Guide to one-on-ones

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If you are a manager, one of your most important responsibilities is to ensure the people you manage are happy, engaged, and are working as effectively as they can. One of the best ways to achieve this is to have quality one-on-ones with your direct reports. Here are some of my thoughts on how to accomplish that.

Why bother having one-on-ones?

During the one-on-one, you are trying to get to know your direct reports better. You are trying to understand their current state of mind. You are trying to find out if there's anything troubling them at work, or if they have any blockers. You are trying to find what motivates them.

Once you find out these things, you need to take appropriate actions that benefit your direct reports, and communicate what you are doing to them. You are doing all of this to make your direct reports happier and more engaged at work, and in return they will be happier and more productive.

General advice for better one-on-ones

During the one-on-one, it is your direct report's time to talk. You shouldn't be talking that much. The more you say, the less you are learning about your direct report, and the aim should be for you to get to know your people.

To get them to talk openly, you need to build trust with your direct reports. You will earn their trust over time if you are having quality one-on-ones. Having a high level of trust makes it easier for you both to give candid feedback. The more your direct reports trust you, the better they will respond to your feedback.

Building trust is easier if your direct reports have psychological safety. It's easier for them to speak up when they feel safe at work. You and the other leaders in your organisation need to build a culture where it is safe to fail.

As a manager, you need to feel comfortable giving constructive feedback to your direct reports. The feedback should always be honest and fair. You owe it to your direct reports to tell them when they are doing something wrong, and make them aware of what it is they need to do to improve.

It is really important to find out if your direct reports are facing any issues at work. Sometimes they will not tell you, but if you sense that something is wrong, you need to ask appropriate questions to find out. You need to get to the bottom of their problems, and think of ways to help resolve them.

You should be regularly asking them where they want to go with their career, and you should help them create a realistic plan to get there. Work together to help set their goals.

It is really important to take notes during your one-on-ones. You don't want to forget what your direct reports tell you, especially if there's an action for you to take away from the meeting. Just be aware that these notes might be seen by other people, and your direct reports may ask to see them at some point. Make sure your notes are factual, fair and safe to share.

Consider the location of your one-on-ones. Some people prefer getting out of the office. If your organisation is generous and has the budget, take your direct reports to a coffee shop. You could even go for a walk. Be sure to ask your direct report what their preference is. If you are working remote, make sure you are both in a quiet room, and have a good quality microphone and internet connection.

How frequently should you have one-on-ones?

I find weekly one-on-ones work the best. You can respond to problems and give feedback to your direct reports in a much more timely manner. I have had great feedback from my direct reports that weekly one-on-ones works for them too.

How long should one-on-ones be?

I find around 30 minutes is the ideal length of time. Longer meetings tend to go off topic.

A basic structure for one-on-one meetings

To get your direct reports to open up, you are going to have to ask them questions. You should prepare beforehand, and have a few relevant questions you want to ask them. I find having a structure helps keep the conversation flowing, but don't be too strict with it, as something could be raised unexpectedly that changes the flow of the conversation.

Here is the general structure I use for my one-on-ones:

  1. I ask how they are in general. Some direct reports might talk about work, and others might talk about their personal lives. Getting a better understanding of how they are outside of work is fine, but try and steer the conversation back towards work.
  2. I address any feedback I have for them. I find doing this earlier in the meeting is better, as it can change the mood depending on the type of feedback I am giving. It also gives us time to discuss the feedback.
  3. I ask what they've been working on, and how they feel it's going. I am not doing this to get a project update. I am doing this to find out how my direct reports feels about their work. I often ask if they can think of ways to improve what they're doing, and I ask if they need help with anything.
  4. I ask them how they feel about any relevant changes that have happened recently in the team or organisation. I do this as some people react very negatively to change, and I want to make sure they are OK with it. For example, if someone else on the team recently promoted, I ask them how they feel about it.
  5. I take the opportunity to ask about the progress of their personal development goals. Every organisation will do something different for personal development, but the one-on-one is a good time to keep on top of goals. If I need to spend more time talking about goals with my line reports, I usually book a separate meeting for this.
  6. I ask if there's anything else they want to talk about, or if there's anything I should be made aware of. I'm sometimes surprised by what they bring up.
  7. At the end of the meeting, I confirm any actions we discussed, and we agree who is responsible for them.

I also regularly ask for feedback on how I am doing as a manager. More specifically, I ask if there's anything I could improve on, or if there anything I could do to support my direct reports better.

Over time you are going to find a structure that works for you and your direct reports. One structure might not work for everyone. It's really important to keep asking your direct reports for feedback, to make sure that the one-on-ones are working for them.

After my one-on-ones, I try to complete any actions that were raised as soon as possible. If an action only takes a few minutes, such as sending an email, I do it immediately after the meeting.

If your direct reports raised an issue that is within your control, you should try and resolve it yourself. If it is out of your control, you need to seek out the best person in the organisation or team who can help.

If you assigned any actions to your direct reports, you should remind them to do it before your next one-on-one.

Mistakes managers make in one-on-ones

Here's a list of mistakes I think many managers make with one-on-ones. Some of these are based on my own experience!

  • Using the time to only talk about day-to-day work and status updates.
  • Not following through on actions. You will create false hope that you are trying to resolve problems, and it will break the trust between you and your direct reports.
  • Managers talking too much. How are you going to find out about your direct reports if you do all the talking?
  • Cancelling last minute. If you are unable to attend, give decent notice as a common courtesy. You should try and reschedule too.
  • Infrequent one-on-ones. Don't just do a few one-on-ones scattered throughout the year.
  • Not taking any notes. You risk forgetting something, such as an action you promised to do.
  • Not giving feedback in regular one-on-ones, and leaving feedback until annual reviews. There is nothing worse than giving negative feedback in an annual review, and the direct report asking "why didn't you tell me?"

Closing thoughts

One-on-ones can be awkward and difficult when you are new to line management, but having regular one-on-ones with your direct reports is going to help your team be happier and more productive.

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