1-on-1s with direct reports were “one of the strongest predictors of success for middle managers.” So why are 1-on-1s so impactful when big meetings are often quite painful?
Time and time again, 1-on-1 meetings make a huge difference to the working lives of managers and employees alike – here’s why.
“Employees who have regular 1:1 meetings with managers are 3x more likely to be engaged.”
– Gallup, 2016
Five key reasons to have 1-on-1 meetings with employees
- They make checking in quick and simple
Group meetings are often set up in order to get live updates from each team member. But it can be hard to do that in practice when there are so many people involved: some end up speaking more than others, and individual updates can lead to tangents. 1-on-1s make the check-in process quick, attentive and clear.
- They provide a unique opportunity for private discussion
In some organisations, employees and managers rarely get the chance to talk in private - at the expense of sharing vital information with each other. Regular 1-on-1s allow even shy employees to share their hopes, concerns, and ideas in a safe environment; as well as enabling more balanced, mutually active conversations than big meetings.
- They foster empathetic work relationships
Something about two people meeting face-to-face just can’t be recreated by saying “hi” around the office. According to several studies, communication effectiveness rests on the ability to coordinate joint attention, which becomes far easier when speaking alone in a pair. Giving people your full attention demonstrates your investment in them.
- They make employees feel valued
In good 1-on-1s, an employee leads the conversation while their manager mainly listens. As a result, direct reports grow confident that they matter and are valued: a feeling that becomes reciprocated as a sense of loyalty and respect to the company.
- They encourage a problem-solving mindset
When managers tell their employees they have the right to highlight and resolve weaknesses - even their own - it helps to uncover the root cause of problems and solve them much faster, honing transparency and honesty within teams. Problem-solving in turn stimulates deep, creative thinking between team members. As Ben Horowitz notes, “one-on-ones provide an excellent mechanism for information and ideas to flow up the organisation, and should be part of your design.”
Did you know? Voluntary attrition at Adobe dropped 30% since annual performance reviews were replaced by regular 1-on-1 meetings.
So what is the purpose of a 1-on-1 meeting?
Put simply, the main purpose of regular 1-on-1 meetings is to coach employees – in other words, to help them do their jobs as best they can.
What does that actually mean, you may ask? A 2009 report called “The Coaching Conundrum” pointed out that many organisations talk about the benefits of coaching without implementing it: possibly because managers don’t actually know what good coaching looks like! The report defines effective coaching as:
- Asking vs. Telling
- Listening vs. Talking
- Questioning for opportunities and solutions vs. Blame
If you’re a manager who’s new to 1-on-1s, keep those three magic bullet points in mind the next time you go into a meeting, and bring a sense of curiosity and openness with you. Importantly, be sure to keep your problem-solving attitude collaborative, rather than expecting employees to solve the issues they raise by themselves.
“Beware of management maxims that stop information from flowing freely in your company. For example, consider the old management standard: “Don’t bring me a problem without bringing me a solution.” What if the employee cannot solve an important problem?” – Ben Horowitz, author of The Hard Thing About Hard Things
Now we’ve talked about how 1-on-1 meetings should be run, let’s look at what you should talk about when you’re in one.
Goals and/or OKRs: make sure individual goals aren’t drifting off the map; at the same time, use 1-on-1s to clarify any doubts about the OKR cycle, rather than expecting everything to run on autopilot from start to finish.
Feedback: more importantly than giving feedback (which you should be giving as you go), use the 1-on-1 to ask for feedback (unless you’re an employee, in which case, go ahead!) Managers: why not ask for feedback on your 1-on-1s – are they useful; could they be improved?
Development: does an employee work in marketing, but want to learn to code? Or maybe someone really struggles in one area, and wants to take a course to up their confidence. Find out how they want to grow and coach them through what they need to get there.
Praise & Recognition: whether you give praise publicly or privately, we think everybody deserves to be congratulated at some point. 1-on-1s can be the perfect space to remind your colleagues you see and value their work.
Did you know? 69% of managers are uncomfortable communicating with their employees.
Common misconceptions about 1-on-1 meetings
Unsure managers think: “I don’t know how I feel about giving up my time to 1-on-1s. I can’t afford to lose one hour a week with three or four different employees!”
