The Ultimate Manager’s Guide to Leading Great 1×1 Meetings

Good leaders understand the value of great meetings. Effective meetings. Productive meetings.

To leverage the message.

To connect with the troops.

But one of the great tools for leadership effectiveness, the 1×1 meeting, often gets so mismanaged that we dread them, we find reasons to cancel them, or we stop doing them altogether.

They aren’t consistently productive.

They eat up valuable time.

But…

If done properly, the 1×1 can be your secret weapon.

Good leaders understand this and make them a priority.

Great leaders keep them under continuous improvement and see the results.

Increased trust.

Enhanced communication.

Alignment.

The following ideas can help leaders at all levels of an organization run more effective 1x1s.

Meetings that your direct reports will actually look forward to attending.

And you will, too.

Why They’re So Important

Until you appreciate the potential value of 1x1s you won’t make them a priority.

Until your direct reports receive value from 1x1s with you, they won’t engage at the level you want.

A survey by Gallup found that employees who have regular 1x1s with their managers are almost 3X more engaged than those who don’t.

Anything that gives you three times more engagement from your team members should get your attention. 🤨

The 1×1 meeting is the appropriate — and potentially perfect — place for you to:

Build trust — Trust is necessary for successful teams and the most important relationship for trust-building is between the team member and their leader. Yes, you!

The ability to establish, grow, extend, and restore trust is the key professional and personal competency of our time. — Stephen Covey

Provide feedback — Give AND receive real-time feedback. Honest and timely feedback can build trust and improve performance — for both of you.

Encourage progress — Their performance, your leadership, and your relationship with one another are all works in progress. All are under continuous improvement and all can benefit from these weekly sessions.

Get personal — Managing people is fundamentally about relationships. With human beings. Your employees bring their whole selves, with all the baggage, worries, dreams, disappointments, health issues, family situations, in their lives. To your workplace. They have unique personal needs. The 1×1 should be a safe place where they can share those needs.

Build accountability — Regular one to ones allow time for both of you to demonstrate accountability to one another, through practice and repetition. Yes, accountability goes both ways and you need to role model the behaviors you expect in others.

Save time — It will save you from the disruption of hundreds of “hey, have you got a second” conversations during the course of the year. It also saves time from having to clarify messages or performance expectations.

Course-correct if necessary — One of the primary positive outcomes of a 1×1 is to get in sync on priorities. The 1×1 allows you to discuss any misunderstandings and to re-calibrate priorities if necessary.

Your Mindset is Key

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

You need to be very intentional about how you lead and why you do what you do. In order to conduct the most effective 1x1s, you need to maintain a healthy mindset.

Here is a list of perspectives to keep in mind for successful 1x1s.

  • You want your direct reports to be successful. 1x1s are designed to create alignment and help them improve.
  • Be curious. You want to ask questions, without your direct report feeling like they’re being interrogated. Ask questions to understand and learn.
  • Actively listen. Try to continually “squint with your ears.” Listen for what they say, how they say it, and what they don’t say. When you don’t listen, you are sending the message that they’re not important and you don’t care about them. It is a passive-aggressive form of disrespect. Ouch.
  • Avoid expert mode. When appropriate, answer questions with questions. It can lead to self-discovery by your direct report, which helps them gain confidence and grow as leaders themselves.
  • Avoid the monkey. One of the most frequently downloaded Harvard Business Review articles is entitled Who’s Got the Monkey. It describes the boomerang effect of delegated tasks that wind up coming back to the manager / delegator. Guard against your 1x1s turning into a session where you make decisions or take responsibility for their tasks.
  • Your leadership brand is on full display. You need to role model the behaviors you hope to see from them. Be professional. Be empathetic. Commit to meeting any obligations that you take on during these sessions. DWYSYGTD — Do What You Say You Are Going To Do!
  • The format and ground rules may be the same for each of your direct reports, but the experience may be different in each 1×1, based on the circumstances, the level of trust in your relationship, and their unique behavioral style. Embrace the variety.
  • Provide psychological safety — You need to ensure that you create an atmosphere where your direct report feels safe to be open and honest. They can take risks, if appropriate. You are encouraging and role modeling transparency, vulnerability, and confidentiality. Once they feel safe, you can challenge them to get out of their comfort zone, which fosters personal growth.
  • Be on time. Don’t cancel or reschedule, unless it is an extraordinary circumstance. Every time you’re late or cancel, you are sending a message that the meetings — and your direct report — aren’t important. A feeling of disrespect can eat away at the trust that is so important for a leader and a team.

