One on one meetings: How to improve them

One On One Meetings

One on one meetings are a fairly big deal in a managerial context, but I think a lot of companies (and individual managers) whiff on the concept. We live in this age where we’re constantly told how fast everything is moving and how technology is changing everything. We deify the tech companies and their young billionaires, and we love new apps on our phones. I think a lot of that seeps into work and causes bad management.

See, technology can make work great and more effective and productive, yes. But if you jam a square peg (technology) into a round hole (how your employees are comfortable working), you just create chaos. We love us some collaboration tools, but … oftentimes they don’t work that well. Project management tools are all the rage … until they’re not. We’re going to see a high ROI on our recruiting from new technology … or we’re going to alienate the best candidates.

Technology works, and it’s great. I love me some Pokemon and I love me some Trello boards, you know? But you gotta do it right, and not everyone does it right.

And in this race to hope/think that technology will save all our problems, we ignore some good management ideas: like one on one meetings.

The dirty little secret about technology vs. one on one meetings

We need to get this out of the way first. Here’s the deal: most people who become managers are not very good at their jobs. Even fewer actually like to communicate with their employees, per this research. Technological tools make it easier for managers to hide. That’s the plain and simple truth.

Who wants to have some one on one meetings when you can fire off a poorly-contextualized email to a subordinate? This is why email basically sucks.

So this is the first reason people claim to “love” technology at work: it’s not because they can be more productive, really. It’s because they can be lazier. If you disagree, feel free to stop reading. If you agree, let’s advance a step.

Why one on one meetings are good

Some days recently, the world feels like a giant trash fire. Mass shootings. Brexit. EU. Trump. Chaos in various regions. It’s hard to look at things, even very optimistically, and not think, “Whoa, we could use some more empathy up in here.” 

That applies to work too. In an era of email, Slack, Skype, Google, etc… what we have mostly lost? The face-to-face connection. Sure, people fly all over the world on business travel. That’s true. And sure, people call meetings like it’s a mandate. But most business travel has suspect ROI, and most meetings are a complete and total waste of time.


Here’s a new article from Harvard Business Review about making meetings more productive, and this quote is solid:

But nothing quite beats a face-to-face, one-on-one meeting, says Elizabeth Grace Saunders, the author of How to Invest Your Time Like Money, and the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training. “One-on-ones are one of the most important productivity tools you have as a manager,” she says. “They are where you can ask strategic questions such as, are we focused on the right things? And from a rapport point of view, they are how you show employees that you value them and care about them.”

Hard to argue with that one.

One on one meetings: What’s your goal as a manager?

Most people would instantly screech, “Make money!” and/or “Hit targets for my boss!” Those are common, logical answers that we’ve followed for 50+ years. They’re also wrong.

Managers do need to hit targets and help the company make money, yes. But they also need to:

I’ve had about 14-15 managers in my life. Not a single one has done all four of these, but a boy can dream, yea?

If you believe the six things above — “make money,” “hit targets,” and the four bullets — are the goal of a manager, then what’s the easiest way to hit all six goals?

One on one meetings.

If, however, you think the only goals that matter are “make money” and “hit targets,” then talking to your direct reports doesn’t matter at all. It’s all about puckering the posterior of those up the chain. In that case, I doubt you’re still reading this.

One on one meetings: How to make them effective

Now, I have had managers who tried the one on one meetings deal — and it still mostly whiffed. You can set up something with good intentions and it can still be a failure. I think I just explained Tinder dates in a nutshell.

If you want one on one meetings to actually have resonance, here’s what I’d say:

Care: Many people miss this step, which creates the “Cancelled Meetings Culture.” I’ve spent a lot of time in those orgs. It’s not fun.

Have an agenda: Ideally, it would be crafted together by manager and employee. Without an agenda, it’s just a useless, dithering talk about nothing.

Be present: Managers call one on one meetings sometimes and then … they spend most of it checking their email or doing other things. You honestly might as well slap your employee across the face or spit at them. It’s that level of disrespect. If you don’t want to have the meeting, don’t call the meeting. This ain’t rocket science.

Talk about priorities: The biggest boondoggle in most orgs is terrible priority alignment. So tell your employee, “Hey, this stuff is important. This other stuff is not that important.” Make it clear. No “sense of urgency” bullshit in these one on one meetings, OK?

Schedule them regularly: Managers done love to hide behind the once a year performance review. “That’s the only time I can have one on one meetings with you, Timmy,” they screech. “HR says so!” That’s a lie. HR is too busy pounding their chests about their seat at the table to mandate meeting schedules for managers and reports. It’s always up to the manager. They hide behind excuses because they can. Ever heard of “cover your ass management?” It’s very real.

That’s a start.

One on one meetings: Talk to people

Look, email is always going to be out of context. You can’t infer tone or read facial cues. Slack and other tools are the same way. Even Skype/Zoom/Hangouts have these issues. The only way you can properly develop a context around the business that needs to be done is face to face.

That’s why sales guys and consultants fly all over hell and gone chasing deals. It’s gotta be face to face, or the dotted line won’t be signed. We all know this.

So if you want to be a good managers that “closes deals” with your employees, use one on one meetings.

Your take?

Ted Bauer

One Comment

  1. Great comments as always. I have found O3’s work well when regularly done and focus around buidling trust with your directs. I really like the manager-tools guidance on these.

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