How To Rock At One-To-Ones

One-to-ones are your most important meetings. No, really.

I’ve rarely had a line report that, when asked, ‘what does a successful one-to-one look like for you?’ could answer based on previous good experiences with managers. One-to-ones are an oddly complex topic so they need to be practised, studied and learned, which unfortunately doesn’t often happen with new managers.

What Is The Purpose Of A One-To-One?

That’s a great question and can vary wildly based on the nature of a business. There are certain types of companies where having the ideal set-up for one-to-ones isn’t possible due to the culture or high paced nature of the business, which is a problem and a discussion for another day.

My definition of the purpose of a one-to-one is:

to create a safe space where you and your line report can talk about what’s affecting them at work.

This allows you as a manager to ensure that your report feels seen, heard, respected, and valued and that they have the correct amount of autonomy, mastery, purpose, and sense of belonging to feel motivated.

When done well, it leads to employees with a high level of psychological safety that will respectfully challenge you so that you can make excellent decisions about the business and your teams. When poorly done, it destroys trust, erodes motivation and ultimately leads to retention risk and reduced productivity.

It can be helpful to explicitly state to your line report what your expectations are of one-to-ones as well as hear from them what they expect so that you can come to an agreement and be on the same page.

What A One-To-One Is Not

A one-to-one is not any of these things:

  • A therapy session. You’re likely to be woefully underqualified to do any therapy with your line reports as a line manager. Be careful not to wander into this territory. Be prepared with a signpost to relevant services that may help them, such as your company’s employee assistance plan and counselling.
  • A chance for you to push your agenda as a manager and talk the whole time. If you need to disseminate information, get status updates, or try something on your mind, schedule a different meeting or do it asynchronously.
  • A chance for your line report to ad-hoc reverse coach or mentor you on whatever problems might be on your mind. That’s for your manager to hold a space for you or find peer support. Reverse coaching and mentoring can be a powerful tool, and I would encourage you to allow your reports to do this at a separate time and space that you both agree.

How Often Should You Do One-To-Ones?

This, again, can vary wildly based on the manager and the line report. Personally, my ideal cadence for doing one-to-ones with my line reports is every week for half an hour. This has several advantages:

  • If either party needs a holiday or cancels, the time between one-to-ones is not too great.
  • The things that are important to someone week to week can vary wildly, especially in a chaotic culture, and it ensures I don’t miss out on any critical insights from their world.
  • If you are a more introverted manager, holding a space for someone for half an hour rather than an hour is a lot less energy-draining, and the same is true for more introverted reports.

You may find that people have particular preferences and would instead meet every two weeks. This is fine, and flexibility is essential but make sure it’s coming from the right place, and they aren’t avoiding speaking to you.

How Should You Structure A One-To-One?

Again this is a big question and varies wildly by manager and organisation. If we go back to the purpose of a one-to-one being a safe space where you and your employee can talk about things affecting them at work, then rather than thinking about the specific content we can think about the kinds of things we need to cover to achieve this.

An effective one-to-one has a defined beginning, middle and end that you mindfully guide your line report through. I often follow a pattern that begins with an opening statement, moves on to explore the problem space, and closes with defining actions and agreeing on the next steps. I would recommend checking out the GROW model for coaching conversations to learn more about this approach.

Opening Statement

You will have a strong temptation to open with ‘how are you doing?’ which can seem like a great idea on a base human level. However, it can be an easy way to stray into therapy territory or elicit the usual response of ‘I’m fine’, leading to a conversational dead end.

My favourite alternative, shamelessly stolen from Michael Bungay Stanier’s The Coaching Habit, is to lead with ‘what’s on your mind?’ which has no immediate, easy response and gets right to the heart of the matter.

I’m also a fan of leading with some specific praise or acknowledgement as regularly as possible before moving on to what’s on their mind. Giving regular praise and constructive feedback is a critical component of building trust.

This doesn’t mean you should never ask about how their life is - you need to take an active interest in this! And if their home life is top of their agenda, they will be sure to share this with you anyway if the psychological safety is there.

Problem Space

This is where your line report generously and vulnerably offers up information about their life at work. You can act as a thought partner here and guide them through the conversation to new insights, both for them and you.

There are a few rules to follow here:

  • Actively listen. Like really, really listen. Your line report should be talking 80% of the time, at least. Make sure you have no distractions like checking emails, Slack etc. None. Zero.
  • Avoid going into advice mode and stay curious.
  • Use excellent questions, e.g. from The Coaching Habit and get good at asking the right question at the right time. Get to the nub of the real challenge for them and get them to a place of insight and clarity by asking questions and staying curious.

This can be challenging, especially if you’re not used to having to hold a space for someone. It can be beneficial to always leave 5 mins or more before a one-to-one to clear your mind and get grounded, so you have a better chance of being fully present. The same goes for after, to allow reflection and any note-taking.

Agreeing Actions

It’s essential to hold your line report and yourself accountable. Be sure to replay back what you’ve heard from your line report, so you’re both on the same page and design and actions together. These actions should be STRAM (Specific, Trackable, Relevant, Attainable and Motivating).

Get granular on what support from you looks like and how much or how little direction may be required. Sometimes they will be able to do a task easily without much supervision and, at other times, will need much guidance even as a more experienced employee.

There may also be no actions to agree on, and that’s fine.

What If Nothing Is On Their Mind?

Someone may not be feeling like they want to be vulnerable with you on a given day. That’s cool, but you will have to be prepared with a backup plan.

It’s beneficial as a manager to have a list of go-to questions that work for you and that you can fall back on in a one-to-one situation to elicit information and build trust. For example, you might ask:

  • What are you most proud of this week?
  • What are you most excited to be working on?
  • What did you learn last week?
  • Which part of your role most frustrates you?
  • What’s the biggest challenge for you right now?
  • Is there anything I have done lately that I could have done better?

That last bullet point on making a feedback request takes a serious amount of courage. However, role modelling to your report on how being vulnerable and having the openness and humility to hear feedback is essential for building safety and you’ll often get gold from it.

There’s plenty of reading about other potential questions; for example, Claire Lew or Lara Hogan. I’d encourage you to have a search and find out what works for you.

Using An Agenda

You may also want to use an agenda where your line report can add items in advance, so they don’t forget what they want to talk to you about. You can also add some agenda items yourself, including your prompt questions, so they have time to think about it. Remember that the agenda is not a place for you to put lots of items about projects and other things on your mind.

Building Trust in One-to-Ones

Now that we’ve discussed the purpose and structure of an effective one-to-one, it’s time to read about how to effectively build trust in your precious one-to-one time to create that safe space we aim for. Head to the next article about BRAVING trust to learn more.