Posted in HR | by: Marshall Darr

The Secret to Running Great One-On-One Meetings with Your Employees  —  You Don’t

The upside of well-run one-on-ones isn’t exactly a secret. Employees have better insight into how their day-to-day work maps to their long-term goals, they see that you care about their well-being, and hopefully, they’re more likely to see themselves sticking around for the long haul. Not to mention, studies show that an employee stays or leaves because of manager, not the company. It’s no stretch of the imagination that your check-ins are the main way you foster a meaningful relationship with your team, and show that you care about their growth and development.

So the question remains — how come most one-on-ones don’t leave both parties with that warm, bubbly feeling? The simple answer is that as a manager, you might be spending too much time trying to manage them. Check-ins with your employees shouldn’t be just about you. Instead, your goal should be to empower them to take more ownership in their roles, and your individual meetings are the perfect place to put that into practice.

Here are a few pro tips for how you and your employee can get the most out of one-on-ones.

Put your employee in the driver’s seat

The surest way to build ownership among your team is by putting them in charge. Ask your employees to build most, if not all, of the meeting’s agenda. They’ll learn what they need to update you on, what they can just handle on their own, and what they actually need from you. Hopefully, they’ll start to see their role from your eyes, so that they can proactively set goals and gain your guidance for how to achieve them.

Be consistent: Set (and don’t cancel) your regular one-on-ones

Set a regular time to meet and stick to it. According to Elizabeth Grace Sanders, author of Real Life E Time Coaching and Training, there are a few benefits to a regular meeting. First, sticking to your one-on-one schedule week-in and week-out shows your employee that they are your priority, whatever else is going on. And second, employees won’t constantly interrupt you with small questions throughout the week. Instead, they’ll hold out for your next scheduled conversation.

Now, things come up and sometimes one-on-ones have to be moved, but it’s important to reschedule them and never cancel all-together. Constantly ditching a meeting is a sure-fire way to demotivate your team; they’ll take the queue from you and stop putting effort into making the most of your time together.

Make your meetings a safe space

The next thing to provide as a manager is a little more difficult than just showing up: You need to ensure that your team feels safe so you can encourage their honest and unfiltered thoughts. There are a number of ways you can foster this, but each relationship is going to be different. We recommend the following:

  • Go over the status of large projects and deliverables the day before. Getting the numbers out of the way before the meeting takes away the anxiety associated with status updates and frees the two of you up to focus on solutions.
  • Have a special spot. Going to a rarely-used space or even getting out of the office will help mentally differentiate this meeting.
  • Kick it off with some positive feedback to set the mood. Nothing calms people down — and puts them in a more receptive mindset — like hearing about something they recently did well.

Be prepared (as the backseat driver)

Odds are, some of your employees are still learning how to best structure meetings. (Don’t worry, you’ll get them there through your suave and decisive managing… we believe in you!) But there are some tricks for resuscitating any one-on-one that takes a turn for the worse:

  • Come in with context. Know what your employee has been working on and how it fits into larger organizational priorities.
  • Have a few open-ended questions on their work in your back pocket. This is both a great way to show interest and to get a sense of what your employee currently needs more help with.
  • Align their current work to their long-term goals. If you haven’t already, have a conversation about where your employee envisions their career is going to take them. There’s no better way to foster buy-in on today’s work than framing it as a way to strengthen your employee’s future.

Put in the work after your meeting

Employees need to feel heard and that their suggestions drive action. After each meeting you should:

  • Write up takeaways and deliverables. Often times, there’s a tradeoff between note-taking and being truly present in meetings. In one-on-ones, lean towards the latter, but take the time to ensure you’re on the same page with the overall takeaways from the meeting. That way, you’ll get to have your cake and (with the occasional editing from your employee) eat it too.
  • Take action items and complete them before the next meeting. Keep your ears open throughout each meeting for structural obstacles make your employee’s job more difficult than it needs to be. Show that you care for your employee by taking some time in the following week to address those issues for them. This will earn you greater trust and more candid talk in the future by proving to your employee that they were right to trust you with the problem that they did.
  • Encourage your employee to actively prep for your one-on-one throughout the week, rather than just before (and do the same yourself). The best inspiration for a conversation rarely strikes just before a meeting, so have a living (or in other words, ongoing) doc that both of you can scrawl notes and reminders into throughout the week. This ensures that meaningful topics don’t get lost if they come to mind several days before.

Most of all, work on it together in a low-stress way and a casual environment. Use the time you have to treat your employee like they’re the most important person in your world (because for that hour, they are) and they’ll respond by letting you into theirs.

About Marshall Darr

Marshall runs email at Gusto. He's also an avid fan, and occasional practitioner, of stand-up comedy.