Good, old one-to-one meetings used to be the most powerful tool in your leadership toolkit.
And the good news is: they still are.
However… not in the same way they used to be.
In today’s connected world, leaders need a new way to create deeper relationships with their teams, it’s a necessity, clear as daylight by this point.
So if effective one-to-one meetings used to all be about tasks, and work and focus, the modern purpose of one-to-one meetings is to provide a space to build trust at work, share feedback and develop relationships with your team members.
The modern purpose of one-to-one meetings is to provide a space to build trust, share feedback and develop relationships with your team members
They are also an opportunity for you to learn about each other and grow together as leaders and humans.
So, if you want your one-to-one meetings to be more than just check-ins and status updates keep reading, there are a few things in the rest of this article that you should be mindful about.
The financial value of one-to-one meetings
The most important reason for doing 1:1s is to make sure you can keep your team members engaged and motivated.
If you have a high turnover rate, it means that your company is not able to provide them with the environment they need to be happy at work.
Even if you have a low turnover rate, having happy employees is still an important goal for any leader.
So – let’s talk about the financial value of 1:1s.
Doing one a week will cost you about 3000 € a year, if you include the time you and you team member invest doing it.
The result is that your team member will be happy motivated and engaged.
Not having that and hiring a new employee instead will cost you 20.000 €
So if you compare the costs, aren’t 1:1s at least worth a try?
The structure of effective one-to-one-meetings
In a 1:1, you have the opportunity to build an open and trusting relationship with your team member. The best way to do this is by listening.
Listening is not just about hearing what the other person has to say; it’s about understanding what they’re trying to convey and responding thoughtfully. When you listen well, you can answer questions or concerns, offer advice, and help resolve problems in a way that feels productive for both parties.
You can also use your time together to ask questions about what’s going on in their lives. You might find out that they’ve been struggling with something unrelated to work that could be affecting their performance on the job. Or perhaps they want feedback on something personal — like asking for advice about how to handle a difficult situation with a family member or friend.
When you focus on building relationships with your team members, it will be easier for them to come forward with concerns if they have them because they’ll feel comfortable talking with you.
Now, that doesn’t mean to improvise them all, far from it. As a matter of fact a template for one-to-one meetings can be quite the structure you need. There’s plenty around, I would personally suggest what Robertson Hunter Stewart suggests in his book – but feel free to use whatever resonates with you.
Why one-to-one meetings are important right now
I want to talk about the importance of having regular one-to-one meetings with your team members, but first I want to talk about why it matters.
We are in a moment in which team behaviours in uncertainty are growing, and tension and stress is mounting, for obvious reasons, and what we can expect is that the trend will only continue. As a manager, though, your team’s wellbeing is also part of your job.
As a manager, your team’s wellbeing is also part of your job.
1:1s can help: they provide safety and a sense of relatedness — two things that are really important for people who are feeling stressed out or overwhelmed by their work, and that are simply essential for humans to thrive. When we feel safe, we can be ourselves; when we feel related to others, we feel like we belong; when we feel like we belong, we connect.
On top of that, they also have a number of other benefits: they build trust between manager and employee; they allow employees to get feedback on their performance; they help managers give feedback on performance; they allow managers to connect with the “real” person behind the job title; they help managers get a better sense of what their employees care about (and thus how to make them happy).
tl;dr when people feel safe and related, they can be more creative, motivated and productive at work.
If that’s the bottom line – again – aren’t one-to-one meetings worth at least a try?
How to start a one-to-one meeting
The first question in all one-to-one meetings should be “how are you?”
It is a simple question but it has a profound effect on the relationship between manager and employee.
In my experience, this simple question creates two things:
A sense of safety for the employee; they know that they can talk about anything without judgement or fear of retaliation.
The ability for the manager to understand what’s going on with their employees at an emotional level. This allows them to help them identify problems before they become bigger problems.
There is a common misconception that one-to-ones are about checking people’ work, and it’s not true. They’re about building relationships, and they’re very important in that respect.
In effective one-to-one meetings, your first and only question as a manager is “How are you?”.
After you ask that question, you remain silent and let the other person talk. Remember that now the purpose of one-to-one meetings is to build a relationship, so let the other person choose what to talk about. If you do that, a relationship will come; otherwise, you will invalidate all your work.