Clued up managers know: it’s totally normal to panic about 1-on-1s becoming a time suck - we’ve all sat through meaningless meetings, and having several separate appointments can feel stressful at first. In the long run, however, 1-on-1s save heaps of time by anticipating issues in advance; helping your employees become accountable for themselves; and strengthening your relationships. Checking (bi-)weekly also improves each person’s output for many hours.
Unsure managers think: “I see my employees around the office every day. Can’t I just catch up with them then?”
Clued up managers know: Conferences That Work author Adrian Segar – who describes himself as designing “participation-driven meetings that don’t suck” – offers the following as food for thought:
“Think of the most important conversation you ever had in your life. Take your time—I’m not going to ask you what it was about. How many other people took part in your conversation? I’ve run this exercise at numerous presentations and asked the audience to share their answers via a show of hands. The most common answer is “one”, followed by 2-3, with a few people reporting small group numbers. No one has yet reported a most-important conversation with ten or more people.”
In other words, if you want to have any kind of significant, impactful conversation with your employees - make the effort to meet with them in a 1-on-1. See this essay from Keith Rabois which talks about 1-on-1s as “high-leverage activities.”
Unsure managers think: “I feel nervous about having an intimate conversation with my boss/direct report. What do I say? Where do I even begin?”
Clued up managers know: firstly, come prepared: jot down talking points or open-ended questions in advance. (We’ve included a best practice framework further down: click here to have a look.) Refresh yourself with some water or fresh air before the meeting starts, and remember – you’re on the same team as the other person! Ultimately you’re meeting to support each other. Bonus: your conversation skills will improve dramatically the more 1-on-1s you have!
Top tip! If you or the other person are prone to stress, why not have a 1-on-1 outside? Walking and talking is not only physically relaxing – it also makes it easier to talk candidly with one another when you’re out of the office environment.
“Being both precise and incredibly candid in your feedback to a single individual can have a massive long-term effect, and is a very high leverage use of your time.”
– Keith Rabois, How to be an Effective Executive
Manager corner: questions for 1-on-1 meetings with your employee
- ‘If there was just one thing you could change about our organisation, what would it be and why?’
- ‘Who inspires you in the company? Is there anyone whose work you admire?’
- ‘What do you think our product is missing? Do you have any ideas to make it better?’
- ‘Generally, how do you feel when you come in to work every day?’
- ‘Is there anything you need that would make your work better?’
If you want to have effective 1-on-1 meetings, don’t…
- … use 1-on-1s as a status update meeting
While it’s perfectly fine to check in with each other at the beginning of a 1-on-1, you shouldn’t make work updates your focus. If your entire meeting could be held just as easily with an open door – or even on Slack! – you’re probably not delving deep enough. If you’re a manager, ask about your employee’s well-being or how they’re experiencing current projects. If you’re an employee, this is your chance to make suggestions, flag roadblocks and be honest about your workload.
- … skip or reschedule meetings
It can be tempting to cancel when you’ve only got one person to coordinate with. But it’s important to respect the value of your 1-on-1s from the beginning, and if managers don’t take 1-on-1s seriously why should their employees? Feel free to shorten the odd 1-on-1 if both parties have more work than talking points: just don’t cancel it.
- … hold 1-on-1s that aren’t frequent enough to be valuable
The quickest way to make 1-on-1s a waste of time is to schedule less of them. They get their value from being frequent and regular, so aim to meet every 1-2 weeks. If work is always getting in the way, maybe it’s time to assess your organisational infrastructure (i.e. reducing the number of direct reports per manager or delegating menial tasks).
- … come to meetings without clarity
Great 1-on-1s don’t happen just like that: they need preparation and planning. On an individual level that means writing up a simple agenda before each meeting. On a company level that means training your teams to know how 1-on-1s work; why they’re important and what their purpose is. If employees don’t know that 1-on-1s are really about them, they don’t know the true purpose of the meeting.
“The purpose of constructive feedback is to encourage the other to move into a problem-solving conversation with you” – Deborah Petersen, Inc.
Employee corner: questions for 1-on-1 meetings with your manager
- ‘I’m having trouble with my responsibilities this quarter because I’m struggling with some personal issues. I think I need help figuring out a solution.’
