What is your favorite leadership tool? For me, 1on1 meetings have always been at the top of the list, because if done right, it helps people improve, it builds trust, tackles problems along the way, and helps maintain good company culture. In essence, it is the ultimate package that a leader needs to have in their toolset. But the million-dollar question is how to do it right?
Following are the basic building blocks that have worked well for me and I use them in practice. The goal is to give you inspiration on what you can experience on 1on1s or, conversely, what you would like those around you to experience on your 1on1s with them. As you experience more 1on1s, you become better accustomed to it, find your own style that suits you and there will no longer be any need for “tutorials”.
The general flow of the meeting
- Your own time to prepare before the start of the meeting and remember all the key parts.
- Tuning yourself and your partner into the right discussion mood
- Here is the part where you focus on one of the following
- Personal development and growth of the person
- Pain points that need to be addressed
- Performance Evaluation/Feedback
- Brainstorming possible solutions to what’s happening in the company
- Ask for feedback about the meeting
- Summarize actions and follow-ups
However, it’s important to point out that all this only works if there’s a genuine interest in the person. If your goal is just to check off that you’ve accomplished a task as a manager and met with your people once a quarter, this article is definitely not the right one for you 😉.
Part 1: Preparation before the 1on1
We need to set the right expectations (to prevent disappointment), prepare the environment (place, information) and tune ourselves into the right mindset (temporarily forget stress and be there just for them).
What have your people’s past experiences with 1on1s been like? Were they used to having them regularly? Were they always just critical feedback from their supervisor? Do they look forward to them or dread them like the devil? It is very important to properly set expectations for what will happen in your meetings. If your people go into a 1on1 meeting with the mindset that it’s something unpleasant and they’re not going to sleep for two days because they have a problem, it’s probably not the right setup.
So what IS the ideal setup then?
- Pay close attention to explaining to people why 1on1 meetings exist in the first place and what is their purpose. Mainly the purpose is personal development and growth, having a platform to discuss and solve problems and discuss feedback.
- Make sure they understand what is expected of them and that it is the ideal space to discuss anything in a private setup.
- Set the expectations that 1on1s should ideally happen in person. If you can’t meet face to face at least do it on a video call with a camera on so that you have at least some form of “human connection”.
You as a leader want to make them feel that even when there is something unpleasant or negative to talk about, this is always the place where we figure out how to deal with it together. As a leader you are the enabler and the source of stability and support for your people so make sure they understand that the 1on1 is their safe space.
It is very important to tune in to each other at the start of the meeting. If you start heavy topics right from the first minute, it will not benefit the meeting. We recommend giving some time at the beginning to topics like family, sharing of interesting moments, etc. That way you can be sure that you’re on the same page and can move on to the work topics. Also after a couple of 1on1s you will be able to look into your notes and start with follow-ups from last time – whether from personal or work life it’s always the best icebreaker because it’s authentic and also the person sees that you remember and care which is crucial. One of the best tools that help with this are Personal maps.
On the other hand, if there was a recent well-known fuck-up, be honest and address it straightaway with a question like “What a tough week with all those production incidents right?”, otherwise the person would just feel manipulated (similar to people often do with Sandwich style feedback). It’s also fair to the person to address it at the start because when the whole house is on fire, talking about your garden or family is most probably the last thing you want to talk about 😁
As these sessions tend to be rather personal and often private matters are discussed, creating a safe environment is crucial. Consider either booking some comfortable meeting room where you can sit on a couch or in an armchair or if you really want to make it interesting go out and take a walk in a nearby park or around the office and if you want to make it really interesting go to the nearest quiet pub/café. Also keep in mind to keep the space between you barrier-free – meaning no laptops, bottles, books, lunch boxes, etc. It allows for a better human connection with the person on the other side 😊
Regular or not? And how long?
Let me summarize what worked and still works best for me in my career:
- I always start with one longer meeting because on the first 1on1, you set the expectations, get to know the person, understand what are the main topics for the upcoming meetings and also ask about what works/doesn’t work in the team/company. All this takes more time and sets the stage for the upcoming meetings being more valuable.
- The following meetings would then happen every 2 weeks and in almost all cases 30mins was enough. I opted for longer meetings only if there is a crucial topic that needs deeper discussion, but after that is solved, switch to biweekly 30-minute meetings. You don’t want to miss anything important happening that you can help your people with – whether it’s personal development, company improvements etc. – all these need regular discussions and follow-ups.
- Important note: if one of you needs to cancel, just make sure the meeting does not disappear and definitely reschedule.
This would be the initial setup, after a couple of months validate if it works for everyone, if not just keep in mind to keep it regular and don’t cancel but reschedule. One of the most common changes that I’ve experienced here is that some people prefer longer slots less often, so that’s up for discussion with them – just make sure you have a platform where you can raise issues if something needs discussion during the 30 days in between meetings
Ground rules & tips
Here are a couple of ground rules that you should consider following and even can explicitly state on one of the first 1on1s:
- We’re partners during the whole discussion, meaning it’s usually a dialogue and should never end up being a monologue from the supervisor
- Create a shared document where you have the meeting notes and agenda.
