Company CulturePerformance Management

Managers: How to Have Effective One-on-ones

By June 16, 2021 October 26th, 2021 No Comments
Snowfly Culture One-on-ones

Effective one-on-ones can be elusive! They might seem easy but doing them well, and having them be meaninful, takes a bit of effort.

While I’ve worked with many leaders and organizations over the years, I haven’t had a job in an office for quite a while. That is, until 2018, when I came up with various reasons to get a job. Why I decided to find a job is a story for a different blog post. What I wanted to share here was an eye-opening experience I had at the company that brought me on.

I was hired by a VP to create, with him, a new program for the organization. It was going to be an epic, industry-changing program. My unique (read: weird) background was perfectly suited for the task at hand. I pinched myself multiple times to have been hired at an amazing company with an amazing boss for an amazing project.

One of the things they did at that company was new to me. It seemed like one of those new-fangled management ideas that cost a lot and could have questionable returns. It is called the one-on-one.

Our one-on-ones were weekly, and scheduled for an hour. I didn’t know how managers with, say, a dozen direct reports could even think about scheduling 12 hours out of their week. 30% of their 40 hour work week (I know, I know, no manager works just 40 hours) is a lot. Is it really worth it? Is this the best use of time for a manager, and for an individual contributor?

From what I saw, and experienced, the answer is a strong YES! Well, yes if done right. There were a few aspects of the one-on-one that were done with my boss that were very effective. I’ve heard from others that one-on-ones are essentially a joke. A complete waste of time. Ineffective. Without purpose.

I recently asked my Twitter network about one-on-ones… how often they do them and how long they are. I got some good answers, and some sad answers. Click here to read the comments.

While on person said he “seriously look[s] forward to them,” plenty of others said things like “everyone is busy here,” “who knows, when he has time…,” “never, unless I’ve done something wrong,” “Wait, I have a boss?!?” “It was pointless, but thankfully short,” etc.

Really, this feedback was sad. I realized I wasn’t the only one who didn’t “get” what a one-on-one was, and how to do them better.

What is a one-on-one?

A one-on-one is a regular meeting between a manager and a direct report. I think a weekly meeting is aggressive, but also very, very helpful. I would not go past every other week, though. This is not something that should happen only monthly.

The one-one-one is NOT a logistical meeting. We have plenty of other mechanisms in place to talk about logistics and operations. A one-on-one is a time to focus on the direct report, and their life. I know that sounds really hokey, and might make some people uncomfortable, but the best one-on-ones were when we didn’t talk about work, but we talked about things like past events in my career, my career aspirations, even family life. None of this was creepy. It was comfortable, and he genuinely cared about me.

One of the magical things that can happen over the course of several one-on-ones is that the direct report feels cared about. Heard. Seen. They understand their boss more, and a professional relationship is built. Trust is created and nurtured. The relationship changes in a good way. Sure, it takes time. For some managers it takes a lot of time. But the benefits of good one-on-ones could mean you get a more satisfied workforce, higher performers, less turnover, etc.

One-on-ones could be one of the most important managerial tools you use. With that in mind, let me share five specific steps, or considerations, to have more effective one-on-ones.

Five steps to better One-on-ones

First, consistency. 

Consistency is critical. I suggest you schedule these for 45 minutes weekly, and then do them every week. Try to avoid the “can’t meet this week, let’s just meet next week” trap. It’s too easy to reschedule and reschedule to the point where you just don’t do them anymore. One-on-ones should be a high priority, so guard them careful and don’t let other things push them off to later. When you do this, your direct reports see how important they are to you.

Second, authenticity. 

This is a time to have some different conversations. Like I said above, we talked about my past, my future, my family, etc. You’ll be tempted to talk about projects, which can be fine, but don’t let these turn into tactical planning meetings. This is a time to be authentic and open with one another, and build a real and solid professional relationship. I know managers can try to not get too friendly with direct reports, and with good reason (you might have to fire or discipline them later), but at the end of the day, we are all humans, trying to do our best.

Third, respect. 

Speaking of “too friendly,” make sure you have professional and personal respect as you do these meetings, and as your relationship changes. You should respect their openness, and the manager/report relationship. Respect where they are, and their own growth journey. Respect their privacy, and maintain confidentiality. Respect professional boundaries, which don’t change as you both learn to appreciate one another and even grow closer to “friendship.” And definitely respect the lines of appropriateness, and don’t cross those lines.

Fourth, listen. 

This is your time, as a manager, to listen. To ask questions, and have conversations. Too often in a boss/subordinate relationship the direct report waits for direction, watches for cues, and is hesitant to open up too much. But this is their time to talk and share ideas, and even be vulnerable in a different way. If you find yourself doing a majority of the talking, stop. Ask questions, and more questions. And just let them open up.

Fifth, care.

My one-on-ones became a highlight of my week. We were in creation and creativity mode, and it was not easy. There was lots of work to do, lots of brainstorming and politicking. It’s hard to feel like you are making progress when the metrics are fuzzy. But each week we’d sit down and talk about stuff. I knew that my boss cared about me as a human, about my happiness, and my future success. That genuine caring led me to feel like I’d go to the ends of the earth for, and with him. That didn’t happen because he was a great boss, but because of the relationship of trust and respect we built through these regular meetings.

I know this can sound like a lot. It’s a big commitment, especially if you already feel busy. But the benefits of regular and real one-on-ones are so powerful, and tangible. I think it’s critical to remember that a manager’s role is to work with the team and get the best out of them. This should result in much more, and better, results than if the manager just did it by themselves.

I invite you to learn more about one-on-ones and then start them. It might feel weird at first but I bet you’ll grow to love them as much as I did.

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Jason Alba

Jason Alba

I'm passionate about building great cultures. I love respect in the workforce, especially respect that is earned. I love strategic management, leadership, and vision. I love healthy companies through profitability. I love employee engagement, employee performance, and employee satisfaction. I love how Snowfly can help YOUR organization work towards all of these things.

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