Monday, March 2, 2009

How to Have an Effective 1 on 1

Managers, do you have regular 1 on 1s with your employees? For all of you March madness fanatics, no, I'm not talking about pick-up basketball. You know, those regular meetings with each and every one of your employees, where you sit down together and talk?

I’m amazed at the number of managers who don’t. Some of them don’t know any better – often the new ones. Perhaps they had poor role models, and they don’t understand the value of them. Or they don’t know how to. If you’re reading this, then you may be one of these. Good for you, you’re in the right place!

But I’m pretty sure there are a lot of managers that don’t have them because they just don’t enjoy talking to their employees. These are the kind of managers that see dealing with employees as distractions to getting their real work done. They avoid them or dread them because they might have to actually solve problems, make decisions, listen to complaints, or deal with messy emotions. They’re rather shut the door, pull the blinds, and send emails all day.

I wish these kinds of managers would just find jobs where they can apply their talents but not have direct reports. I’ll bet they are good at what they do… but they’re sure not suited for leadership.

After all, 1 on 1s and meetings are where leaders lead. That’s your opportunity to inspire, influence, motivate, coach, listen, solve problems, make decisions, and create an environment where employees feel energized. You can’t do this with email – it has to be f2f, eyeball to eyeball. Or, if managing remotely, at least over the phone.

So the most important tip to having effective 1 on 1s is: understand why they are important, that they are the manifestation of leadership, and treat them as the most important part of your day.

Once you’ve done this, the rest will come naturally. Here are a few suggestions to get you started, or enhance your 1 on 1s if you’re already having them and want to improve:

1. Schedule them out for 6-12 months, either weekly or bi-weekly, for about an hour each. Don’t wait for them to happen, because they won’t. Make it your employee’s responsibility to schedule them, but set the expectation and hold them accountable. It’s not an option.

2. Don’t cancel them. Yes, things come up – so reschedule if needed. If you’re always canceling them, you’re sending the message that they aren’t important.

3. Shut your door, don’t answer your phone, turn your cell phone off, and give 100% attention. If you don’t have an office, then use a conference room or other distraction free area.

4. Always let your employees go first. Clear their agenda first – it’s their time. Then cover any items on your list.

5. Make sure you don’t just discuss performance goals, metrics, quotas, or project updates. Save time to also talk about their development, job satisfaction, and yes, even a little time to get to know your employees as people.

6. At least once a year, set aside an entire meeting to have a career and development discussion. Review individual development plans on a quarterly basis.

7. You don’t need to follow the same rigid structure for every one of your employees. Tailor meetings to the needs and style of each employee. Some may prefer informal with no agenda - others may prefer agendas and formality. It doesn’t matter what you prefer- 1 on 1 are all about them, not you.

8. Like many of you, I’ve learned a lot about effective and ineffective leaders from my own managers. One manager gave me this piece of wise advice I’ll never forget: “How do you measure the effectiveness of your 1 on 1s? Take a look at your employees when the meeting is over. Are they leaving energized, enthusiastic, and motivated? Are they smiling? Or are their shoulders sagging, eyes glazed, and dragging themselves out of your office? That’s your scorecard as a leader.”

9. Kind of a follow-up to #8; don’t make your 1 on 1s feel like a complete physical exam (with prostrate check) to your employees. They shouldn’t be interrogations under a bright light.

10. Don’t accumulate a to-do list for each employee, and then use 1 on1s to unload your list. There’s nothing like leaving a meeting with a two pages of action items and wondering how you’re going to fit all the extra work into your week.

11. Be a barrier remover, not a gatekeeper. When an employee comes up with an idea, don’t shoot it full of holes (another fine “coachable moment”, right?), add so many of your own ideas to the idea that it’s no longer your employee’s, it yours; or add extra steps so that it takes longer to implement. Think about that last one… I just learned this recently, and it’s challenging. Instead of adding steps to your employee’s ideas, challenge yourself as a leader to remove steps, or barriers, so that the employee can implement the idea even faster.

12. Save some time to just talk. It’s OK to spend a few moments just asking what’s new, how’s life, how’s the family, etc....

13. Ask for feedback, opinions, input to important decisions, and advice.

14. Always try to end on a positive note – let your employee know how well they are doing (if it’s genuine); and how much you appreciate their efforts.

How about you? Do you have any favorite dos or don’t for 1 on 1s?


HR Good_Witch said...

Great post. I just discovered your blog - I'll be watching for more!

Dan McCarthy said...

HR Good Witch -
Welcome to Great Leadership! I'm glad you did, and look forward to hearing from you.

Tom said...

Dan, first I must say thank you for your blog. I found it about a week ago and have been trying to catch up on your posts.

Regarding 1:1s, I agree that they are under-valued by management. It's ashame, employees are the foundation of any company.

The one comment that I would add from my experience is to share something back with your employees; a recent lessons learned, a good book, something that shows them that your human. If you can relate the topic to their own desires, needs, wants, it's just that more powerful.

Keep up the great work!

Dan McCarthy said...

Tom -
Welcome! And thanks for the additional tip.

Ask a Manager said...

Great post. I agree that too many managers push them off; somehow they feel more expendable than a lot of other things on the to-do list, and you're right that they should be as inviolable as possible.

Dan McCarthy said...

