1-on-1 Meetings Are the Key to Great Leadership. Here's How to Do Them Right.
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Managers have to do many things to become the leader their teams deserve. But they’re often skipping the very practice that could make the most impact.
Contrary to popular belief, leaders can't make someone highly-engaged. But they can create the conditions for high engagement, in which people choose to bring their best. And the most effective and overlooked way to do that is holding regular 1-on-1s with their direct reports.
These 1-on-1s create the conditions for engagement by communicating to employees on a consistent basis, “I care about you. I have a vested interest in you and your success.”
But if 1-on-1s are such a valuable tool, why don’t more managers hold them or do them well? There are three main reasons:
- They don't know how to do them or are intimidated by 1-on-1 interaction, so they don’t schedule these meetings at all.
- They're holding 1-on-1s, but only as a status check to monitor progress.
- They say they don’t have time and this is by far the most common reason.
When a busy manager says they don’t have time to hold regular 1-on-1s, they’re really saying they don’t have time to be an effective manager. Holding regular 1-on-1s is an investment in time, but it pays off in spades.
Consider these 4 best practices for holding effective 1-on-1 meetings:
1. Don’t make it about you.
This is not your opportunity to check on status, hold the team member accountable, or share updates. Effective 1-on-1s are the team member’s meeting, not yours. Ask them to prepare the agenda (provide them with a worksheet or template, if needed). Say, “We're going to be meeting next week. I'd like you to use this worksheet or one of your own to think ahead of time about the things you want to cover. There are a few things I want to cover, too, but we're going to tackle yours first.” That kind of language and intent communicates that your team member and their work matters to you.
2. Account for your energy.
The majority of people are worn out at the end of the day. You want to bring your best self to your 1-on-1s, not the “leftovers.” Because we have such strong relationships with the most important people in our lives — whether our family members and our top performers at work — they unfortunately often end up with the remnants of our energy, our creativity, and our time. The people who matter most, both professionally and personally, deserve your finest and best attention. Schedule your 1-on-1s accordingly.
3. Don’t skimp on chitchat.
Discussing non-business related topics is not a waste of time. How's the home renovation going? Did your daughter pick a college? Is the new puppy settling in? People, particularly remote workers, need special attention to feel connected to their teams. 1-on-1s should absolutely incorporate the whole person and not just professional lives, to the extent your team member is comfortable.
4. Put. Your. Phone. Away.
When I was growing up, looking at your watch when someone was talking was one of the rudest things you could do in a conversation. Now we don't realize that if we glance at text messages on our smartwatch, it has the same impact. Take off your watch, close your laptop, and put your phone out of sight. Take a few minutes before your team member comes into the room, and think through what you talked about last time. Make sure they know they have your undivided attention.
The worst thing you can do as a manager is to cancel a scheduled 1-on-1 meeting. It sends the signal the employee is not a real priority. This is also not the time to ask for progress reports or to set more tasks.
Related: 50 Rules for Being a Great Leader
This is a time to learn about problems you can fix to make work go smoother and more efficiently. This is a time to focus on what the employee wants to do next at the company and to give feedback on how to get there.
Leadership doesn't have a timeline
I don’t think there is any magic when it comes to the frequency of 1-on-1s. Weekly meetings are preferable, but bi-monthly and monthly meetings work as long as the schedule is kept. The duration can also vary. But at least a half-hour needs to be set aside for this to be effective. These meetings should not be rushed.
Besides creating the conditions for employee engagement, 1-on-1s are just as beneficial for leaders. Use that time to learn what you’re doing that’s working (and not working) to build your skillset as a manager.
Even if the feedback is not direct, if you listen, you’ll learn. You’re part of this team, and you’ll benefit from the engagement, collaboration, and camaraderie of regular 1-on-1s.