Your guide to one-on-one meetings

Your guide to one-on-one meetings

Running one-to-one meetings with your direct reports?

Not sure where to start? Or perhaps you’ve got a system in place, but feel like it’s lacking something?

One-to-one meetings are a massive opportunity, not just for your employee to get the support they need, but for you to really shine as a leader. Done right, they can nurture your working relationship. But if you get it wrong, they can do damage, too.

Your greatest asset is your team! In this article, you’ll learn:

  • The purpose of one-to-one meetings
  • What to avoid in your one-to-one meetings
  • How to choose (and get) the right outcomes
  • How to plan the meeting, including plenty of activities to try
  • What to do in your first one-to-ones with a new team member

Are you ready to step up your one-to-one game? Then read on!

What is a one-to-one meeting for?

One-to-one meetings are for feedback, support and problem solving. The main aim? To ensure your employee feels able and supported to meet their own goals. Or, if it’s a project-based one-to-one, to meet the project goals.

One-to-one meetings are also used in coaching and mentoring relationships, which will require a different approach; some of the considerations below will still be useful, though.

What are one-to-one meetings not for?

Status updates

One-to-one meetings are not the right place for status updates on general work. You’ll cover progress towards goals/objectives, but the other stuff? Save it for your daily working interactions (Daily Sharing is great for this).

For example, if your employee is hitting their targets and getting everything done to the appropriate level, there’s no need to waste valuable one-to-one time talking through each item that they have done or need to do.

If, however, the status updates indicate that something isn’t right - they have missed deadlines or are underperforming, your session can be used to find out why, and what support they need. We’ll get to this later.

Agendaless chit-chat

Schedule some time for free-form conversation, either at the start of the session or to wrap up and end on a chilled note. But don’t go into the session without a clear plan! If the person you’re meeting is at all nervous, it’ll be very easy for them to start talking and just keep going, but not actually hit any of the important points you need to cover. We’ll suggest a couple of formats that might work for you below.

Surprises!

One-to-one meetings are supposed to be productive, so try to avoid surprises. If you have some bad news, ideally you’ll schedule a separate meeting to talk about it as soon as possible. Even if it’s good news, if it’s not specifically related to that individual’s progress, you’re doing them a disservice by eating into their time to talk about it with you.

Discussing serious poor performance

Your regular one-to-one meetings aren’t the right place to discuss poor performance. It may come up naturally as you talk, but if you need a serious chat about supporting someone through a period of poor performance, book one in for another time.

That way, you keep one-to-ones as a positive event. If you do want to bring up performance in a casual way (before it creates an issue), try the Accountability Dial tactic to find out how best to phrase your concerns.

How often should you have one-to-one meetings?

This is a tricky one! It will depend on various factors, mostly depending on the individual, their current performance and career trajectory and the type of work they do. It will also depend on the number of people you have to meet one-on-one in any given period!

Dave Cunningham, Author of Team Tactics, says: “I’d suggest having a one-to-one every week, or every two weeks. Building a habit of talking and getting to know each other needs to be done with frequency, otherwise you’ll never get past those initial polite (and guarded) exchanges. And if you only meet once a month, then one missed meeting can leave a gap of two months in between your sessions.”

If an individual is new, recently promoted or aiming for a promotion, you’ll want to encourage additional opportunities for them to talk to you, and all of your team should know they can get in touch with you between meetings if they need to. It shows that you’re invested in their success, and allows you to help steer them right (if they need it) rather than helping them to fix things once they’ve already gone off course.

What are the main challenges of one-to-one meetings?

As with anything so vitally important, one-to-one meetings have their own challenges! Here are some of the main pitfalls to avoid.

Micromanaging

Avoiding using this as a ‘status update’ opportunity is a great way to avoid micromanagement. Don’t go through the work they have done with a fine-tooth comb. Instead, focus on the impact and feedback that came from the work.

Low psychological safety

Psychological safety is the foundation of trust and wellbeing in any relationship. It’s the notion that you won’t be punished for making a mistake - you’re safe to do your best and that’s enough. But it’s more than just a ‘notion’ - it subconsciously affects how we feel, how we work and how we relate to others.

You can dive deep into this one, but some key elements of any psychologically safe environment include:

  • Zero tolerance for shaming, bullying or harassment
  • Supporting each other when things go wrong/are challenging
  • Non-judgemental language
  • Active listening to everyone’s unique experiences

Time-keeping

As the person leading the meeting, it’s absolutely vital that you honour this meeting (see psychological safety, above!). If something comes up, immediately send a personalised note to reschedule - don’t just cancel it! And make sure you’re on time - early even. It doesn’t matter how good your reasoning is, being late to something so important will damage your relationship.

And of course, there’s always the risk that they will be the one to leave you hanging! Remember all that stuff we just said about never, ever, ever being late? If your employee is late, you’ll have to try very hard to ensure it doesn’t affect the rest of the session. One thing that can really help you get perspective is to remember that for employees further ‘down’ the corporate hierarchy than you are, there are a great many more people who can demand (and disrespect) their time. Hear them out before jumping to conclusions about why it happened.