- Make sure the person understands that the meeting is for him/her and the ownership of the document and the meeting is mainly on their side. It’s not only the job of the leader to come up with topics.
- Agree that both of you will prepare the agenda upfront – this way you allow for better preparation from both sides. Also, it allows introverts to think more about the topics in advance and they don’t feel uncomfortable having to come up with answers on the spot.
- Start each 1on1 with a recap of agreed actions from the last meeting (if there were any)
- Take notes to make sure you remember everything important (consider a paper notebook instead of a laptop – as discussed in the previous section about barriers)
- Always ask for feedback at the end of a 1on1 – questions like this can help
- How did you feel during our meeting? What did you feel good about and what not so much?
- How do you see the value of today’s meeting for you, your work, and your growth?
- What would you change for the next meeting?
Avoiding the Operative trap
If you feel that every 1on1 you have just slips into a discussion about the operative business-as-usual stuff, consider the following:
- schedule another meeting where you agree that the focus will be only on non-operative discussions (personal growth etc.)
- if there are so many operative topics, make the meeting longer and split it into two parts, the first half to be used for operative and the second for everything else mentioned in the article
If you struggle with finding the extra time, remember what we started the article with – if you don’t devote the needed time to the person, you are losing all of the actual benefits of 1on1s – trust, culture, improvements, etc.
Asking the right questions
The most crucial recommendation here is: to ask open-ended questions. Avoid yes/no questions as much as possible as they don’t give you enough detail. Questions like this are rarely at the start of a good and valuable discussion.
Here are my favorite questions to ask:
- How satisfied are you at work?
- How do you like working in our team?
- What are we doing well and what can we do better as a team?
- Feel free to ask the NPS question “How likely are you to recommend working at our company to a colleague/friend” (on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the maximum).
- If there is one thing you would change in our company, what would it be?
- What are the most important things on your mind right now?
Part 2: Tools to make 1on1s more impactful
If those open-ended questions are already answered or you are looking for something more interesting, try one of the tools mentioned in this chapter. They can help if you feel that the usual agenda is not enough (after many 1on1 meetings) or if you feel that there is a deeper issue that might need uncovering:
Are you interested in what motivates your people and what are the key factors that are crucial for them in their job?
- Use the Motivator’s game – ask the person to sort the motivator cards from left to right in order of importance while you do the same. Then share with each other and discuss the reasons and how you thought about it.
- You will learn more about your team and also have the opportunity to share your point of view – so in the process, you gain trust and also an understanding of what is important. That in the future can help you with what to focus on and how to communicate with that person.
Do you want to learn more about the person’s (professional) history and where he wants to go in the future?
- Author of the book Radical Candor Kim Scott suggests one very interesting format that can be greatly utilized on 1on1. It consists of three parts – Career, Dreams and Goals. The goal is to talk about the whole career journey of the person together with the motivators for changing jobs in the past, then spend some time discussing the dreams he/she has – regardless if it’s work life or personal. And in the end, talk about what kind of goals you can set within the current job and role for that person so that it is in line with the career decisions and connects to the dreams as well.
- This again helps you understand your people much much better and thanks to this, they now see the link between what they dream about and what they are currently doing in their roles.
For focus on Personal growth and development, study coaching techniques, namely books like The Inner Game of Stress where you can find different varieties of coaching tools that give you 1on1s a new and deeper meaning. My favorite ones are:
Part 3: What if…?
The person is very quiet
- Silence can be a very powerful tool during 1on1s. There are situations where you actually want to practice active listening as a manager/leader and let it be, it’s OK if nothing is said for 1-2 minutes if you see the other person thinking or contemplating something you discussed earlier. This is especially valuable for active, strong and talkative leaders. Just slow down, ask a question & shut up.
- What helps here is looking at the body language of the person to see if he/she is still engaged in the meeting or would already like to be somewhere else (looking at his/her watch, one foot literally out of the door, etc.). If it’s the former, then just learn how to deal with long stretches of silence and after some time ask something like “What’s going through your mind right now?”. If it’s the latter, focus on getting feedback on why it happened – if there is no value in the meeting or if it’s bad timing and the person would already be rather at home with the kids.
The person starts crying
- As in the case above, this can mean multiple things. Maybe you have touched a sensitive and/or personal topic and in that case, you should be there to support and not push on too much. Agree with the other person if it’s OK to continue after a couple of minutes, if not reschedule the meeting.
- Note: Learn to be OK with other people’s emotions. Crying, shouting, laughing – these are all natural human emotions and can occur in 1on1s. There is no need (not to mention the goal) to stop the other person’s crying. It is a natural expression, just as in the course of nature it sometimes rains. Just stay present by paying attention to the person, and try to empathize, put yourself in the shoes of the person (regardless of whether I think their reaction is appropriate or justified). Often after crying, either another layer of emotion will emerge or the emotions will calm down and make room for a substantive discussion about what caused the crying. We’re usually not used to crying or any kind of emotions, especially in a business environment, but businesses and companies alike all consist of people so think about emotions as just a natural part of our work life and make sure your people understand that you see it that way.
