How to use 1:1s to build strong teams
Meetings are generally known as one of the leading drains of company resources. According to a 2019 study by Doodle, two-thirds of all meetings are unnecessary or a waste of time. Ineffective meetings - whether lacking focus, running too long, or including the wrong people - keep employees from getting real work done. The problem is so prevalent there are even tools to measure how much time you waste in meetings and help you block out more time for deep work. While many meetings should be cancelled or declined, there is one type of meeting that may be the most valuable way to spend your time as a manager: the one on one.
The one on one meeting (also spelled 1 on 1 meeting, or 1:1 meeting) has become quite popular with managers because of its effectiveness in leading teams. So what is this magical tool, exactly? We define one on ones as regular conversations between two people, typically a manager and direct report, with the purpose of building trust, providing support, receiving feedback, and creating alignment.
There is a lot packed into this definition, so let’s look at each part.
For one on one meetings to work, they must be routine -- usually once a week or every two weeks. A regular cadence gives a team member a sense of consistent support from his manager and allows him to discuss issues as they surface. Trust is built over time, and having frequent, scheduled meetings is key to its cultivation.
As the name implies, one on one meetings are between two people, only. Having a private conversation promotes honest communication, and provides space for a team member to share fears and concerns. In addition, when a manager gives a team member her full attention, she not only sends a strong signal of support, but will likely gain insights otherwise buried in a group setting.
The primary purpose of a one on one is to build trust, which is a critical component of high performing teams. A recent Google study found the presence and degree of “psychological safety” -- the perception of whether it’s safe to take risks -- was by far the most important factor in determining a team’s effectiveness. When a manager regularly makes time to listen to a team member and discuss what’s at the forefront of his mind, she conveys she values him, whether the topics are work-related or not. This builds trust and a safety net which enables risk taking -- which might include speaking up in a team meeting, trying someone’s new approach to solving a problem, or admitting when a mistake was made.
The most effective managers lead by supporting their team members, whether it’s clearing roadblocks, connecting resources, clarifying priorities or providing opportunities for growth. One on ones are an opportunity for team members to discuss whatever is currently most important to them. These conversations allow managers to discover how they can best support each person in making progress towards the team’s goals.
Sometimes team members will want to discuss personal matters, and this is a chance for managers to show they care and help their team at the same time. According to a worldwide study conducted by Towers Watson, the single biggest driver of engagement at work is whether or not employees feel their managers are genuinely interested in their wellbeing
Most of the time managers are giving feedback to team members, and this is very valuable if shared thoughtfully. However, one on ones are primarily a time for managers to receive feedback from team members and hear what people really think. Starting out, a manager will usually need to ask directly for this feedback, including how she can better support the employee, what management practices are helping or hurting the team, where an employee wants more or less direction, and even specific criticism on where she could do better as the team leader. Managers should avoid becoming defensive, as this is also a chance to model how to receive feedback effectively.
Lastly, the purpose of one on ones is to check for, and create alignment between the company’s vision and the employee’s aspirations. This includes managers asking about a team member’s satisfaction with their role, what work they are most proud of, what parts of their job they dislike, and their general happiness at work. Openly discussing these topics allows a manager and team member to work together to address any issues, instead of resentment swelling until it culminates in a surprise departure.
A manager can also learn about a team member’s career goals and find opportunities where he can grow towards them, whether it’s specific training, work on a challenging project, a new role on the team, a different position in the company, or even a job somewhere else. The best managers support their employees’ development instead of stifling growth.
As a manager you may be wondering if it’s really worth the time to have meetings with each of your direct reports. After all, if you have a large team, this may cost an entire work day each week. Although an investment of time is definitely required, it turns out one on ones can actually save you time and make your job easier in the long run. Here’s how:
Now that you know what one on one meetings are and why you should have them, let’s look at how to ensure they are effective.
We recommend managers be the ones to schedule the meetings, and each should last from 45 minutes to an hour. This allows for deep, meaningful conversation without feeling rushed. One on ones are not a casual drop-in chat. By blocking out sufficient time, a manager signals that listening to the team member is important and worthwhile. Likewise, managers should ensure they are focused and present during the meeting. Multitasking or allowing interruptions will negate the possible benefits of the conversation.
In order for team members to feel comfortable opening up, the meeting location should provide privacy. We actually suggest going for a walk, getting coffee, sitting in a courtyard or having the meeting anywhere other than the manager’s office. This promotes connecting more as humans instead of the traditional roles of boss and employee. In the summers we often hold my one on ones by the river in a nearby park, and they usually include a chocolate treat! It's a refreshing time to step outside the normal pace of work and focus specifically on how to help our team members be successful.
The team member should set the agenda and run the meeting. This is their time to talk about what’s important to them. Of course a manager can help steer the conversation at times, much as a coach would, but she should resist the temptation to control the dialogue.
An easy way for a team member to prepare for these meetings is to track topics for discussion in a shared list as they arise throughout the week. There are many tools to help with this, and we recommend using GQueues to manage the shared agenda. In GQueues a manager can create a Team and add the employee as a collaborator. The employee can add items to the One on One Agenda, and the manager will see what’s coming up for discussion ahead of time. Creating lists for goals, current activities and roadblocks can also be useful to track and reference during the meeting as needed.
Occasionally team members won’t have much on the meeting agenda, or there is time remaining after covering all their planned topics. Sometimes, particularly when first starting one on ones, team members might need help opening up for discussion. As a manager you can help in these situations by asking questions to start conversation. We’ve pulled together a list of questions other great managers ask, organized by the four meeting goals mentioned earlier, to help you get started:
Since one on ones aren't like traditional meetings, it’s worth delineating the responsibilities of each person.
Holding one on one meetings is a clear way to increase a team’s performance. Managers who listen attentively during these regular conversations build trust and gain insights on how to better support their team. Employees who feel heard are more engaged, and are empowered to perform their best work. With an understanding of how to effectively use one in ones you can develop and strengthen team members while helping everyone reach the team’s goals.
I love building products! And Python. And dark chocolate. When I'm not leading the team at GQueues, I can be found running ultras on the trails of the Rocky Mountains.