AaM -
Thanks! And in case I'm not the only one.... (:

Great Leadership's word of the day: inviolable
Pronunciation [in-vahy-uh-luh-buhl]
1. prohibiting violation; secure from destruction, violence, infringement, or desecration: an inviolable sanctuary; an inviolable promise.
2. incapable of being violated; incorruptible; unassailable: inviolable secrecy.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. 1:1 meetings were one of the first things I implemented with my direct reports - and directed them to implement with theirs. You'd be amazed (well, you clearly wouldn't be, but others in my organization certainly were) how effective this kind of meeting can be.

Those managers working for me hadn't seen the concept - there's your poor role modeling you mentioned. I still tell them that if all they have to talk about with me is what they did over the weekend, that's fine. We're not meeting to solve any deep existential business crises, unless they have one they want to share.

Me? Wordy? To get to the point, one of my favorite dos is: absolutely make time for personal conversation. It's an excellent way to get personal information that you can use later when rewarding people, and it strengthens the working relationship a heck of a lot better than a good-morning nod on the way to your office will.

Dan McCarthy said...

Sadistic -
Thanks for the additional color! You can be as wordy as you want, it's all good.

Anonymous said...

Simply Mind Blowing.Excellent.

With Warm Regards

BomiM said...

Hey Dan,

The very soul of employee engagement begins with a structured 1 X 1 where every good leader has an opportunity to build his understanding of the folks that work with him / her. And, when I say "understanding" it goes beyond skill sets to a genuine "caring and sharing" of the highs and lows that the person is going through while trying to put in their 100% into what is being expected from him / her.

I cannot start to explain the goodness these 1 X 1 gave our team at Dell - India to help build it from a 7,000 to 15,000 strong force within a time span of 24 months ... and this would just not have been possible if the pipeline had not plugged the leaks (attrition). The 1 x 1's were the perfect heat checks where the person in the team was put off by something that the organisation is not paying attention to or simply drifting off.


Pawel Brodzinski said...

Personally, beyond things which are on your list (not all of them), I do one thing differently. I neither have a schedule nor I plan very carefully these meetings. On the other hand I use every possible chance to make ad-hoc 1-on-1s.

I found that people feel more comfortable when they do 1-on-1 whenever they want to talk, not when schedule tells them to do that. That's why trying to go with this kind of talk barely works when done as a second part of performance appraisals etc.

Dan McCarthy said...

Debashish - wow, thanks!

BomiM - that's an amazing story that speaks to the power of regular 1on1s. Thanks.

Pawel - Thanks. As for scheduled or ad-hoc, I think that a manager can still do both, but I've found with most managers, they become less "inviolable" (see comment above)if not scheduled at regular intervals.

BomiM said...

... and my two bit of experience on unscheduled 1X1s is that the members in my team that desire to seek unlimited attention cheat the others off an equal opportunity.

Here's a twist to it, I have the unscheduled one's over lunch and tea break but ensure absolutely each one gets an opportunity to share. More often than not ... they take away what they've come for.


Anonymous said...

Incredible post! It's all common sense, but I would make this required reading for all leadership -thanks for this!

Anonymous said...

Great post, Dan. Most managers would become dramatically more effective if they started following your recommendations.

I think structured 1 on 1s are good. And they're an excellent first step for managers who want to get into the habit of talking to their team members more.

I suggest to people who've been in my programs that the first commandment of great supervision is: "Show up a lot."

If you show up a lot, the simple fact of you showing up will not be a special event. If you show up a lot, you will see your team members in their natural habitat and learn more about them and how they work. If you show up a lot they will see you in their natural habitat and learn about you.

When you show up, listen and talk. Done right, we call that conversation. Then you have the opportunity to coach, counsel, encourage and correct.

If you have something that needs praising or correction, don't wait for a formal session. The further you get from the actual event, the less likely it is that what you say will have any effect.

CherryPie said...

Very good advice!

Dan McCarthy said...

BomiM - good idea!
Anon - Thanks!
Wally -
Great advice!Thanks for "showing up".

Anonymous said...

Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.

Wally Bock

Dan McCarthy said...

Wally -
That's great, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Good post. I do remember when I was a first-time manager I was having 121's with all my staff in my office. I'd shut the door but if the phone rang I'd answer it.

A few months later I asked for feedback on my performance from my staff - the biggest issue? They hated their 121's because I always answered the phone and that was distracting.

Two more points if I point 5. I personally like to split the 121's into 2 different types. 1. operational and 2. development. That it is less confusing.

And once in a while, take your staff to a local coffee shop for their 121 - as long as you are not going to talk about something confidential.


Dan McCarthy said...

Andrew -
Well, at least you asking for feedback. Some never do. Good tips, thanks.

Anonymous said...


Great post and points. I especially appreciate your observation about "managers that see dealing with employees as distractions to getting their real work done". This attitude, which in some places is pervasive throughout, is a huge obstacle to solid leadership and good performance management. Thanks!

Dan McCarthy said...

Ann -

Anonymous said...

In my early days in IT we had an IT manager and there was a queue outside his door to have a 1-on-1.

We wanted to see who would be the first to chuck him out the window, he was useless.

So many of the other managers were able to utilise the 1-on-1 to great effect.

But, alas, we must look to HR's inability in appointing this guy as a HR manager in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Two points worth noting in my opinion which can drive 1:1 further effective:

(a) In your self assessment, does your emplyee believe that you can make a positive difference to their career & they can look up to you?

This is the key motivational factor "What is in it for me?" built on the top of the basic trust & respect.

(b) What is their current level of emotional engagement (passion) in their job?

This is a clear Litmus test which can set the focus of the 1:1 discussion points and engage more at EQ level (Keep IQ based data ready in your pocketto back your statements :)