- If it’s due to some disruptive company news or negative feedback, it may be a problem of a lack of empathy or insufficient time spent preparing feedback – so that can be a lesson for you too.
- On the other hand, if you’re not feeling well, watch your reactions – your feelings, your thoughts, your body’s reactions. It will help you become aware of what is going on inside you in those moments and how you tend to react, and it can also help you in your growth as a leader.
- In general, there are 3 main options in case something like this happens on a 1on1
- be there to support the person if that’s what the situation requires
- stop the meeting if you’ve struck a sensitive chord, agree on a follow-up where you can continue the conversation and give yourself and the other person time to digest and prepare.
- if the person is OK with it, try to understand what happened, why, and what you can do better next time
The other side attacks verbally
- What’s happening:
- There is a reason why they’re attacking (bad news, their personal life, etc.). If you handle the attack well, you may be able to address the real issue and help them with it.
- What to do:
- First of all, try to keep yourself calm. Remind yourself you are here to help the other person. Stay (mentally) in a position where you understand that you don’t have to persuade the other person or prove any point.
- My way is to say out loud what is happening and that I feel attacked for some reason and I don’t feel comfortable. This usually helps the other person realize what they are doing and stop with the attack eventually.
- Another (more controversial) option is to mirror the person’s behavior and communicate in a similar fashion. Even though I would not recommend it in general, it helps the person understand that something strange is happening. Once they realize it, you can discuss the topic itself.
- Then we have the chance to discuss the topic again why this is happening, understand what triggered it and work with it in the following meetings.
- If needed (de-escalation does not work), stop the current meeting early, schedule a follow-up and prepare for it.
Asking for a raise
- This is something that a lot of managers dread, even though it’s a pretty common thing in all companies and the solution is pretty simple😊
- Look at the data and the results of the person including feedback from the team members (if you lack feedback, gather a 360 from the team)
- Ask the person themselves to use the data to justify why they should get a raise
- Regardless of whether the raise is approved or not always link it to the personal development plan and performance evaluation (if you have any)
- Also – to avoid this question being a surprise – agree on a set date and time when this will be regularly discussed together with how you’ll talk about it (e.g. once a year in March). This way you will both come prepared for the discussion the next time it happens.
The other person doesn’t see the value, and boycotts the meetings
Ask one simple question on the first meeting (or in the kitchen if the meetings don’t even happen):
- What pisses you off at work? What is not working ideally at all and why?
When you start by asking this question, and then gradually start changing and improving things within your sphere of influence, the person starts to understand that if feedback is given, things are actually changing so those 1on1s are not a waste of time at all 😉
Here, similar to team retrospectives, make all actions, changes and agreements visible somewhere and track progress. Because if it remains just another chat, the resistance towards 1on1s will remain, but if the person sees e.g. after a quarter how many things actually improved, it’s a completely different discussion.
You need to communicate tough news
A lot of you probably jumped straight to this section because you are currently in the process of reorganizing the company, moving people to different teams or giving tough feedback during your performance evaluation cycle. So how to approach it?
- If it’s tough feedback you need to communicate, focus on the preparation and use my favorite AID Model. This will help you focus on the right things, be specific and finish with what you expect from the person to change
- As an alternative, the tool that goes even deeper into one’s feelings and needs is called Non-violent communication. Use this alternative option if you believe there will definitely be an emotional response.
Changes and reorganizations
- My first and most important recommendation is to follow the structure of the so-called Golden Circle from Simon Sinek. What this means in practice is you start with “WHY?” then move to “HOW?” and finally finish with the “WHAT?” part. The benefit that this approach brings is simple – it focuses on providing relevant context. Most of the time we are used to communicating mainly the WHAT part but the 3-question structure helps you prepare the message so that you start with the most important thing (WHY) and avoid a lot of misunderstandings.
- The reason this works well is that emotions and trust are connected in our brains on the WHY level (for details see the video above). And if you start communicating like that there is a much better chance to connect with the other person on the emotional level. On the other hand if you would start with WHAT, the emotions connected to the tough news would surface instantly as the person would be missing the purpose and context. Try switching to this approach next time you have your “tough news” 1on1.
- Secondly, when thinking in the terms of the Golden circle, it actually brings you to ask yourself whether you believe in what you are trying to communicate. Because if you don’t, you will not be able to “sell it” to anyone else anyway. If you have doubts about the upcoming changes, keep asking “Why?” and go as high as you need in the company hierarchy to be given a good enough response that you are OK with communicating forward.
In conclusion, humanness and authenticity are more important than any structure and perfect execution. Even if you don’t follow the tips from the article, the most important thing is that the other side feels that you care about them. They see that things are actually getting better, and they understand that 1on1 meetings are a safe space to discuss even difficult topics. If you can do this, you’ve done more than enough to maximize the potential of the meeting. The sense of trust and belonging thanks to your work on the 1on1 level will be a key differentiator for you as a leader. Because when you find the time for your people it often makes a huge difference for them if they start looking for a job elsewhere or not – remember, almost 80% of people change their jobs because of their boss and 1on1s are the means to change that if you do them right.