How to do one-on-ones as a manager

If you are a line manager, your most important responsibility is to ensure the people you line manage are happy, engaged and are working as effectively as they can. One of the best ways to achieve this is to have quality one-on-ones with your line reports. Here are some of my thoughts on how to accomplish that.

Why have one-on-ones with your line reports

Let’s start off with why we are doing one-on-ones in the first place. During the one-on-one, you are trying to get to know your lines better. You are trying to understand their current state of mind. You are trying to find out if there’s anything troubling them at work. You are trying to find what makes them motivated. Once you find out all these things, you need to take appropriate actions that benefit your lines, and communicate what you are doing to them. You are doing all of this to make your lines happier and more engaged at work, and in return they will be more productive and hard working.

General advice for better one-on-ones

During the one-on-one, it is your line’s time to talk. You shouldn’t be talking that much. The more you say, the less you are learning about your line, and the aim should be for you to get to know your people.

To get them to talk openly, you need to build trust with your lines. You will earn their trust over time if you are having quality one-on-ones. Having a high level of trust makes it easier for you both to give candid feedback. The more your line reports trust you, the better they will respond to your feedback.

Building trust is easier if your lines have psychological safety. It’s easier for them to speak up when they feel safe at work. You and the other people leaders in your organisation need to build a culture where it is safe to fail.

As a manager, you need to feel comfortable giving constructive feedback to your lines. The feedback should always be honest and fair. You owe it to your lines to tell them when they are doing something wrong, and make them aware of what it is they need to do to improve. This feedback will help with their personal development.

It is really important to find out if your lines are facing any issues at work. Sometimes they will not tell you, but if you sense that something is wrong, you need to ask appropriate questions to find out. Asking open questions will help your lines open up about their feelings. You need to get to the bottom of their problems, and think of ways to help resolve them.

You should be regularly asking them where they want to go with their career, and you should help them create a realistic plan to get there. Work together to help set their goals.

It is really important to take notes during your catch ups. You don’t want to forget what your lines tell you, especially if there’s an action for you to take away from the meeting. Just be aware that these notes might be seen by other people, and your lines may ask to see them at some point. Make sure your notes are factual, fair and safe to share.

Consider the location for your catch ups. Some people prefer getting out of the office. If your organisation is generous and has the budget, take your lines to a coffee shop. Some lines might want to go for a walking catch up. Just ask your lines what their preference is.

How frequent

I find weekly one-on-ones work the best. You can respond to problems and give feedback to your lines in a timely manner. I have had great feedback from my lines that weekly catch ups works for them too.

How long

I have found 30 minutes is the ideal length of time. Longer meetings tend to lead to us talking about normal day-to-day work, or going off topic altogether.

One-on-one structure

To get your lines to open up, you are going to have to ask them questions. You should prepare beforehand, and have a few relevant questions you want to ask them. I find having a structure helps keep the conversation flowing, but don’t be too strict with it, as something could be raised unexpectedly that changes the flow of the conversation.

Here is the general structure I use for my one-on-ones:

  1. Ask how they are in general. Some lines might talk about work straight away, and others might talk about their personal lives. Getting a better understanding of how they are outside of work can help set the rapport and help to understand them better, but try and steer the conversation back towards work.
  2. Address any feedback I have for them. I find doing this earlier in the meeting is better, as it can change the mood depending on the type of feedback I am giving. It also gives you time to discuss the feedback.
  3. Ask what they’ve been working on and how they feel it’s going. You are not getting a project update here, you are trying to find out how your line feels about their work. Ask if they can think of ways to improve what they’re doing, and ask if they need help with anything.
  4. Ask them how they feel about any relevant changes that have happened in the organisation recently. I do this as some people react very negatively to change, and I want to make sure they are OK with it. For example, was someone else on the team recently promoted? Did the organisation announce a new acquisition? Did the roadmap suddenly change?
  5. Take the opportunity to ask about the progress of their personal development goals. Every organisation will do something different for personal development, but the one-on-one is a good time to keep on top of goals. If you need to spend more time talking about goals, you should book in a separate meeting for this.
  6. Ask if there’s anything else they want to talk about, or if there’s anything you should be made aware of. You might be surprised by what they bring up.
  7. Confirm any actions raised in the catch up, and assign who’s going to do them.

I try to regularly ask for feedback on how I am doing as a manager. More specifically, I ask if there’s anything I could improve on, or if there anything I could do to support them better.

At the end of the catch up, I sometimes ask thought provoking questions. This has received very positive feedback from my lines. Their answers give me great insight about them, and they often make suggestions that benefit the team or the organisation.

Here are some example questions that I got from this tool:

  • (Long Term Goals) What are your big dreams in life? Are you making progress on them?
  • (Team Relations) Who on the team do you have the most difficulty working with? Why?
  • (Happiness) What part of your job do you wish you didn’t have to do?
  • (Company Improvement) What is the #1 Problem at our company? Why?
  • (Manager Improvement) What could I do to make you enjoy your work more?

Over time you are going to find a structure that works for you and your lines. One structure might not work for everyone. It’s really important to keep asking your lines for feedback, to make sure that the one-on-ones are working for them.

What to do the rest of the week

After my one-on-ones, I try to complete any actions that were raised as soon as possible. If an action only takes a few minutes, such as sending an email or a Slack message, I do it immediately after the catch up.

If your lines raised an issue that is within your control, you should try and resolve it yourself. If it is out of your control, you need to seek out the best person in the organisation who can help.

If you assigned any actions to your lines, you should remind them to do it before your next one-on-one.

Throughout the week, I sometimes receive feedback from my other colleagues about how my lines are performing. If it is urgent then I relay the feedback straight away, otherwise I add them to my notes, and raise the feedback in the next catch up.

Mistakes managers make in one-on-ones

In no particular order, here’s a list of mistakes many managers make with one-on-ones:

  1. Using the time to only talk about day-to-day work. It is also an opportunity to discuss their development, and make sure they are happy with their work.
  2. Not following through on actions. You will create false hope that you are trying to resolve problems, and it will break the trust between you and your lines.
  3. Managers talking too much. How are you going to find out about your lines if you do all the talking?
  4. Cancelling last minute. If you are unable to attend, give decent notice as a common courtesy. You should try and reschedule too.
  5. Being inconsistent with one-one-ones, or only doing them every so often when you feel like it. There is no benefit in doing just a few scattered throughout the year. You will be unable to build trust with your lines if you are unreliable and inconsistent.
  6. Not taking any notes. You risk forgetting something, such as an action you promised to do. When it comes to doing annual reviews, you will have no evidence to back up what you are saying.

Final words

Having regular one-on-ones will help you get to know your lines better. Aim to have weekly one-on-ones, lasting around 30 minutes each time. By the end of each session, you should have a good idea of how your lines are feeling about their work, and be aware of any problems they are currently facing. You may end up with a list of actions that you need to perform, and make sure you do them!

How do you do one-on-ones? I would love to hear what you have to say! The best way to get in touch with me is on twitter @irmbrady.

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