You cast a vote for what matters every time you keep or cancel a meeting. — Jason R. Waller

  • Keep it fresh. Stale, repetitive conversations that take place out of habit wastes time and don’t advance the relationship or the team. Try new agenda items, meeting locations, or topics to consider to keep the experience fresh for both of you. Challenge one another to dig deeper to make the meetings meaningful.

Establish the Ground Rules

Create ground rules that will govern how you and your direct report will approach 1×1 meetings. He are some sample rules:

We make a mutual commitment to meet and 1x1s are rarely, if ever, canceled or rescheduled

We will conduct ourselves professionally and respectfully. We will commit to acting without whining, finger-pointing, blaming, or yelling.

We will meet for 30 minutes on a set day and time each week. (Note to manager: While this is preferred, I’ve also seen one-hour meetings every other week be successful)

Our meetings will start on time and end on time. Ending early is OK, but we will both strive to not go beyond our scheduled time. It is a sign of mutual respect to show up, be prepared and not take time away from the next scheduled meeting or important work time.

The direct report sets the agenda and will send a written copy to the manager by 5:00 p.m. the day before the scheduled 1×1.

During the meeting, laptops, iPads, and phones will be out of sight, unless needed to share information during that day’s 1×1.

The meeting is a safe place for both parties to be honest and open. Both parties will assume trust and mutual respect and will share if they feel that either of those assumptions has been violated.

The direct report will lead the 1×1, although both parties can participate freely.

Both parties will endeavor to stick to the agenda and protect against scope creep. We will both work to prevent agenda items turning into rants, rambling discussions, or morph into solving operational issues.

Create the Agenda

Every meeting needs to have a written agenda prepared — and shared — in advance. If you truly respect one another’s time, it is worth the effort to prepare it, review it, and consider any further preparation before the meeting starts. Walking into the room and asking, “So, what should we talk about today?” is a recipe for wasted time for both of you.

Your agendas may morph over time, to fit the person, the circumstances, and your own style, but here are some suggestions (based on the perspective of the employee / your direct report):

1. An update on the action items from the last one-on-one. What steps have you taken?

2. What roadblocks or barriers do you need to be removed? Where are you stuck or where do you feel like you’re bumping against a brick wall?

3. Share what you believe are your top three priorities for the coming week, in ranked order. (Note to manager: This is a great opportunity for you and your direct report to get in sync. Ask questions to understand why they prioritized the items they did — then you can provide input if you believe they have missed something)

4. What is one thing your manager needs to know — about you, the team, or the company? (Note to manager: Don’t react and certainly don’t get defensive. Ask questions to understand clearly and thank them for their input)

5. What is unclear or muddled that your boss can clarify? (Note to manager: This is where candor and confidentiality may be on display. Take advantage of the opportunity to provide clarity and insight)

6. Rotate the following four items so that one meeting a month each is being addressed

a. Progress on business goals / metrics / OKRs

b. Progress on a skill you are trying to develop

c. Progress on a personal goal

d. One thing that your boss needs to bring to your attention (Note to manager: At least once a month there should be some observation, update, or insight that you can share that is relevant to their job, their team, or their performance. It makes them feel like an “insider” and helps build trust — because you have extended trust.

7. Summarize commitments and action steps that need to be taken this week — as a result of this meeting — what will be done by when.

Your 30 Minute Secret Weapon

When you’re a leader, you spend large blocks of time in meetings.

They serve a useful purpose when done well.

People hate attending them when they’re done poorly.

Your brand as a leader is impacted by how well you conduct meetings of all kinds.

1×1 meetings often become the first meetings on a leader’s schedule to be interrupted, rescheduled, or canceled.

Leaders get bored with them and direct reports dread them.

Both parties are relieved when they don’t take place.

And that’s a mistake. A massive missed opportunity.

If you get intentional about the following four steps, you’ll see a significant shift in how you and your team members perceive 1x1s.

Recognize the value of well-run 1x1s in building trust, connection, and alignment

Develop the right leadership mindset towards 1x1s

Create and commit to ground rules that will work for both of you

Have an agenda that is consistent, and also allows for variation

Effective 1x1s can be your secret weapon to build stronger teams and drive higher performance.

To achieve team goals. Your goals.

To help team members grow and develop.

To become the kind of leader that people want to work for.

In thirty minutes. Or less.

The next blog post will focus on the 1×1 meeting from the subordinate’s perspective. When both of you take ownership for creating a great 1×1, magic happens!

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