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Are your one-on-one meetings falling flat? Try these tips


As a leader, you know how beneficial one-on-one meetings can be. Whether with staff or colleagues, the challenge is how to hold effective one-on-one meetings. Tips and tactics abound, but ultimately, the goal remains the same: support.

Whatever you do in planning, facilitating and following up on your meetings, the goal should revolve around support.

Common mistakes

The most common mistake leaders make when planning a one-on-one meeting is to make the meeting about status updates. Yes, this type of meeting is common. But it’s time-consuming and tends to be, let’s say, not the most interesting of discussions. It’s actually a poor use of everyone’s time, both management and staff alike.

If all you want to know is the status of a project, use technology as much as possible. Email, online intranet work platforms, text messages – these are just a few ways you can glean that type of information while still respecting your time and that of your staff. This also signals respect.

Show you respect their time, too, when setting up meetings. Make sure you check the person’s calendar, if you can. Alternatively, proffer a few days and times that work for you.

You should also make sure you don’t overschedule yourself. The last thing you want to do is double book or cancel a meeting at the last minute. Sure, life can happen, but if it becomes commonplace for you to cancel, you’ll be sending the wrong message to staff and colleagues.

Being too rigid, cold or overly “professional” in ordinary meetings can also be a mistake, too. You don’t want the person you’re meeting with to have to feel they must always watch their Ps and Qs. And work to be seen as a trustworthy person who wants give and take. You shouldn’t make them question whether you really want their opinion or do you really want to set them up for a “gotcha.”

Ban distractions

To have an effective one-on-one meeting, you should do everything you can to ban distractions. Even the simplest intrusion (be it a ringing phone, knock on the door or email ping) can derail a meeting attendee’s train of thought. 

What can you do to ban distractions? In the office, you can:

  • Make it a practice to silence all cell phones.
  • Mute or forward all calls on desk phones.
  • Put your computer in sleep mode to avoid notification dings and pings.
  • Close your door and put a “meeting in progress” sign on the door.

In remote or virtual meetings, you can:

  • Again, silence all cell phones.
  • Mute or forward all calls on desk or wall phones.
  • Put secondary computers in sleep mode.
  • Ensure cameras are on. (Body language is just as important as voice tone.)
  • Close doors if you have them.
  • Avoid extraneous people noise by scheduling the meeting at a mutually agreeable time where the least number of people will be home.
  • Place pets in another room, if possible.

Plan your meeting

Always start your meeting plan with the goal in mind. Will you need to meet for a whole hour, or would 30 minutes suffice? If you’re in your first one-on-one, you might want to schedule the entire hour for the first two or three meetings so you can get used to the flow. After you get that down, you can think about shortening the meetings.

Before your meeting

Once you understand your goal, you can undertake the following endeavors.

  • Set and share your agenda: Make this a collaborative effort. Always ask:
  • What do you need to discuss in our one-on-one meeting?
    • Are you facing any challenges?
    • How can I help you?
    • That way, you’ll also know what’s needed from you.
  • Pre-request information: If you are going to need some information from the person you’re meeting with, make sure you send them a request for information well ahead of time. They need to have the opportunity to gather whatever it is you’re asking for, and by asking so far in advance, you’ll send the message that you acknowledge they’re working on many things. You’re not asking them to drop what they’re doing to supply you with what you need.
  • Secure a quiet room: If you are in the office, and you have a door, you’re all set. But if your workspace is open, you’ll want to secure a room with a door where you can be outside of distractions.

During your meeting

There should be a flow that sets the stage before you get to the meat of the meeting.

  • Be human: Don’t just jump into the heart of the meeting. You have to establish a rapport. Relax the atmosphere by asking something appropriately personal about them: “How’re the kids?” or “How’s your softball team doing?” This will show that you value and care for them.
  • Recognize wins: Organizations that are more supportive and complimentary perform better than ones that are not.

Then, you can get down to the purpose of the meeting:

  • Review objectives: Go over what all you’re meeting about. Discuss challenges and directly address your employee’s concerns.
  • Ask a lot of open-ended questions: Effective one-on-one meetings are composed of questions that get to the heart of concerns.
  • Set expectations: The two of you should decide together what excellence or success looks like for each objective or challenge. Agree on what each other’s responsibilities will be and make notes. That way, when it comes time to give constructive feedback, (which should happen often, not just at review time), you’ll have something to draw on.
  • Make commitments: Do this out loud, then type them up in an email right there in the meeting and send it off.

At the end of the meeting

  • Discuss the long term: How does the project at hand affect your employee’s goals? Is this project one that is building knowledge, skills and abilities that will translate into higher pay or a promotion?
  • Set up your next meeting: Get your calendars out to secure the next time you should meet. Send out the meeting request right there while you’re still in the meeting, that way the task won’t fall by the wayside. Also, you’re sending the message that they are a priority. Plan to discuss how often these meetings should take place and finalize meeting frequency as needed.
  • Don’t run long: Dragging out a meeting says you don’t value your employee’s time.
  • Say thank you: Thank your employee for allowing the time to meet with them. This produces a sense of gratitude and respect.

After the meeting

Actions taken after the meeting are just as important as preparing for the meeting. Here are some after-meeting action items to consider:

  • Review your meeting notes and follow up with adding any commitments to your calendar and to-do list.
  • Create a sense of accountability by checking in with your employee/colleague as needed regarding follow-up items so they don’t fall off the radar.

Summing it all up

Planning and carrying out effective one-on-one meetings can become second nature if you get into the habit of going through these steps. Once you establish your routine, you’ll see that your employees will actually look forward to their one-on-ones with you. And that will only have positive results for them, for you and for your company.

Want to learn more? Download our complementary magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.