Unlocking the Potential of 1:1 Meetings
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Unlocking the Potential of 1:1 Meetings

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Unlocking the Potential of 1:1 Meetings

Steven Rogelberg is a professor of Organizational Science, Management, and Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the university’s founding Director of Organizational Science. He has been studying teams, leadership, engagement, and meetings at work for decades. For the past three years, he set out to improve 1:1s via three studies: a global survey of 1,200 knowledge workers, a US survey of 250 employees, and interviews with about 50 top leaders at Fortune 100 companies, such as Google, PepsiCo, Warner Brothers, and Bank of America.

Below, Steven shares five key insights from his new book, Glad We Met: The Art and Science of 1:1 Meetings. Listen to the audio version—read by Steven himself—in the Next Big Idea App.

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There are approximately 200 million 1:1 work meetings globally per day. This comes to a time and dollar investment of about $1.25 billion every day. Yet, I found that nearly 50 percent of employees found their 1:1s lacked substance and were suboptimal, even when their managers rated them as positive.

1:1s address tactical and practical needs around getting work done, but they also fundamentally influence a direct report’s experience at work and how they envision their future at the organization. 1:1s also promote manager success. Namely, managers are judged by the success and achievements of those they lead and 1:1s elevate the performance of their workers. Conducting 1:1s successfully is foundational to being a manager. 1:1s are where leadership happens in a deep and meaningful way.

1. Go with their idea—even if you think yours is a bit better.

The biggest predictor of 1:1 value is the direct report’s active participation in the meeting, as measured by the amount of time they talk relative to the manager. Stated differently, the biggest predictor of ineffectiveness is when a manager talks more than the direct report.

The ideal balance appears to be the direct report speaking between 50 – 90 percent of the time. While the agenda will dictate some of this, the manager should actively avoid talking more than the direct report. This is not as easy as it sounds, given research showing that talking about ourselves fires up the same brain areas as sex and good food—we talk about ourselves because it feels good. But resist the temptation.

Encourage your direct report to share solutions to problems they bring to you. If the direct report’s solution does not fully align with yours, but it is still viable, go with their idea. If you think there is a large gap in quality between your idea and theirs and the consequences of a wrong solution are high, then it is reasonable to push back. If there isn’t a big gap between your idea and theirs, the direct report’s generated solution is the better call. Accepting their idea conveys that you trust them and their judgment and promotes more commitment from the direct report to take action and persevere in the face of obstacles. Even in cases where you think there is a big gap between ideas in terms of quality, but there are no meaningful negative consequences associated with the direct report’s idea, it is still best to go with what they proposed. If their solution does not work out, you can debrief and try something different. But if it does work, it’s a win-win.

Pick your battles and be reasonable. The direct report should not have to match your solution every time, and you don’t know for a fact that your solution is the only path forward. Share your point of view in 1:1s, but pick those times thoughtfully so they don’t de-motivate your direct reports.

2. Meeting cadence.

The science is most aligned with a weekly or every-other-week approach. More than every two weeks of lag usually makes feedback and conversations less timely—something worthy of discussing may have occurred three weeks prior to the 1:1.

Also, with monthly meetings, there is a tremendous recency bias. This bias leads to discussions of what recently happened, rather than earlier happenings during the monthly period, as recent events are easier to recall.

“More than every two weeks of lag usually makes feedback and conversations less timely.”

Finally, 1:1s are most effective when they build off each other in a timely manner, as you can create momentum and alignment around developmental areas or desired actions. It is just inevitable that continuity and momentum suffer with long time lags between 1:1s.

3. No agenda or plan of action is a detriment.

Many managers assume that 1:1s are too informal for an agenda. Still, my research underscores that having a plan of what will be discussed is a strong predictor of the effectiveness of a 1:1, whether it is created in advance or at the meeting itself. Even more critical is the direct report’s involvement in its creation: Both direct reports and managers rated meetings highest when the direct report created the agenda, whether they did so alone or in conjunction with their manager.

The simplest agenda-building model, which also received a high rating of effectiveness, is called the listing approach. It involves the direct report and manager separately creating a list of topics to discuss. Then, at the meeting, the direct report works through their list first, followed by the manager working through their list (areas of overlap tend to get called out).

Alternatively, managers can organize the 1:1 through the following simple questions:

  • What would you like to talk about today?
  • How are things going with you and your team?
  • Any problems/concerns you would like to talk through?
  • Anything I can help you with?

The only caution with these approaches is that they tend to privilege immediate tactical issues and fires to be put out. This is somewhat problematic as we don’t want 1:1s to fall into a status update trap, as the full potential of 1:1s will not be realized. Thus, when the direct report or the manager are selecting areas of discussion, periodically weave in longer-horizon topics, such as career planning and developmental opportunities.

