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The Biggest Problem with One on Ones and How you can Fix it

According to Gallup, employees whose managers hold regular meetings with them are almost three times as likely to be engaged as employees whose managers do not hold regular meetings with them. 

One on ones are awesome for building trust and connection with our direct reports and motivating them to improve.

But when I speak to employees about what they think about their one on ones they almost speak in guilty terms about how much they suck.

What is meant to be a wonderful opportunity for leaders to build a relationship with them ends up eroding trust.

Often, employees feel let down that their one on ones keep getting rescheduled sending a powerful message that they are not valued and their time isn’t as valuable as the manager’s time.

Other times, one on ones are used as an opportunity for their manager to focus on negative feedback, rather than positive solutions to modify performance. Employees get confused when they are told to change or improve, but are given no clear direction or constructive feedback.

And then some one on ones lack direction. The manager asks some general questions, the conversation goes nowhere, so it then becomes "well, now I've got you here" and the discussion goes to company problems rather than individual performance. It becomes another work meeting and the employee leaves feeling deflated and ignored.

If you are like most managers, you run one on ones based on how your previous managers have run them with you. And you run them because you know they are important to build connection.

Most of you are probably ensuring you don't do what bad managers have done to you in the past, so you start with some friendly chit chat, give positive recognition and then ask some questions. You probably focus on tasks and priorities.

It might seem to go well the first few times, but then you notice your direct report is often quiet and they don't have much to say. So you reduce the frequency and touch points. When you do run an infrequent one on one, your direct report has so many complaints and issues that you find your one one ones go for over an hour.

And the problem isn't so much that your direct report is an introvert or even a complainer. The biggest problem is that you haven't been taught the art of building safe and trustworthy one on ones.

The Art of Building Safe and Trustworthy One on Ones

If you ask employees to talk about their positive one on one experiences it was when the meeting was all about them.

Goals and actions from the last meeting were discussed and followed up. What their boss expected of them was clarified, so they could stop second guessing and stressing themselves around their decisions. And they felt like somebody had their back instead of being left to my their devices. 

Typically, the employee got to do the most speaking.

According to Stephen Rogelberg, in the HBR article "Make the Most of your One-on-One Meetings," 50-90% is the ideal talk time of an employee in a one on one.

It's a misperception that one on ones are for managers. They are for direct reports. It's their time to ask questions, get the support they need and better understand the meaning of their work and their future opportunities.

Feeling heard, valued and appreciated helps employees feel that they can trust their boss which makes them feel more motivated to working on their goals.

In the Integrated Trust Building System, from the book, Trusted to Thrive, (get a free chapter here) one on ones are important interactions that leaders need to do that sit in the intersection between safety and connection (where it says meetings, in the diagram below).



Our brains need three factors to trust our boss, our teams and our company. They are safety, connection and future. As humans we perform better, when we can ask questions around these three domains.

In one on ones, leaders need to provide the space for employees to ask questions, so that you can help them feel safe, connected and part of the team's future plans. This includes:

Fostering safetyHelp people feel safe to learn, improve and share concerns.

Creating connection Help people feel connected to you and the team. Provide clarity around purpose and meaning of their work. 

Meaningful future - Demonstrate that people have future career opportunities and you are working towards a bright future.

These all work towards creating shared trust. Where both you and your direct report work together to understand and trust one another.

And this requires that employees are given the autonomy to lead their own one on one. What I teach in my Mastermind programs and coaching, is how leaders can run a one on one that includes the three important domains. But they don't choose the questions - their one on one does.

When people complain about one on ones, it's usually because they are task focused and not meaning focused. Employees enjoy one on ones where they can ask questions about their future and work out with their manager the potential opportunities for them. Revamp your one on ones so that they are development focused. Employees feel more excited and inspired about the future, when there is a focus on the positive future that awaits them.

Because that's what inspires employees and keeps them loyal to the company. After all, a 2019 Gallup survey found that 51% of exiting employees say that in the three months before they left, neither their manager nor any other leader spoke with them about their job satisfaction or future with the organisation.

While the biggest problem with a one on one is that most managers haven't been trained to run them effectively, the best thing you can do to improve them is to use an agenda.

Great one on one's have an agenda that is co-created with the employee and their manager. This gets employees to buy-in to the process and more likely to contribute. 

The benefits of an agenda ensure that your one on ones are more strategic, employees have more of say in the discussion and you provide the right structure to help employees think more deeply about their needs to excel in their role.

Otherwise, without an agenda one on ones can get lost at sea. They go overtime, they touch on the wrong subjects and they forget the most important person in the room - the direct report and addressing their practical and personal requirements.

If you want to learn The Art of Building Safe and Trustworthy One-on-Ones and get access to a game changing agenda template, come and join the Tribe of Trusted Leaders - Leadership Mastermind Program. There are a couple of places left.


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