You may say to me “But I have so much work! I can’t have time for relationships!”
If you were to do that, I’d simply answer that your opinion is wrong — if you don’t spend time on relationships then people will leave or not join your team in the first place.
Key point: take notes
The most important thing to remember during 1:1s is that they are not just about reporting, but also about listening, and your best action in that regard is only one: take notes, and log them.
First of all because it helps you keep track of what matters to the other person. If you’re having a conversation with someone and all of their points are coming out in a rush and there’s so much information that it feels like you’ve missed half of what they said already, then when you go back and look at your notes later on, it will be much easier for you to see where there might be gaps or places where you need more information.
Second, because it shows the other person that you are actually listening; really listening.
And third, and most important, because if you recall what has been said beforehand and you genuinely care about it, it shows the other person that they matter to you personally; that they are important enough for us to care about their opinion on things; that we want to know what they think; that we’re committed to a trusting relationship with them – which is exactly what they want from you!
Should you talk about work in a one-to-one meeting?
The ground rule for 1:1s is “never talk about work.”
That’s because the purpose of one-to-one meetings is building relationships, connections with each other.
The last thing you want to do is come across as the manager trying to dominate a conversation and make it all about work. That will just ruin any trust you’re building.
Plus, if you start talking about work you may come across as inquisitive, and the other person may just get defensive. They’ll spend more time thinking about how to protect themselves than actually investing in what you have to say.
Instead, if you let the other person lead, the relationship that you are building remains the main point and they’ll still be willing to engage with your feedback or ideas on work topics at some point during your 1:1 time. You just don’t force it out of them right away.
How often should you run one-to-one meetings?
The first thing to remember is that 1:1s are not a time to check up on your team. They are not an excuse to ask them how their day was, or the best way to manage their workload.
The purpose of a 1:1 is so you can get to know each other better and build trust with your team.
If you want to be a great manager, then you must have a 30-minute long 1:1 with each team member every week, not every two weeks, not every month, but every week.
If your immediate comment about this is “I can’t, I don’t have time”, think about this: can you really build a relationship with someone by talking to them a total of 6 to 12 hours per year?
I’ll answer for you, you can’t, but that is what a bi-weekly or monthly one-to-one will buy you.
1:1s are a leadership tool and leadership is based on relationships, keep that in mind.
So here’s the thing, if you can’t do it – weekly – you shouldn’t be a manager.
If you’re too busy to make time for your team, how can they ever feel like they’re part of something?
You need to be able to take a half hour out of your week and sit down with each person on your team. It’s not negotiable.
“I don’t have time this week”
Having regular 1:1 meetings with your team is one of the most important things you can do as a manager.
They are great resources for managers, but are also one of the most time-consuming things you’ll do as a manager.
That means it’s easy to skip, or not make it a priority. But if you want to be an amazing manager, then you need to prioritize this meeting.
if you can’t once, no big deal, but remember it’s an exception; relationships take commitment and showing your commitment to your team by actually taking the time to speak with them no matter what is a great starting point.
Ok, but what about if nobody really has time for a one-to-one?
if you’re a manager, you have to be an ambassador for your team.
And what I mean by this is that it’s not just about doing your job, it’s also about making sure that your team has the resources they need and the support they need in order to do their jobs well.
And one of those things is making sure that there is time for 1:1s in your schedule – hybrid time management is another skill on its own, but so complementary.
You may have heard me talk about how 1:1s are great for you as a manager and they’re great for your team, but what if both you and your team know that 1:1s are great for you and others but nobody really has time?
For example because you have too much pressure coming from C-level?
Well your job as the manager is also to be an ambassador for your team, and to limit that pressure so you can have time for 1:1s.
Without a solid team, results won’t come anyways, so make sure you make your C-level aware of it.
What if a team member does not want to have one-to-ones with you?
If someone refuses to do 1:1s with you, try telling them that you can’t help them grow if you don’t know them.
If they still refuse, maybe they don’t want to grow – and that’s a different problem.
But really, people who don’t want to do 1:1s shouldn’t be on your team to begin with.
Fully aware of how strong of a stance this is, but that’s where I draw the line.