7 Tips for Effective 1:1 Meetings with Direct Reports

Read Time: 6 minutes

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Doodle Content Team

Updated: Jun 21, 2023

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Come close. I’m going to let you in on a secret. I’ve just discovered something amazing. Not Buzzfeed-style “You’ll never guess what he found under his trash can” amazing, genuinely, and paradigm-shiftingly amazing. It turns out that one-to-one meetings are actually meant to be enjoyable.

Having been on both sides of the employee-manager relationship, I’ve always taken it for granted that one-to-ones are just something that you both do your best to postpone or reschedule until it simply can’t be kicked any further. At that point, you politely agree to suffer through it together. 

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It turns out that not only can one-to-ones be incredibly fulfilling for employees, providing an opportunity for honest feedback, coaching and building a rapport with their manager, but they’re also an equally valuable opportunity for managers. Former Intel CEO Andy Grove has said that productive 1:1 meetings offer a 10x return on investment for managers. 

If that’s not persuasive enough, then multinationals like GE and Adobe have managed to replace the grind of the annual performance review – definitely not enjoyable for either manager or employee – with more consistent 1:1 meetings, with Adobe seeing a 30 percent reduction in turnover as a kicker.

There are plenty of talent management tools capable of measuring your organization’s heartbeat, checking engagement levels and even taking care of microlearning needs. Today’s leadership role is centered around soft skills. Automated solutions cannot replace that sort of quality human-to-human time. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated our move into an increasingly virtual and remote working world, making 1:1 meetings ever more crucial for communicating culture, aligning strategy and building trust with employees.

Start with mindset

As both an employee and manager, I had the wrong attitude before going into 1:1s, seeing them as chores that kept me from more important tasks, rather than the most critical time slots in my weekly schedule. If that’s a behavior that you recognize in yourself, then it’s time to shift that mentality as you’re likely bringing an air of negativity into all your one-to-one meetings. 

Think about how you set up your 1:1 time with direct reports. If you have five direct reports or fewer, you should hold 1:1s every week. If you have more than five employees, it’s fine to keep 1:1s biweekly.

Some managers have more energy and find their social skills are more finely attuned in the morning. Make sure the 9 am slot in your schedule is reserved each day for employee meetings. Other managers prefer to block off an entire day each week and do all their one-to-ones during that day. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer here, but choose an approach that works well for you so that your employees will get the best out of you during that time.

Be kinda prepared  

There’s a famous saying in computer science: garbage in, garbage out. Some companies would do well to hang a sign adorned with those four words inside their meeting rooms. When the prep and planning for meetings is trash, is it any wonder that we end up finding those meetings to be a waste of our time?

Share an agenda before all 1:1 meetings. It doesn’t need to be long or detailed and the responsibility for the agenda should be shared between the employee and the manager.

Clarify the outcomes you want from the conversation. For example, if an employee’s personal development is being discussed, should you leave the meeting with agreed next steps or are you just introducing the topic and giving some ideas?

Don’t stress too much. The 1:1 is meant to be a conversation, so it doesn’t need to stick as strictly to an agenda as other meetings. But the agenda serves to make sure that all important points are discussed.

Set a recurring slot

No matter how great your 1:1 meetings with direct reports are, they’ll only be effective if they happen consistently and regularly. Easier said than done. Almost 70 percent of managers acknowledge that they struggle to juggle their responsibilities to their direct reports with their other tasks.

The easiest way to achieve consistency is by holding one-to-ones at the same time on the same day each week. However, vacations, project deadlines and high-priority meetings can make that commitment unrealistic. It’s even more challenging for managers of teams engaged in shift work. 

That is where smart scheduling tools are worth their weight in gold. Managers can identify the times when they have availability, share that schedule with their teams and then individuals can pick the most convenient time for their 1:1. It is especially useful for new or reserved employees who feel reluctant or unworthy of booking time in a manager’s already-packed schedule. The manager volunteers available slots and they choose the one that works best. 

Think flexible

To a degree, the one-to-one meeting is an open discussion with all topics on the table. However, managers should avoid annexing the entire meeting for status updates that should be shared in team meetings or other communication channels. That’s a surefire way to frustrate team members.

Besides that, embrace the less formal nature of one-to-ones and ask employees whether they are happy in their job or inquire about their relationships with other team members. Just make sure the conversation doesn’t descend into gossip. 

Why not also take these meetings out of the usual formal meeting room setting? You could do your 1:1s during a walk, over a coffee or lunch. Just make sure you still give your direct reports your focus and you’re not distracted by other diners or colleagues popping in for coffee.

Don’t shy away from getting personal

It’s fine to set a slightly more personal tone to the conversation during a 1:1 than you would during a team meeting. 

Ask an employee about their personal life. Does their professional life impact their personal life negatively at all? Is there anything you can do as a manager or organization to reduce that work-life friction?

Encourage all direct reports to treat one-to-ones as a safe and confidential space where they can speak candidly.  

Encourage direct resorts to give you honest feedback about your performance in each one-to-one. It will help you improve as a manager, but also sets the tone for a trusting relationship.

Sharpen your soft skills

Modern employees aren’t looking for inspirational hero managers. When asked for the most critical characteristics of managers, most people state traits like being an excellent communicator, not micromanaging and treating employees fairly.

Before starting each one-to-one meeting with a direct report, go through a mental checklist (maybe even an actual written-down checklist) with prompts to be open-minded and patient, for example. Remind yourself to lead with an employee’s strengths before moving into opportunities to grow.

Be an active listener

We all know that manager who spends the first three-quarters of your one-to-one meeting talking about their busy day, or who pretends to ask a question about you before entering into their first-person soliloquy. Don’t be that manager. 

Listen purposefully and actively to what your employee is saying and take notes to help you remember the conversation and prompt you to follow up. Try not to interrupt, even if you have a great point to make. And always start by being completely and unconditionally on your employee’s side.

The final point is the most important of all and even the most well-run one-to-one meeting will fail without it. After every meeting, send a quick summary of what you discussed, remind your direct report of any next steps that they committed to taking and then summarize your action points while also setting expectations for the time frame and the scope of your actions.

Follow these seven points and you’ll be an authority on one-to-one meetings with the most engaged and productive team in the organization. You can then surprise everyone by telling them that one-to-ones are the secret sauce in your success.

To learn how smart scheduling tools can make it easy and quick to schedule 1:1 meetings with your team, check out our white paper, “The Comprehensive Guide to Scheduling Technology Platforms.”

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