What should the outcomes of a one-to-one meeting be?

The outcomes of a great one-to-one meeting are that your employee will have a clear plan for how to better achieve their goals, and you’ll know what you need to do to support that.

If they have been performing well, this can be quite simple (though it’s still very important to keep running one-to-ones!). But the reasons for underperformance can vary wildly, so make sure you’re thorough when you speak with them. Do this from the perspective of wanting to help them feel great about doing great work.

If someone is struggling with their performance, this session could be a real turning point. You’ll want to touch on all the factors that could affect their work. They may not even be aware of the root cause themselves! For example, they might be struggling due to:

  • Lack of training
  • Poor interpersonal relationships
  • Volume of work
  • Personal issues at home
  • Health issues
  • Lack of motivation
  • Not enough support from others
  • Bad processes

The outcome, therefore, depends on the two of you managing to identify the issue and planning how to overcome it. No mean feat!

How to plan a one-to-one meeting (with template)

The invite

The success of your meeting depends on effective planning! That starts from before you have even scheduled the session. Think about what to include in the email to increase your chances of a productive conversation:

  • Personalise the invite
  • Make it positive!
  • Include a link or attachment with their goals and that you’ll be discussing them
  • Mention anything else significant you wish to talk about
  • State the outcomes
Hi Gemma,
Looking forward to our one-to-one meeting, hope this time works for you. Remember to check your OKRs goals [or SMART goals, or whatever objectives you use] so we can chat about those.
We’re also sorting out training budgets soon, so let’s talk about any training interests you have for the coming year and see if we can get you booked onto some courses. Let me know if there’s something specific you’d like me to think about ahead of time, too.

The activities

You’ll want to include at least five separate items on the agenda for your regular meetings.

  1. A warm-up/check-in activity
  2. A goals/objectives check-in activity (monthly)
  3. Some form of retrospective (monthly)
  4. Feedback activity (you to them)
  5. Feedback activity (them to you)
  6. Time to chat more generally

Always book more time than you need so it doesn’t feel rushed. You can always finish early; running out of time is counterproductive.

Every now and then, you’ll also want to do the following:

  • Check that you are both communicating with each other in the best way possible
  • Discuss specific goals, such as promotion, or general career progression opportunities
  • Talk about their training and how they can apply new learnings

This can either be in the time period you have earmarked for them to feed back to you about how things are going, or it can form an activity in the agenda.

Weekly one-on-one meeting template (with monthly options)

Here are some activities that work for each of the five elements mentioned above:

  1. Warm up/check in activities: you can borrow from the Team Appreciation tactic here and kick things off by sharing some of the things your employee has done that you feel embody the Team’s values.
    Aim: to help you both get into the right mindset to focus on the session and each other.
  2. Monthly: Goals/objectives check-in. Whether you’re using OKRs or another approach, take some time to discuss the metrics of success you agreed upon for each of their objectives. Then, incorporate their recent progress towards these in the conversation in the next activity (point 3) to put it into context.
    Aim: to get a good overview of their progress towards their goals since you last spoke.
  3. Monthly: Retrospective. Try the Team Tactics Retro activity or Workshop Tactics’ Three Little Pigs.
    Aim: to find out what affected their progress towards their goals since you last spoke.
  4. Feedback activity (you to them): you can use a Start, Stop, Continue approach here (similar premise to the retro activity of the same name) to provide your feedback on their performance without using emotionally charged language.
    Aim: to share any constructive feedback that will help them achieve their goals.
  5. Feedback activity (them to you): an individual version of Mad, Sad, Glad works perfectly for this as it empowers your employee to ask for what they need, and includes a built-in opportunity to let you know if something isn’t working for them. The Team Health Check tactic can also be done individually here, and can start some very interesting conversations about how they feel and what they need from you - and encourage them to use the Say What You Mean tactic if they are struggling to articulate something that’s bothering them.
    Aim: for them to let you know how you can best support them to achieve their goals.
  6. Much like in surveys, always wrap-up by asking if there’s anything else they’d like to chat about. You’ll be surprised at how often they say “Well, there is one thing…”.

A new team member’s first one-to-ones

The first few meetings with a new team member are crucial for setting the tone and creating psychological safety, as well as building rapport. A fantastic approach to help with this is to ask your team member to answer the questions in the My User Manual tactic ahead of time, then discuss those.

Then, in the meeting, you can talk to them about the point of one-to-ones and if there’s anything particular they would like to achieve/focus on in the first sessions. Using the topics in the My User Manual activity, you can also work out how to communicate best with each other going forward.

You can also work through how they want one-to-one sessions to look. For example, which retrospective approach resonates most with them and their work, and how would they most like to share their feedback with you?

And if you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance you’d love Team Tactics!


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