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