9 ways leaders can improve one-on-one meetings

One-on-one meetings are more important than ever in today's hybrid work environment. Consider these tips to maximize their value
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One-on-one meetings between managers and direct reports have always been important to beneficial employee-employer communications. But they are even more important in the current hybrid work environment.

“Particularly in the hybrid world, it’s important to stay visible and connected to your direct reports,” explains Suzanne Bates, founder of Bates Communications and managing director at global consultancy BTS. “One on one check-ins are important to find out how things are going beyond what you see in meetings – what your team is learning and what they think could be coming up and needs to be addressed.”

Our work lives have changed, uncertainty persists, and talent turnover is a constant threat. “One-on-ones are a key tool for leadership to connect with employees on a personal level in this period, demonstrate core organizational values, and establish open lines of communication,” says Phillip Hattingh, head of strategic advisory at Capgemini Canada. “These meetings play a critical role in aligning (or re-aligning) their personal career and organizational goals and serves as a platform for mentoring them through difficult decisions. In return, it helps create a sense of belonging by helping them navigate key decisions and challenges – and address any uncertainty so employees feel valued and heard.”

[ Want more hybrid work strategies? Read Hybrid work: 4 roles to assign in every meeting and Hybrid work: 7 signs that meeting should be an email. ]

What’s more, one-on-ones can surface simmering problems that IT leaders can nip in the bud. These meetings should encourage your team members to stay in touch with you so you can address those issues in an ongoing way.

“Visibility also creates systematic lines of communication,” says Bates. “These meetings provide an important counterpart to broader group meetings, where not everyone gets a voice, and where you can’t always learn what’s going on beneath the surface.”

There are a number of common mistakes that leaders make when conducting these intimate interactions that limit their impact. They may fail to prepare in advance for the conversation. They might feel compelled to talk more than listen. They may have trouble focusing on the individual sure to distractions or interruptions. Or they may tend to feel uncomfortable and shut down when confronting bad news or uncomfortable topics.

9 tips for better 1:1 meetings

IT leaders and managers who want to get the most value from their one-on-one meetings with employees can take some concrete steps to improve these important iterations.

1. Agree upfront on a balanced agenda and joint priorities

This will set expectations and also ensures alignment on objectives before the meeting, says Hattingh. IT also increases the likelihood of meaningful outcomes.

2. Ask questions

Think you have trouble with difficult topics? Consider the person in the chair in front of you. However, there are things you can say to open up the avenue for real sharing and communication, and most of them end with a question mark.

“Think through the questions you plan to ask to open a dialog before you have your one-on-ones,” advises Bates. Asking “How’s it going?” will probably yield the typical response. Consider asking more proving queries like “How is it working out having the kids at home during the day?” or “Where do you think your team is struggling the most?” or “What’s your sense of the organization?” Be prepared to listen to the responses.

3. Get personal

One-on-ones provide an opportunity to get to know your team members or colleagues on a professional and personal basis. “Leaders who get to know the strengths and challenge areas of team members and also discuss their own strengths and challenge areas create productive work relationships,” says Dr. Sunni Lampasso, executive coach and founder of Shaping Success.

It’s important that leaders be prepared to share their perspectives and personal experiences when asking questions. “This doesn’t mean you have to reveal private information,” says Bates. “Just be real, be straightforward, and tell it like it is.” When you do that, the interaction serves to establish or strengthen the relationships and build authentic connections that increase trust and psychological safety.

“[One] mistake that some people make in one-on-ones is not wanting to share feelings,” Lampasso says. “Not sharing can make it difficult to establish genuine connections and develop trust. When teams have high levels of trust and psychological safety, they often perform better and demonstrate increased creativity.”

4. Be on time and be present

Try not to cancel, arrive on time, and be fully present. “Not prioritizing one-on-one meetings and canceling or arriving late can decrease trust and can convey a lack of respect,” Lampasso says.

5. Encourage shifts in thinking

One valuable use case for one- one-ones is helping team members reframe things to conjure up new ideas. “They will value the opportunity to share ideas one-on-one if prompted in the right way,” Bates says.

You might ask them about the assumptions the team made about the way you are doing business that are no longer valid. Should you consider new partnerships with channel partners or competitors? Are there things you could do now to build customer relationships? What should you stop doing? Start doing? “This kind of thinking can transform businesses and industries and can lead to new revenue and ignites innovation,” Bates notes.

6. Ask how you can help

 One-on-one conversations are the ideal environment to get to know people better and show them that you care. Bates advises asking employees questions like “Is there anything I can help you with?” or “Is there anything you want to do or achieve that I can help you with?” She explains, "This helps you demonstrate that you are there to support and enable them, which creates a steadying force in a challenging and shifting environment."

7. Be an active, empathetic listener

Many leaders assume that communication means talking. But listening is as essential as being able to communicate your message clearly, says Lampasso. Practicing active listening and empathy will improve one-on-one conversations. “Using perspective taking to understand how a team member might feel and think can help build the relationship.”

8. Adopt a coaching stance

 A mentoring approach will ensure more open lines of communication and two-way feedback. “Managers should run the agenda, but it should be conversational and not just one-sided,” Hattingh says. “It also increases the likelihood of meaningful outcomes.”

9. Relax

A one-on-one should not feel like a performance review, says Jeanet Wade, business consultant and author of The Human Team: So, You Created A Team But People Showed Up! Don’t be too formal. Have a real conversation and build trust.

One way to accomplish this is to demonstrate vulnerability. Lampasso suggests that leaders and managers can try openly discussing their mistakes and challenges.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.