How Managers Can Establish an Effective 1-on-1 Process

As long as you’re using the process to treat your employees with as much humanity as possible, you’ll see a clear improvement in productivity and retention.

Written by David Vandegrift
Published on Jul. 13, 2022
How Managers Can Establish an Effective 1-on-1 Process
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If you’re anything like an average manager, then you’re not doing direct report one-on-ones with your direct reports nearly often enough.

Large corporations often only hold these meetings once or twice a year, during formal review periods. Smaller companies often do a bit better, but they tend to meet only on an ad-hoc basis. For the most part, companies are holding one-on-ones in reaction to problems when they arise.

But if a manager’s job is to manage, then shouldn’t they be meeting with their reports a little more often? Doing so will yield great benefits.

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The Benefits of Frequent 1-on-1 Meetings

In many cases, managers meet with their reports in response to an issue that has arisen. The issue gets taken care of, but waiting until you already feel the pain means that some preventable damage has been done.

Moving to proactive one-on-ones gives you the opportunity to identify problems before they get big, allowing you to prevent damage to the business. An added bonus of these proactive meetings is that you’ll be better plugged in to your team’s daily activities as a result. That gives you more ammunition for making strategic decisions and guiding the team in a better direction.

In the course of more regular meetings with your team members, you’ll have the chance to address their concerns and shape their work according to their preferences. Frequent one-on-ones lead to higher employee engagement and satisfaction. Happier workers are more productive workers. Not to mention they’re less likely to quit, saving you the hassle and pain of a hiring process.

Even when you do inevitably lose a team member, chances are good that you’ll have plenty of notice because you’ve been keeping your eye on the situation and caught some early warning signs. Another benefit of being more plugged in is that you’re better able to understand the holes and weaknesses in your team, giving you a better sense of your specific hiring needs.

5 Keys to a Successful 1-on-1 Meeting

  1. Let the employee choose the setting.
  2. Schedule the meeting for a full hour.
  3. Keep the conversation to high-level strategy.
  4. When giving feedback, consider focusing more on strengths than weaknesses.
  5. Talk about feelings: What makes your report happy, frustrated or motivated?


How Often Should You Be Conducting 1-on-1 Meetings?

At my company, 4Degrees, we hold one-on-ones with our direct reports weekly. That means that every manager has formal time on the calendar for every one of their reports every single week. While that makes for a significant investment of time and effort, we believe that the previously mentioned benefits more than justify the cost. We also advocate one-on-ones among peers, though we typically like to see those on a monthly basis rather than weekly.

The key to an optimal one-on-one is a great deal of flexibility in the format. Every employee will have different preferences for how they would like to conduct a serious conversation. Most people assume that it should take place in a quiet conference room, but the reality is that you can do it almost anywhere. Go out for coffee, go for a walk outside, do it over lunch. Of course in the times of COVID-19, phone calls and video chats are also perfectly acceptable. Allowing employees to choose the format will set them at ease and put them in a mindset to be more open.

One-on-ones should be scheduled for a full hour. You may find that you don’t need that full time, depending on the employee and the week. That’s all right; just set the expectation that you’re available to talk for a significant period of time and hear their perspective. You can make the most efficient use of the time by employing a pre-meeting survey to get the employee’s pulse and prepare. At 4Degrees, we use a service called Lead Honestly that automatically pings the employee with randomly selected questions and a numerical scale for morale.


What Should You Talk About in 1-on-1 Meetings?

It is important that you reserve your one-on-one time for high-level, directional conversation. You should not be spending any time at all talking about specific tasks that the employee is currently working on. Problem solving is, of course, necessary, but it should be done in a separate venue, reserving one-on-one time for the most valuable conversation.

Most manager’s natural inclination is to use one-on-ones to provide the employee with feedback. I encourage that — with the caveat that there likely won’t be a lot of change in performance from week to week. Bring up trends when you see them, but set the expectation early that feedback will be a minority of the conversation. When giving feedback, consider focusing more on strengths than weaknesses. Positive psychology has generated a wealth of research in the past decade that employees perform best when they’re focused on what they do well.

One-on-ones are a great type to gauge employees’ preferences for the type of work they’d like to do. Ask them how work has been going, what they enjoyed or what they found annoying. Think about the implications for their future work and take those preferences into account. Employees are at their best when they’re working on something that makes them happy.

You should also use the time to talk about the employee’s long-term plans and path:

  • How long have they been in their role?

  • Is it time to think about the next step?

  • What would they like to do?

  • What would they like to learn?

Have these conversations early so that the employee has something motivating them to work toward. Take the opportunity to ask your reports about their working relationships with their peers. This gives you a better sense for their work and also offers a chance to get another perspective on the performance of the rest of your team.

In fact, you should be spending a lot of time talking about feelings in general. What makes your report happy? Frustrated? Motivated? Asking these questions increases employee satisfaction and gives you a chance to best shape your employees’ path.

Meeting with all of your reports on a weekly basis is a serious decision and investment on the part of your company. However, the payoff of touching base frequently more than justifies the expense and hassle. As long as you’re using the process to treat your employees with as much humanity as possible, you’ll see a clear improvement in productivity and retention. Not only will your employees be happier, they’ll excel at their jobs.

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