February 20, 2023

4 ways to rethink your approach to 1-on-1 meetings

Jonathan Bender

Jonathan Bender

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4 ways to rethink your approach to 1-on-1 meetings

Remember back to that moment when the most important thing in the world to you felt like the least important thing to your boss.

Their schedule was too full. Their attention pulled in too many directions. And you were left on pause wondering when you could get some direction so you could move forward.

Your past frustrations with managers and your current questions about how to better structure 1-on-1 meetings stem from the same root problem according to Steven G. Rogelberg, author of The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance.

During his research into how we approach 1-on-1 meetings, Rogelberg discovered that “few organizations provide strong guidance or training for managers about when and how to meet individually.”

Your past managers probably never had someone sit down and talk to them about how to get the most out of 1-on-1 meetings. And it’s likely the same holds true for you.

That potential for frustration and anxiety is why you must be thoughtful and direct about your 1-on-1 meetings with the members of your team. It’s why you must protect that time and build in space to strengthen your relationships. And it’s why you must consider the potential cost to yourself when critiquing someone else’s work.

It’s easy to overlook the value of 1-on-1 meetings because you may have had plenty that weren’t worth your time. So, let’s make them worth everyone’s time.

Here are four ways to rethink your approach to 1-on-1 meetings.

1. Reframe 1-on-1 meetings as a priority

As a manager, you have the responsibility to support new relationships and manage your team’s expectations. In order to effectively use that power, you need to demonstrate to your teammates that you will prioritize 1-on-1 meetings.

“Managers who don’t invest in such conversations – who view them as a burden, hold them too infrequently, or manage them poorly – leave their team members disconnected, both functionally and emotionally,” says Rogelberg.

Start with the obvious. Let people know that you’ve been in 1-on-1 sessions that devolved into what Will Larson, the CTO of Calm and author of Lethain, calls “status updates sessions.” And then show them how your sessions can be different.

  • Protect the time for 1-on-1 meetings. In surveys, Rogerberg found that a 30-minute session, once a week, had the “highest levels of engagement.” You’ll find the right cadence with your team. A standing appointment (where you’re always on time) signifies to your team and organization that you value the time you’re spending with a given team member.

  • Use 1-on-1 meetings to set boundaries. You never want to stifle creativity; but you do have to channel it for some team members. Make it clear that 1-on-1 meetings are a dedicated time to share ideas. This provides a defined space for feedback, which some people may prefer to give or receive in private. It also helps you avoid burnout by making it clear how you want to communicate and when. You don’t have to be on call all the time via Slack or email.

  • Take notes to frame discussions. Ben Mackie, an engineering manager with Atlassian, suggests that taking notes “helps you remember the discussion, forms the basis for next steps, and signals that you’re committed to the growth of both the team member and the team.” Give yourself time before each session to do a brain dump, so you can give someone your full attention during a 1-on-1 meeting. Then, jot down a few action items after your talk.

2. Intentionally create a shared space

While communication builds your process and sets expectations for 1-on-1 meetings, it’s trust that adds a deeper level of meaning to your weekly sessions.

In a recent Gallup poll, only 1 in 3 employees “strongly agreed” that there was someone at work “that encouraged their development,” and that they “had opportunities at work to learn and grow” in the past year. A majority of your team is likely waiting for you to show that you’re invested in them.

Build trust with your team by showing up consistently, providing glimpses into how decisions are made, and showing them that you see the effort that goes into their work.

  • A little preparation goes a long way. Show up prepared. Outline what you want to discuss to honor the time of the person on the other side of the call or desk. When your team member knows you’re going to show up, it removes some of the stress of lingering questions. Your reports also know that they’ll have your attention regularly and an opportunity to get the answers they need to do their work. Your advance outlining has another key benefit, it sets an expectation that they need to come prepared, as well.

  • Provide insight into the decision-making process. By explaining how a piece of the work is related to the whole, you’re offering transparency into your own thought process and, as noted in this piece in the Harvard Business Review, showing “you trust your employees with the truth, even in difficult circumstances.” That act of sharing may also make it easier for your team members to acknowledge and talk about the challenges they’re currently facing.

