Uncovering effective 1-on-1s

Uncovering effective 1-on-1s
Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions / Unsplash

You’ve definitely heard how important 1-on-1s are and you’ve most likely done or been in one. When I became a manager, I went through a lot of trial and error before I found a good formula where I felt everyone was benefiting from the conversation. This post is not about what is right or wrong, but more about how to find the right structure for 1-on-1s that best suits your team.

As soon as I accepted the manager role promotion, I read various books about effective management. Some notable mentions are High Output Management, Crucial Conversations, Turn the Ship Around (great book recommended by a colleague), and Drive. I wanted to be an outstanding manager. I wanted to do right by the team, especially since it was a crucial time after an acquisition and the environment was hectic and confusing.

One mentioned idea was having a list of questions that are meant to get the most out of the employee. I picked some questions and went in to each 1-on-1 thinking I was ready. Some of the questions included:

  • What do you like about your work?
  • What do you not like?
  • What is the most important thing we should be working on?
  • What can we do to improve as a team?
  • What can we do to improve as a company?
  • What can I do improve as a manager?

As I was going through the questions, I noticed the conversation wasn’t flowing smoothly. I wasn’t getting what I wanted and neither was my colleague. It seemed too robotic. The next 1-on-1, the same situation and to make matters worse I was getting the same answers to some questions as the previous meeting.

So I scrapped most of the questions and came up with different ones. This time though, they were generic to allow for a free-flowing conversation:

  • What has gone well since we last spoke?
  • What didn’t go well?
  • How do you think I can best help?
  • Anything else?

Depending on the person, sometimes starting with an open-ended question ends up with them answering all the above.

  • How are you doing? / How are things?

I wanted to take it a step further. In many articles and books, they mention to provide feedback during the 1-on-1. Later I realized waiting until a 1-on-1 isn’t always the best approach but I’ll leave that for a different post. So I started incorporating feedback, both positive and things to improve. Some of the best conversations came out of the feedback segment.

I also evolved the format by starting the conversation with a summary of what we talked about last time. This helped me and the colleague set the stage for the conversation and gave a continuous rhythm feel.

Throughout the meetings, I noticed some members didn’t feel comfortable sitting in a room and talking. So I started changing the venue where the conversation was held. Some employees felt more comfortable talking if we went for a coffee or a walk. Some liked the meeting room approach. Finding what works best for each employee isn’t very difficult. You can tell by their behaviour, by how much they talk and share, and simply just by giving them the choice and letting them decide. It’s not about how comfortable you are as a manager, it’s about the employee. This is their meeting.

I also started adding the notes to a file that I shared with the employee so they have a reference on a regular basis. Within the file, I would add all the notes we discussed and also any action items to help us keep track.

Last but not least, you should really care about each of your employees and get to know them on a more personal level. Ask them about how a recent vacation went, or how their family is doing, or about any extra-curricular events they like or participate in. The 1-on-1 is about connecting with your colleague on a deeper level and giving them a platform to be heard. This doesn’t have to be strictly about work all the time.

Through trial-and-error, I was able to reach a very stable, meaningful, and useful formula for 1-on-1s with the team. I began seeing more engaged employees, better conversations that seemed genuine and informative, and I developed stronger connections.

Each person and each team is different. The key is to experiment and find what works best for you and your team. In summary, here the tips that worked best for me:

  1. Create a file where you place all 1-on-1 notes and share with the employee
  2. Start each meeting by summarizing the previous conversation
  3. Find the set of questions that work best for you and the team. You want a natural free-flowing conversation. What has gone well since we last talked? What hasn’t gone well? How can I best help? Anything else? (This is important to note, there could be something the employee wants to talk about and this gives them the space)
  4. Related to point 3, allow the employee to lead the conversation if they show desire
  5. Provide feedback if applicable, making sure to include positives and points of improvement
  6. Find the right place to have the 1-on-1, changing it every once in a while
  7. Add action items in the file and assign yourself or the employee and make sure to review these every 1-on-1
  8. Be genuine and caring, it doesn’t have to be all work talk