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Your one-on-one meetings are broken. Here’s how to fix them

Have you started to feel like your regular check-ins are a waste of time?

Your one-on-one meetings are broken. Here’s how to fix them
[Photo: Reicaden/iStock]

Managers, have you started to feel like one-on-ones with your reports are an enormous waste of time?

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If you answered yes, chances are that they feel the same way. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Done right, one-on-ones can be one of the most valuable and meaningful meetings of the week—for both you and for the person reporting to you. Getting there starts by dropping the formality, and shifting from status updates or harping on small, technical mistakes and instead focusing on collaborative experimentation.

I’m an organizational psychologist with expertise in the assessment and development of effective leadership across organizations. As a member of Humu’s People Science team, I apply my background to the workplace using micro-interventions (which we call nudges) to boost leadership effectiveness and organizational trust. That includes helping managers empower and mentor their teams. Based on my experience, here are five scientifically backed ways to make the most from one-on-one meetings:

Get out of “work mode”

As a leader, you set the tone for the meeting. Make it a point to create an environment in which each team member feels safe being genuine. One way to do this is to incorporate open conversations that help you get to know each other beyond your work roles and responsibilities.

To build closer connections, make your one-on-ones walking meetings from time to time. Or have a coffee at a nearby café. Clarify that the purpose is largely social and that you’d love to catch up on what’s going on with them. Switching up your regular one-on-ones routine can increase employees’ comfort levels and give them a better chance of opening up. 

Drop the status update

Say you manage five people. If a large portion of your one-on-ones time involves receiving updates on completed or planned tasks, you’re spending upward of two hours every week on status updates. Worse, when you focus only on short-term issues, your reports are more likely to perceive that they are expendable and will naturally feel less committed to you and to the organization.

Find an alternative channel for status updates. A few suggestions: Schedule brief team meetings on Mondays where each member gives a quick, two-minute update. Or start an email thread and have employees respond with a bullet point list of tasks. You could also keep a running Google doc or create a Slack channel specifically for updates.

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Ask for input

Often, people jump into status reports as a way to prove that they are making valuable contributions to the team. To signal to your team members that you have faith in their abilities, show that you’re interested in hearing their perspectives. Involve them in decisions or invite their take on issues you’ve been thinking about.

You can further build trust and psychological safety by asking your reports to give you feedback on recent changes or decisions that impacted their work, or to share what they see as the biggest challenges your team faces. By making it a point to show that you value their opinions, you can help your team members feel included—and more credible.

Make feedback about bridging the gap

The primary purpose of a one-on-one should be to help your report learn and grow—which involves giving them specific, actionable feedback. The best way to position feedback is to acknowledge the progress a person has made, and then clearly communicate any gaps between where the person’s performance is and where you want it to be. Research shows that feedback-focused comparisons (e.g. “You’re not doing as well as Megan”) or on correcting small details tends to backfire. So once you’ve outlined an end goal, give clear steps on how your report can get there, and emphasize that you are confident in their ability to bridge the gap.

Remember: Don’t forget to offer praise. A little encouragement can go a long way toward making your team feel valued and motivated to tackle new challenges.

Embrace experimentation

You and your report should be on a learning journey together. Set aside time to collaboratively brainstorm a few small things your report can try that might make them more effective, especially when taking on a new challenge. Together, pick one idea, and have them commit to testing it out.

In your next one-on-one, check-in on the experiment. What went well? What didn’t? Can you modify the initial idea to make it better? It may take a few rounds, but eventually your team members will get the hang of workplace experimentation—and appreciate your support. By giving your reports more opportunities to be creative with their work, you’ll also help them become more productive, innovative, and committed.

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Tom Skiba is a People Scientist at Humu who has specialized in the assessment and development of leadership potential and holds a PhD in industrial-organizational psychology.

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