- ‘I’ve always wanted to be a mentor to another employee - now that we have the new sales hire, do you think I could take on the responsibility of training her?’
- ‘I’m not sure me and [colleague] are compatible as work partners for this project - do you think I could do more independent work?’
- ‘I feel like I’m spending too much time on this project, and my other projects are being neglected. Is there a more efficient way for me to contribute?’
- ‘I have some cool ideas for our events team, but I want to run them by you first - do you mind if we take some time to go over them in full?’
“Your 1-on-1 meeting is the most important chance for you to hear from your employee, and it’s their time, not yours.”
– Kim Scott, Radical Candor
Not sure what to include in your agenda? Here’s a 1-on-1 meeting template
If you don’t know where to start with your first 1-on-1, don’t worry – here are some best practice focus areas that you can choose from when writing your agenda. We recommend using three or four focus areas to keep things simple.
“Coaching is a practice that requires relatively little investment, is infinitely adaptable, and is inherently personalized.” – Blessing White, 2009
“During the meeting, since it’s the employee’s meeting, the manager should do 10% of the talking and 90% of the listening.”
– Ben Horowitz, author of The Hard Thing About Hard Things
1-on-1 meetings done right: the long-term benefits
Now we know how 1-on-1s benefit individuals, let’s look at how they influence the organisation in the long run. What does a culture of 1-on-1s do for companies as a whole?
- The company runs a lot more smoothly because every team knows what’s expected of them – as soon as their priorities become muddled, direct reports use 1-on-1s to ask their managers for clarification and support.
- Executives spend less time auditing their workforce because managers are already getting regular, honest updates from their employees. When the animation team kept missing deadlines, the CEO quickly discovered it was a lack of up-to-date technology that was slowing them down.
- Employees and managers are used to speaking frankly with one another, so they’re now comfortable giving each other instant feedback and holding performance reviews.
- Speaking of performance reviews, consistent 1-on-1s remind employees what’s expected of them throughout the year. The performance review felt like a natural round up of the discussions held in each person’s 1-on-1.
- Because employees are regularly encouraged to be open about their needs, managers are able to set up the best conditions for teams to produce quality work year-round. The office has a good atmosphere because no one feels undervalued or overlooked. .
- Interpersonal skills are healthier: even where there are personality clashes, employees are given opportunities to vent privately before resentment builds up.
- As 1-on-1s become standard procedure, everyone’s soft skills improve. Employees get better at communicating; listening; collaborating and being open and aware of others.
Did you know? In his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, CEO Ben Horowitz recalls how he nearly fired one of his managers and his supervisor when he found out they hadn’t conducted any 1-on-1s in six months!
Over to you
We’re big fans of 1-on-1 meetings (in case you couldn’t tell).
But we’d love to know what you think, whether you’ve had years of experience with 1-on-1s or none at all. Maybe your company tried to implement 1-on-1s and they totally nose-dived? Or perhaps you’ve just had your first 1-on-1 meeting and want to know how to make them even better. Whether we missed something out or you have your own tips to add, tweet us at @leapsome with the hashtag #OneOnOnes.
And if you’re keen to begin your own journey with 1-on-1 meetings, we’ve got you covered. Avoid getting lost in weekly paper trails and email threads with Leapsome’s easy-to-use software for 1-on-1 meetings., With customisable 1-on-1 agenda templates, rolling talking points, automated reminders, and more, you (and everyone in your company) can have productive, well-structured, and high-leverage meetings.
Watch our 90 second tutorial video to preview the 1-on-1 feature and how it works.
- The Ultimate Guide to Building Feedback Into Your Company Culture (eBook)
- Why Good Leaders Don’t Just Give Feedback, but Ask For it Too (blog post)
- Structured 1-on-1 meetings (digital tool)
- Julie Zhuo on The Essential Questions That Managers Should Be Asking (podcast)
- How to run 1:1 meetings that work for 2 (article)
- One On One (blog post)
“The best way to understand what’s going on or how to get better is to pose probing questions to the people you manage, and above all, to yourself"
– Julie Zhuo, VP of Product Design at Facebook