Effective one on ones

In my experience in working with so many employees and helping grow some of the leads and managers, I have found that one-on-ones is a useful framework for all managers who wish to manage people well. I think this is the case because 1-1s impact some core tenets of being a good people manager:

  • Inform, Involve and Inspire the team
  • Foster trust and transparency
  • Maximize individual’s results by aligning skills to job assignments
  • Actively develop leaders and managers within the team

To be effective in doing all these, a manager has to understand his/her employees, their motivations and aspirations, strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes (sounds like knowing your family :-)). All of this can be done by creating an effective communication channel with the employee, one that is based on trust and transparency, and mutual respect. 1-1s, if done well, achieve exactly this effect.

So how does a manager create an effective communication channel via 1-1s?

Here are some ways I have found to have worked for me and for people around me:

  • Show that the 1-1 is very important for you: Make sure he/she realizes (and sees) that you take it very seriously and follow-up on action items generated in these meetings. Otherwise, 1-1s will lose the value and without the value, substantial results can’t be obtained.
  • Focus on long term goals rather than short-term ones: It is very easy to start (and fill) the 1-1 with status discussions and issues surrounding immediate work items. However, there are other, better forums for those discussions and chances are, you have already been employing those. Make sure the focus is on long terms goals: employee goals as well as company goals. This could include career aspiration discussions, or where company/group is going to be in coming months/years and how that impacts the employee.
  • Listen more, talk less, remain interested: Remember, being a manager, you get lots of chances to talk. A 1-1 can be the time employee gets to talk to you, so give him/her your undivided attention. Pre-empting a 1-1 as soon as some issue comes through the door is the sure way of signaling that you do not value the 1-1, so make sure you don’t do that (unless you hear a fire alarm!). Ask probing questions to get more clarifications (“what makes you think the project could have been better handled?”), but refrain from defending too much because that may be seen by the employee as danger sign and he/she may back off unnecessarily.
  • Provide feedback: Make sure you provide feedback often, both positive as well as negative. One of the advantages of 1-1s is that it builds a relationship, and hence giving negative feedback is easier, but make sure it is specific, with examples if possible, and with recommendations about how the person can improve.
  • Ask for feedback: This is a good way you help yourself grow, and at the same time create a trust and confidence in employees mind (especially when you really act on the feedback). Employees may not be willing to give feedback initially (fear of retaliation is obviously there when you give negative feedback to your manager!); one of the ways of getting them to open up that I have found useful is to ask the question: “what else should I be doing that will help you?”.  If you follow-through and actually do what the person says, you would create good environment for a trusted 1-1.
  • Be truthful and honest: No one can trust a manager who doesn’t come across as honest and truthful. Again, this is more your action than your words. If you are asked a question and you can not answer it well (“What is 2010 vision of the company?”), don’t try to talk your way through it, acknowledge and make sure you find a good answer for next 1-1.

Conducting an effective 1-1 is all about creating what one of my ex-boss used to call “no-harm zone”. If you can manage to create it in your 1-1s, you will have all the needed ingredients to be one of the best managers in your company.

What has been your experience with 1-1s, what has worked and what hasn’t?

5 thoughts on “Effective one on ones

  1. I also find it helpful to have an “agenda” note for the one on one. By having this easily accessible (like a Note on Outlook, for example), as things come up during the week you can add them as an agenda item for the meeting.

    Then, a quick review of your agenda items before walking into the meeting will help clarify what you need from your manager.

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