Your one-on-one meeting doesn't have to be this way

Your one-on-one meeting doesn't have to be this way

One-one-one meetings are opportunities for growth. But that's only possible if you're transparent and collaborative about them.

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Whenever I'm speaking with colleagues and clients near the end of a quarter, I often hear from managers rushing to squeeze their one-on-one meetings with employees into tight deadlines. Every time I ask an employee if they've enjoyed their one-on-one with a manager, the answer is unanimously "no." And every time I ask a manager if they've enjoyed their one-on-one with an employee, the answer is unanimously "no, but I have to do it."

So what we have is a constantly recurring event that no one seems to prioritize, no one seems to enjoy, and no one seems to benefit from. And we choose to end every fiscal quarter like this.

But it doesn't have to be this way. By thinking and acting openly, we can reframe and reinvent our one-on-one meetings to be productive, beneficial, and even enjoyable.

Managers and other organizational leaders bear their own set of responsibilities and can apply their own tactics for opening up one-on-one meetings. In this article, I'll discuss what employees can do to ensure more open, honest, compelling, and fulfilling one-on-one meetings with their managers—and offer some examples of ways they can initiate the conversation.

Be transparent about your goals

Be clear with your manager about the goals of your one-on-ones. This might sound strange; however, without structure and clear intent, these meetings can quickly go astray. Before the meeting, really think about what you want to accomplish and how your manager could help you achieve this. Which of your manager's more admirable skills and abilities could you benefit from learning more about? Are you in this role as a stepping stone for another position? Do you have a difficult time negotiating with certain stakeholders, and could your manager help with this? To decide what to prioritize in your one-on-ones, try this: Write today's date one year from now, then imagine the place where you want to be in your career. Using this vision as a starting point, work backward and craft goals you believe your manager can help you achieve on the road to getting where you'd like to be.

What this sounds like: "I'd really like for our one-on-ones to be a dedicated time with you for open-ended conversation, for coaching, mentoring for me to achieve my next goal of {X} to get to know one another better, to provide each other context, or even for venting."

And at the end of your current one-on-one meeting, establish the goals of your next one-on-one meeting and record them (see below) so you're both clear on what you'll need to prepare to discuss.

What this sounds like: "Given that you've provided me with a path forward, I think the focus of our meeting should be my increased network opportunities with this new contact that you will have provided me." Or, if you're stuck and don't sense an immediate opportunity for forward movement (sometimes the case with sticky problems) end your meeting with a question to establish clear goals: "What can we both do between now and our next meeting to make progress on this situation?"

So what we have is a constantly recurring event that no one seems to prioritize, no one seems to enjoy, and no one seems to benefit from. And we choose to end every fiscal quarter like this.

Accelerate your meeting cadence

Change is easier when opportunities for feedback are more frequent. Ask your manager to let you schedule one-on-one meetings with her, letting her know they'll happen more frequently than every quarter. Find your meeting cadence based on what is really happening in your work context. Always conclude your current one-on-one meeting by scheduling your next one. Soon you'll get into a nice rhythm. And try not to skip one-on-ones; instead of cancelling, reschedule them.

What this sounds like: "I'd love help with my career here at {company X}, and to do this I'd like to be able to access your calendar for guidance at the time I'll have the need."

To accelerate your feedback cadence even further, consider asking your manager to provide direct feedback in context rather than waiting to receive this feedback in a one-on-one at some later date. If you wait until the end of the quarter to hear feedback, there's very little you can learn, as you'll probably not remember what even happened to prompt the feedback you actually needed three months earlier.

What this sounds like: "Would you mind giving me direct feedback at the time you notice something? I like to learn immediately, in context, and if it's praise or criticism, please provide this feedback with me privately."

Close your feedback loops

One-on-one meetings should be rich opportunities for mutual feedback. Before you've finished, don't forget to remind your managers what you need from them, too. And most importantly, make sure they follow through. Even when people are acting with the best intentions, they're still busy and important conversational threads that begin in meetings can get lost when everyone gets back to work. You know how it goes: You've had a fantastic one-on-one with your manager. You've discussed a sticky situation, and your manager says, "I have a great solution for this. I have a colleague working in a different department who I believe knows a great deal about this, and I promise to get back to you with more guidance before our next meeting next month." And then the next meeting happens and you've both forgotten all about it.

Keep an open, accessible, shared record of what you've discussed at your one-on-one meetings and update this to include specific actions both you and your manager will take before you meet again. Reinforce your needs verbally; stress how important they are, and be clear that the focus of your next one-on-one will be the items you've already told your manager you need to do your best work.

What this sounds like: "Wow that would be great. It's really important to me. Let's write this down so we don't forget."

One-on-one meetings should be rich opportunities for mutual feedback. Before you've finished, don't forget to remind your managers what you need from them, too.

Skip status updates

Don't let your one-on-one become another status meeting. Why?

  • If the discussion concerns a product you're working on, others on your team would likely benefit from being part of it; if you're being updated now, you're a bottleneck for this information.
  • If you go down this path, you'll have no time to discuss the things you've already said you need to discuss (see above). 
  • It's easy for your manager to listen, but it's also a way to avoid difficult conversations; attending a Scrum of Scrums meeting, for example, would be the place to hear updates.

What this sounds like: "Every team member updates their status daily just prior to the Daily Scrum and the status of the three teams can be heard in the Scrum of Scrums. I'd rather use this hour with you to get your coaching on my career, problems with negotiating with stakeholder Y, and feedback on my personal development progress. If we don't have time to do this now, can we reschedule?"

Working for you?

One-on-one meetings should be productive and energizing. If they aren't, you might need to open them up a bit. Hopefully the ideas I've shared here can help you do just that. And perhaps you have your own tips for making your one-on-one meetings spectacular. I hope you'll share them if you do.

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About the author

Catherine Louis - Catherine Louis is a Certified Scrum TrainerTM, independent Agile coach, founder of CLL-Group.com, PoDojo.com, and founding member of Tech Ladies®. When she's not helping companies with their business agility efforts, she's busy with Search and Rescue - focused on training dogs and their handlers how to find and rescue missing people.