Having 1 to 1 meetings with team members is common practice for many leaders. However, I have noticed that the importance of these meetings is often underrated.
While 1 to 1 meetings can be valuable, without proper attention they can become stale and tiresome. Sometimes, it might feel like you’re not getting value from them, and they are taking up precious time in your week.
In this post, I’ll look at why leaders struggle to use 1 to 1 meetings effectively, why they can actually be so useful and also suggest some ways to improve them to strengthen your leadership.
Why Leaders Struggle With 1 to 1 Meetings
1 to 1 meetings can be difficult for some leaders. Based on my own experience and what I have learned from my coaching clients, here are some of the major challenges:
- Not enough time: Many leaders are simply too busy. Something else always takes priority over the time spent with individual team members. 1 to 1 meetings are often rescheduled or cancelled. “Can we push it to next week?”
- Limited perceived value: Some leaders don’t see the value in the 1 on 1 time with individual team members. They feel they can keep in touch with their team during other meetings, so they don’t need another one.
- Lack of sharing: Some team members aren’t good at sharing, so the leader does all the talking. This can feel awkward and frustrating. After a while, it can be tempting to give up on the idea.
- The open-door policy: Some leaders encourage their people to come and speak to them at any time. This means there is no need to schedule specific time to speak. Or is there?
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #63: “I Don’t Have Time”: Taking Back Control of Your Leadership.
Why 1 to 1 Meetings Can Be So Useful
I think 1 to 1 meetings are underrated. At first, they seem just like any other meeting. Yet another thing to cram into your already full schedule.
But wait a second – let’s take a quick look at some of the benefits. Some of these will be quite obvious, but there may be some here you haven’t considered.
1 on 1 Meetings Provide a Safe Space
Many people are uncomfortable speaking about their challenges or aspirations in front of others. Individual meetings provide a space to speak openly about work issues, people problems or to discuss the future.
1 to 1 Meetings Allow You to Connect and Build Rapport
When you allocate time to speak with people individually, you can really get to know them. You can connect and build rapport in a way that often isn’t possible in a larger forum.
Instead of talking generally, you can dive into specific topics that interest your people.
1 to 1 Meetings Show You Care
Where you choose to spend your time sends a message. The busy leader who can’t be contacted all day will appear disconnected and unavailable.
Contrast this with the busy leader who specifically makes time to meet with team members. Her time is valuable, and she is spending it where she thinks it’s important – with her people.
1 on 1 Meetings Allow You to Develop Your People
Some leaders like to “manage by exception”. Or in other words, “come and speak to me when something is wrong or you need a decision”.
This means that team members only really get time with their manager when there is something bad happening – when there are issues that need to be solved.
However, being able to speak about topics other than problems is highly valuable, because focusing on fixing issues only takes you so far.
What about improvements, goals, aspirations or development opportunities? These aren’t issues, but they are really important for employee growth, motivation and development.
Learn More: Risk & Reward: How to Provide Development Opportunities For Your Team.
1 to 1 Meetings Allow You to Observe
An important part of leading people is about being perceptive. When you’re perceptive, you pick up changes in attitude and body language. It’s hard to hide frustration and stress, so the more time you can spend with your people, the more likely you are to notice it.
One of the most important signals of a potential mental health issue is a change in normal behaviour or routine. If you’ve noticed something different about someone in your team that is causing you concern, a 1 to 1 meeting is also a good forum to provide support.
Learn More: How Leaders Can Identify Mental Health Issues.
How Often Should You Have 1 to 1 Meetings?
I recommend spending 30 minutes with each team member per week. Sometimes I hear stories of leaders booking monthly meetings, but this really amounts to just 12 per year… which isn’t much.
If you read this and think “But I have 25 direct reports, how could I do that?”. Well, this is probably an indication that your team is too big, which is a whole other problem.
This article from Quantum Workplace suggests that around 8 to 10 reports is appropriate. However, this really depends on the type of role that you have and the people you lead.
If you have a huge team, you can space them out, to one every two weeks perhaps. I wouldn’t recommend waiting much longer than that.
“But I’m too busy”. Yeah, well, when leaders say that to me, it makes me think that:
a) They aren’t focusing on their priorities – they are trying to do everything
b) They aren’t pushing back. They accept all the work and never say “No”; or
c) They are struggling to run their 1 to 1 meetings effectively (so they aren’t seeing the value).
Enough excuses – let’s get on board with the 1 on 1 meetings and make them more effective!
Learn More: Too Many Priorities: What to Do When You’re Asked to Do It All.