  • Acknowledge effort. When your team member went above and beyond in the face of a looming deadline, take the time to tell them you saw how they showed up when it mattered. That moment of appreciation is the currency you can later spend in hard moments. It shows you value someone’s contributions and also that you’re willing to ask for help.

3. Create assignments that stimulate growth

If you watch The Alpinist, the stirring 2021 documentary about the late free solo climber Marc-Andre LeClerc, you can’t help but wonder how he scales the highest summits in frozen conditions without a rope. What you gradually come to learn is he pushed himself a bit further with each endeavor in constant search of the place where he was fully engaged by the climb.

He didn’t start with the most challenging mountain.

As a manager, you see the final climb: whether that’s a project shipping or a promotion for your teammate. But you also see where your team is at a given moment. You know that everyone has strengths that are based on their natural abilities or past experiences.

The key to ascending, according to Will Larson, is that you assign tasks that continually push your team members.

“The best thing you can do to grow your team is to give them ever-increasing stretch assignments with more latitude and room for creativity,” says Larson.

When it comes to framing those growth projects during 1-on-1 sessions, it’s worth keeping two ideas in mind.

  • Be direct; but provide context.

Explicitly tell someone the ways in which they excel, while also taking the time to explain how a given project will help them work on a specific skill. Acknowledge that there may be some struggles along the way and you may have to have some uncomfortable conversations to help them identify possible areas of weakness. By telling your team what you see and what comes next, you’re making it clear you’re invested in them getting better.

  • Don’t always solve problems, even if you know the answer.

“One of the harder parts of being a manager is giving your team space to solve problems,” says Matt Newirk, an engineering manager at Etsy. “One of my biggest challenges continues to be holding those solutions back.”

You’re not only keeping your engineers from growing, Newkirk points out you’re potentially keeping your team from finding solutions that are different and better than the ones you might suggest.

4. Examine the potential cost of criticism

While the dialogue around meetings often focuses on how to give a member of your team criticism in a way that is constructive, it often ignores how challenging it is to be the one delivering the criticism.

Yes, it’s important to discover how your reports prefer to hear and process feedback on their work. But that feedback loop can be unearthed while you’re laying the foundation for regular meetings by listening and setting effective boundaries.

Have you ever considered how you feel about giving criticism?

Psychologist Christopher Rosen, PhD, a professor at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, wondered why some effective leaders struggled with critiquing their colleagues or direct reports.

He discovered that while you’re working to build connections as a manager, it can make you “more reluctant to offer constructive criticism…because delivering negative feedback conflicts with that goal.”

The more you empathize with your team, the more you may seek to avoid having to criticize their work because you’re worried it could ultimately harm your relationship.

However, it’s not only their work which could be impacted, you might also find yourself unable to find your own flow state.

“We found the experience hijacks [empathetic managers] emotionally and cognitively, and it impairs their performance,” said Rosen.

If you find it difficult to levy criticism, Rosen has two recommendations for how to lighten your load.

  • Give yourself a break after you deliver critiques. Take the opportunity to recenter yourself or take the time to process what happened with a few minutes between meetings.

  • “Avoid scheduling these conversations before important presentations or deadlines.” Try to be aware of when you might experience more stress and create mental space, similar to time breaks, around big moments in your work.

It’s important to remember that you don’t know the future impact your words will have on the people you manage. While criticism may be uncomfortable in the moment, it often yields real benefits and career growth for engaged team members.

A standing 1-on-1 meeting is a regular opportunity to understand the current state of your team and your work. It’s also a place where you can lay out a blueprint for future success and provide some boundaries that protect your productivity.

Since every relationship is different, you may be uncertain where to start. Step back to where we began.

Think about how you would want to be managed. Think about how things might have been different if you had a space to be challenged and grow with a manager’s help.

Use what you discover to engage your team in meaningful conversations on what they need from a manager. And then get to work on deepening the value that you and your team are getting from 1-on-1 meetings.

Photo by Christina@WocInTechChat on Unsplash.

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