So you are curious about what a one on one meeting is? Before we jump in, let’s zoom out a bit. Business is very often just pure chaos. It is doubly so for organizations that are younger, smaller, more agile or just plain scrappy. It is also this environment where founder CEOs and other self made C-level people don’t have a tried and true toolset and decades of experience to fall back onto. While OKRs, daily check-ins and such are all great, they don’t address the fundamental management problem young organizations are facing. One on one meetings are the definitive solution. Let’s dive in.
What is a one on one meeting?
One on one meetings are the setting where two people, manager and employee can talk freely about themselves, their pains, successes, hurdles and aspirations, the company, the market and life in general. It is the focused space that transcends firefighting, snarky comments on Slack, gossip and watercooler chatter. While these are all part of a healthy business, they can drown out the somber voice and the genuine cries for help. As a manager, your main task is to enable your team to be able to do their jobs to the fullest extent they can today and to grow tomorrow.
How will you know if someone is facing personal challenges that affect their performance? If they don’t get along with someone else in the company? If they have a trivial problem like not being able to set up their VPN and get no help from anyone? Yes, the one on one meeting is the ideal setting for these.
If you are interested in reading a book about one on ones and just about how to manage people in the software industry, I highly recommend Managing Humans by Michael Lopp.
The dos and don’ts of the one on one meeting
- Set up a weekly recurring cadence
- Have it at the same time and the same place every week
- Make it at least 30 minutes long
- Start with “How are you?”
- Follow up on your action items by the next one on one meeting
- Do not cut the meeting short
- Don’t make it a status update
- By no means should you share details with others without consent
- Avoid giving tasks in the one on one meeting
- Don’t EVER miss a one on one meeting
Now that we looked at some general dos and don’ts of the one on one meeting, let’s look at the three broad types of them. What should you expect and prepare for when you’re going into your first on on one?
The 3 types of one on one meetings
In a healthy organization, most one on one meeting will not be a heated conversation. Instead, it’ll be more like an update on what’s going on, how’s everybody feeling, minor pieces of improvement and feedback but nothing major. Why should you still do one on one meetings if some of them will be nothing more than confirmation that things are going smooth? Precisely for that reason.
Imagine this scenario: your team member has consistently missed the daily standups this week which is unusual for them. What is going on? Are they completely demotivated? Checked out? Looking for another job already? You might assume the worst and thus as any good manager, you’ll concentrate on trying to solve these perceived issues and prepare for the worst. This will distract you from items that might truly need your attention but without more information you can’t prioritize effectively. Sure, you could schedule an ad hoc meeting with your team member, or try to catch him while getting coffee but these can easily come across as too overbearing.
Lucky that your organization does one on one meetings so you can meet and discuss anything. You’ll ask: “How are you?” and he’ll reply that he’s fine, maybe a bit stressed. Why is he stressed? Turns out he is moving house and the movers keep rescheduling last minute day after day. Is this something you as his manager can solve? No. Is this information going to help you prioritize. Oh yes. Now you know that you’ll just need to be more patient with him and the situation will resolve itself with time. In the meantime, you can help him out by subtly managing the expectations from the rest of the team and downplaying the effect of him being late rather than leaning into it. Your team member will feel like they are heard and even cared for, all thanks to the little weekly 30 minute one on one meeting.
I wish I could say that the update is the most common one on one meeting archetype. But I won’t. Based on my experience, especially when it comes to earlier stage, smaller companies, things are rarely smooth sailing and it will show. If you don’t have one on ones, any frustration that builds in your direct reports will lead to loss of motivation, decrease in performance, toxic behavior and ultimately a burned out team member. As a manager it should be your only job to prevent this and actually reverse it. Support your team members to perform better, grow into a better version of themselves, keep motivated, curious and engaged and ultimately deliver the maximum value possible to your customers and the business in a sustainable way.
Let’s say you decided to introduce one on one meetings, now you have a valve on the pressure cooker that is your organization. The thing is, you’re in the way of the hot steam coming out and you’ll need to know how to deal with it. So when you ask “How are you?” and the reply is less than convincing or outright hostile, you know you’re dealing with a rant. It’s okay, this is useful and you can do this.
Hint 1 – Just listen
First of all, listen, don’t try to solve every problem right away. A lot of times people just want to be listened to, to share their frustration, to feel like they are not alone. By being a good listener you’re already scoring points with your direct report. These are the first steps for a trusting work relationship. Once you think they are over the initial burst, do ask follow up question if you need to. Try to understand what caused the frustration. Is it another team member? A process that doesn’t make sense? Misaligned expectations? The person’s own shortcoming? Something you might have done? Or some completely external factor you have no control over?
Once you identified the likely cause, you can start to guide your team member to come up with a solution on their own. Don’t underestimate the importance of this. If people come up with a solution themselves they are much more likely to follow through with it and after owning the process of resolving any conflict, they will also own the win. Remember, the measure of success for a manager is the success of those they manage.
Hint 2 – Action items
At the end of a rant, you should be able to either come to a resolution in the meeting itself, or come up with a list of action items either you or your direct report needs to complete. It is very important that neither of you lose track of these as it is expected that progress will be made by the next one on one unless explicitly stated. Write these down somewhere where you won’t forget about them. Or you could try using a dedicated software solution for one on ones, more on this at the end of the article.
What is an ongoing rant that seemingly has no resolution? Yes, it is a disaster. Once a person reaches a point where they seemingly have given up, it’s hard to turn back. When someone answers the “How are you?” question with an empty stare, sharing that they are completely unmotivated or that they feel depressed you know you’ve got a disaster on your hand. Lots of times people in disaster mode won’t even wait for you to ask your standard question, they’ll blurt out what’s bugging them. It can be that they say they can’t take it anymore, it referring to something they ranted about in the past but is still a problem. It can be trying to resign or threatening to quit. Or it can be simply a cry for help, without specifics.
Look, it’s a problem that the disaster is here. There should have been plenty of rants that led up to this and you failed to help the person resolve their conflicts. So what can you do about it? First of all, you need to reassure the person that their concern is your top priority (if it wasn’t before) and that you’ll work with them to resolve it.
In some cases, especially when this is just the latest in a string of disaster type one on ones, you will have to think about how the person fits into your organization. Sometimes, the best course of action for both parties is to amicably part ways.
Software for running a one on one meeting?
While you can run an effective one on one with just a pen and a piece of paper or a notes app, we think we have a better way. Making the most of your one on one meetings requires both parties to be on top of the topics they want to discuss, any action items that need a resolution before the next meeting and to see these evolve over time. Check out Focus to see how you can supercharge your one on one meeting.