How to Run one-on-ones

If you’d asked me about one-on-ones a few years ago, I’d have told you that they were a non-negotiable. I’d have been very passionate when I told you that that they were your most important meetings, and that you should prioritise them above everything else.

I still believe that they’re a brilliant tool, but there’s a caveat to that belief now, which I’ll come to at the end. For now, what I still believe to be true is that understanding how to run a one-on-one is crucial for any manager.

Of all the guides in Minimum Effective Management, this is probably the most prescriptive. The one-on-one has ground rules which I think everyone should stick to. Before I get into the rules, let’s make sure we’re clear on what a one-on-one meeting is. Very simply, it’s a regular meeting between an employee and their manager. That’s it. On its own, that doesn’t sound very important does it, but this is where the ground rules come in.

The meeting is for employee, not the manager

The primary reason you have a one-on-one is to give the employee the chance to talk to their manager. It is their meeting. This means that cancelling the meeting shouldn’t be something the manager does just because they don’t have anything they need to talk about.

The meeting should be scheduled

Don’t just have your one on one meetings on the fly. Schedule them in, keep to the schedule.

Meeting structure

You should schedule the meeting for 45 minutes.

The first 15 minutes should be for the employee to discuss anything they want to discuss.

The second 15 minutes should be for the manager to discuss anything they want to discuss.

The final 15 minutes provides a buffer zone in case either the employee or manager sections over run, and to allow time to make notes and plan actions that may have come out of the meeting.

Their Time

You should always prepare open questions to ask during the employees time. Often you’ll encounter employees who just say “Um, no I’ve got nothing to talk about, everything is fine”. When this is the case, use their time to ask them about their work, their career, their job satisfaction. Whatever it is, as long it’s about them, try to get them talking about themselves in that time period. This is also a good place to practice your coaching skills.

Example questions to get an employee talking in a one-on-one
  • How much are you enjoying work, out of 10 (I find making it out of 10 is useful as it avoid them saying things like “Yeah, it’s great”)
    • If it’s a high score
      • What could be better?/ Why is it so good?
    • If it’s a low score
      • What’s going wrong, why is it so bad?
  • What is going well at the moment?
    • Why do you think that is?
  • What would you like to do more often?
    • What do you enjoy about that?
  • How satisfied are you with your work?
  • What support do you need?
  • Do you think you could be utilised more?
  • How do you feel you’re performing?
  • If you could change one thing, what?
    • What would be the impact of that?
    • How much does this bother you?
  • Who do you enjoy working with?
    • Why is that?
  • How do you think the team is functioning?
  • Who do you find most helpful?
  • Who do you have the least contact with?
  • What could be better?
  • How do you feel your personal development is going?

Controlling the meeting

Although the meeting is theirs, it’s important it happens on your terms. Early on in my career before I’d learned how to control them, some people could turn their one-on-ones into long complaining sessions. You set the time boundaries for a reason and you should try to keep to them.

Sometimes people want to talk too much. Let it happen the first time, it might be a one off and they might benefit from blowing off steam. However, at the start of your next meeting, set the ground rules at the start. Explain that you went over time last time so you need to keep things more concise this time. Explain that their part of the meeting is 15 minutes, and ask if that’s enough time to talk about everything they need to talk about. Assuming it is, if they run over again, cut them off this time.

Your Time

Your time can be anything you want, and it is acceptable for your time to be cut short. If you genuinely don’t have anything to say it’s better to say nothing than fill this time with stuff that has no value. Your time in the one-on-one is not as crucial as their time.

Results of getting one-on-ones right

  • You people will be more engaged because they are being heard
  • Small problems get caught before they turn into big ones
  • People stop complaining to each other as much
  • You spend less time fire-fighting
  • You get to know your people better
  • Your people get to know you better
  • Things just seem to get a bit easier

But, the caveat

As I mentioned, all of this thinking now comes with an asterisk. Although one-on-ones are an invaluable tool and every manager should know how to deliver one, I believe your goal with every member of your team should be to develop the relationship to the point where you don’t need them. If you are truly close to your people, if they truly trust you, know you’re approachable, know you won’t judge them or belittle them or unduly criticise them, then you will probably find they can talk to you whenever they want. The one-on-ones I had with the people I had the best relationships with never added any value. We’d walk in, sit there, walk out. We’d talked about everything already. I kept doing them for a while - even after they were obviously pointless - because I was so stuck on the idea that they were non-negotiable. But the point of them is to give your people a chance to be heard, and if they’re getting that anyway, you don’t need the meetings.

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