A few strategies can be used to aid in this effort: Dedicate 5-10 minutes at every meeting to something not tactical. Or dedicate one meeting out of every four to address longer-horizon topics. Or consider the use of a meeting template that always contains longer-term items. These approaches ensure that the 1:1 covers a range of topics over time and does not become predictable or stale.

A 1:1 is a dance of sorts. One person may be leading, but that is not enough. Both parties have a critical role in putting the dance together. Each party shapes the 1:1 and is responsible for its success or failure. The direct report plays an active role in making these meetings truly effective—in doing so, they help build the relationship and work to get needs met.

4. Know what you need as a direct report.

You can’t get what you want out of 1:1s unless you first know what you want. What are your top issues? What are your pressing needs? Don’t get bogged down by superficial topics, details, or things you think you should discuss. Figure out your meaningful short and long-term needs, hopes, and goals. Clarity of purpose helps prioritize and organize talking points and questions. This will ultimately increase the chances of 1:1 effectiveness. For example, here are some important questions a direct report can pose to a manager:

  • I am having some challenges and struggles with X. Can you help me think about how to navigate and address X successfully?
  • Given what is on my plate, what should I be prioritizing right now, and can you help me understand why?
  • To better help me understand the big picture, how does my work or the assignment you just gave me fit into the broader goals and strategy?
  • I would value your counsel. What can I do to prepare myself for greater opportunities or to pursue X interest of mine?
  • What feedback might you be able to share with me about how I’m doing at X or Y task?

Directs report shouldn’t just come to 1:1s with problems but also with potential solutions, even if half-baked. This signals proactiveness and a desire to tackle challenges constructively. Be willing to share your point of view, even if it differs from your managers. If disagreements or conflicts arise, work through the differences constructively. Remember, differences between parties are opportunities to learn different perspectives. The key is talking through them in ways that are not attacking or personal. Resolving differences can yield unique and integrative solutions.

Seeking help from others is crucial when taking on new challenges, confronting obstacles, consistently working under pressure to meet deadlines, and disentangling nebulous tasks and expectations. Help-seeking behaviors have been categorized by social psychologists into two main types: autonomous help-seeking and dependent help-seeking. Autonomous help-seeking can be understood as seeking information that enables individuals to be independent by accomplishing tasks and solving problems on their own. Dependent help-seeking refers to searching for a quick fix from someone else. This style of help-seeking conserves time and effort and leads to immediate gratification but typically doesn’t yield long-term self-sufficiency. Job performance ratings have been shown to have a positive relationship with autonomous help-seeking but a negative relationship with its dependent help-seeking.

Asking for help is not always easy. However, it is easier if you have a track record of offering help to others. For example, you can ask your manager: What are your priorities over the next X days, and how can I help you with this? An offer of help will surely be well-received, although it is not the primary purpose of the 1:1. It is a nice thing to do and can increase the chances of others stepping up to help you.

5. Managers think they’re better at leading 1:1s than they really are.

Sadly, managers’ self-ratings of their skills in conducting 1:1s appear inflated. They think they are better at them than what their directs say. Thus, organizations need to build systems for providing feedback to managers.

“Meeting 30 minutes each week with one of your team members totals around 25 hours over the course of a year.”

Although we traditionally view 1:1s as a workplace phenomenon, they can also be an at-home phenomenon. A strong case can be made for doing 1:1s with your children and others in your personal life. Namely, meeting weekly or bi-weekly for 30 minutes or so with your child, where you sit down to explore what is on their mind in an intentional way. This can go a long way in building relationships and promoting their thriving.

You may not want to put rigid calendar holds and scheduling around personal 1:1s like you would at work, but having pointed discussions with your kids with candor and openness—always paired with kindness—can overcome communication issues ranging from the trivial (loading the dishwasher wrong) to the crucial (finances, long-term goals, career fulfillment). I am not suggesting this be the only conversation you have with your kids; just like a 1:1 with a direct report, it is not the only conversation you would have. That said, it serves as an intentional tool to rise above the daily fray to solely focus on the other party—something many relationships lack in some form.

Overall, 1:1s are a critical focus area for leadership success and coaching. Meeting 30 minutes each week with one of your team members totals around 25 hours over the course of a year. Is that truly that much time to meet with your employees, given the incredible engagement and success outcomes associated with well-run 1:1s?

In the words of Adam Grant: “The most effective leaders give rather than take.” 1:1s are the perfect opportunity to help others, give to others, and, through both, thrive.

To listen to the audio version read by author Steven Rogelberg, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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