How to Improve Your 1 to 1 Meetings
We’ve all had powerfully awkward, uncomfortable or seemingly pointless 1 to 1 meetings. Obviously, we want to avoid these as much as possible.
See if you can make some improvements to your 1 to 1 meetings by trying some of the pointers below!
1. Have an Agenda … But Nothing Too Rigid
When you sit down with some team members, the conversation just flows. They’ll open up and tell you what’s happening and what they are struggling with.
With others, it will take a little more work. This is why it can be good to have a rough standing agenda for every conversation. I use a very simple agenda for my 1 to 1 meetings:
1. General update – how are things with work and life?
2. What issues / roadblocks are you having – what can I help with?
3. What successes have you had in the past week?
These are the standard items. But obviously, I can change these and add topics that are relevant for the given week.
I like to have flexibility around the discussion. An agenda too rigid can make the meeting seem too formal, which can reduce the possibility that your people will open up with you.
Learn More: 6 Powerful Ways to Create Open Communication in Your Team.
2. Speak About the Future
Once in a while (or whenever a team member wants to), I’ll raise the topic of the future. I’ll ask if there is anything they’d like to learn, or some way they would like to progress in their current role.
I’ll also speak about what they would like to achieve further into the future. This may mean we’re discussing opportunities outside of my team or even the organisation.
This is OK. I consider it a part of leadership to develop people, and this may mean that they leave you. Better to have a happy, motivated team member who is performing well but eventually leaves, than one who stays forever but has no drive or motivation.
Learn More: 5 Questions to Ask An Unmotivated Team Member.
3. Do Some Preparation For the 1 to 1 Meeting
It’s always a good idea to do at least a little preparation before a 1 to 1 meeting. This can be brief and simple. Questions I’ll ask to help me prepare include:
Is there anything good I’ve seen this week that warrants some recognition?
Is there anything concerning that needs a conversation?
Have I noticed any changes in behaviour or routine with this person?
Is there anything going on in the workplace or team that this person should know about, or would be interested in hearing about?
As you can see, you don’t need to go overboard with your preparation. But a little effort can help you avoid an aimless conversation.
4. Change Up the Location
Just because this is a work meeting, it doesn’t mean that you need to have it at your workplace every time.
Changing the environment can do wonders, especially if you are dealing with a team member that is struggling or finding it difficult to open up in conversation.
I’ll often go to a nearby cafe or somewhere else outside the normal workplace, especially when the workplace environment is stressful, or tainted by negativity. This can help to disconnect the feelings of the workplace from the conversation you are about to have, and lighten the mood.
In the new world of remote work, getting together can be a challenge. One idea to change the setting is to take a walking phone call together, or sit somewhere different in your respective locations. Regardless of whether you are remote or working together, 1 to 1 meetings can still be valuable.
Of course, it must be said that some team members may not be comfortable going for coffee with their manager outside of the workplace. As always, you should use your discretion to work out whether this is appropriate for your situation.
5. Appear Like You Give a Crap
When you spend 1 on 1 time with your people, it’s important to actually seem like you’re invested in the conversation.
Leaders who begrudgingly go through the motions of a 1 to 1 meeting because they read that they should be doing it in a management book are probably not going to see the benefits. And nor are the team members.
Avoid the temptation to look at your watch, read your emails or worry about your next meeting.
Sit and be present with the person in front of you and listen to what they have to say. Be curious about their lives, their aspirations and their behaviour.
I’ve had several managers whose eyes would glaze over in our 1 to 1 meetings. They showed very little care and attention to the conversation. They simply felt obliged to keep having them.
Over time, I stopped sharing information and my aim was to finish the 1 to 1 meeting as soon as possible. They were happy because they were able to focus on “more important” things. However, their behaviour led me to rapidly declining levels of engagement.
6. Avoid Status Updates and Encourage Contributions
1 to 1 meetings are actually a shared responsibility, between you and your people.
They aren’t just about you grilling them about what’s going on. They are an opportunity for team members to ask questions, receive personal coaching or advice and build rapport and trust.
If you resort to discussing status updates all the time, you’ll miss the opportunity to speak about important topics that really need to be tackled. You can get status updates some other way.
As part of the set up of these meetings, be sure to encourage your people to prepare too. Ask them to bring topics to the meeting that they’d like to discuss. You’re more likely to have a two-way conversation that really matters.
Status updates are simply a one way transfer of information from team member to manager, which probably won’t bring much value.
Your 1 to 1 meetings don’t need to be a mundane experience, where you just wait for the meeting time to run out.
They can be a valuable way to build trust with your people and help them feel more engaged with your leadership and the workplace.
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