Brokerage Ops the March 2024 issue

One Meeting People Want More Of

One-on-ones are the underused tool for improving relationships and performance.
By Kimberly Paterson Posted on March 3, 2024

However, contrary to perceptions, new research shows there is one meeting people want more of: one-on-ones with their managers. Steven Rogelberg, Chancellor’s Professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and a pioneering researcher on meeting effectiveness, studied 4,000 knowledge workers to better understand employee meeting preferences. His findings reveal three valuable insights for leaders tasked with managing others.

  • There’s a gap between people’s preferred frequency of one-on-ones and actual use of these tête-à-têtes. Weekly one-on-ones are the preference, in general, across job levels and countries. However, Rogelberg’s data show that slightly less than half of employees had weekly one-on-one meetings with their supervisors.
  • The desire for frequency increases with seniority. Surprisingly, the higher up employees were in the organization, the more often they wanted to meet with their manager.
  • Leaders think their meetings with direct reports are more effective than they are. Nearly half of team members rated their one-on-ones as suboptimal. Leaders’ self-ratings portrayed a more positive picture.

The ROI of One on Ones

Effective one-on-ones improve productivity and avoid misfires by setting clear expectations and surfacing workplace issues before they become problems. When one-on-ones are held on a consistent basis, they reduce spontaneous interruptions from either party by holding non-urgent items for scheduled check-ins. The meetings help build trust and create a feedback loop that increases engagement, enhances performance and supports employee development. Most importantly, well run one-on-ones strengthen the direct report and manager relationship, which is the critical driver of employee satisfaction and retention.

The problem is that many manager one-on-ones are another “to-do” on a too-full plate, an optional task instead of a vital part of their role. With this mindset, meetings tend to be short and perfunctory, and they take a back seat to other priorities. Managers rationalize that they communicate with their direct reports regularly via team meetings, email and daily interactions. While the approach seems expedient, these managers are missing out on one of their most powerful tools to affect results.

From Ho-Hum to High Impact

Rogelberg’s findings and my experience in coaching leaders suggest seven strategies for making your one-on-ones more effective.

Avoid the status trap. One reason one-on-ones can deliver limited value is that they are used mainly for status updates. Conversations centering on a laundry list of projects and timelines leave little room for building rapport and addressing bigger-picture issues and opportunities. Overemphasis on operational details can leave direct reports feeling micromanaged and managers stuck in the weeds. Use project management tools to track work and save one-on-ones to explore concerns. Dedicate a portion of every agenda to future-oriented topics such as process improvement and employee growth and development.

Focus on the direct report. While you must play an active role, the meeting should emphasize team members’ needs, concerns and growth. Keep your topics to a minimum. Instead, pose questions to encourage direct reports to think, problem-solve and speak openly about what’s on
their minds.

Agree on how often you will meet. Research shows that most professionals prefer weekly meetings. Weekly sessions also help build momentum by keeping projects on the radar, tracking progress and ensuring accountability. Every two weeks may be enough for experienced professionals who work well independently. However, weekly is essential for remote workers who miss out on the impromptu interactions that occur naturally when people work in the same location. Give the person a say in how often you’ll meet, then adjust as needed. Be aware that requests to meet less frequently usually reflect the quality of the meetings more than an employee’s busy schedule. Share expectations for the meetings. Common objectives include ensuring alignment, sharing feedback on what is working or not working, determining any support needed, and identifying opportunities for professional development.

Set an agenda. Rogelberg’s research on meeting preferences shows that one-on-one value ratings are highest when the parties have collaboratively developed an agenda. The agenda doesn’t need to be formal. What matters is that both parties are in sync about what they want to accomplish with the meeting.

When one-on-ones are held on a consistent basis, they reduce spontaneous interruptions from either party by holding non-urgent items for scheduled check-ins. The meetings help build trust and create a feedback loop that increases engagement, enhances performance and supports employee development.

Shake it up. Following a standard agenda is a recipe for boredom. Shift the focus regularly. One session may address performance improvement and include coaching on delegation skills, and another may brainstorm ideas for reorganizing the department. Managers often report that it’s challenging to engage direct reports in deeper conversations. One way to address that is to prepare a list of questions that prompt discussion. For example:

  • What do I need to know or better understand about your job
  • What would a plan look like that would keep you happy and thriving here
  • What are you not good at yet that you’d like to be good at.

Give and request feedback. Use one-on-ones to share input on what the person is doing well, what they need to do more of, and where they need to grow. Regular feedback keeps people motivated and takes much of the anxiety out of formal performance appraisals. Ask for feedback on your performance. Be mindful that most direct reports will be uncomfortable giving upward feedback even when prompted. Make the process easier by being specific. For example, “I want to be the best manager I can be. What is something I should start doing, stop doing and continue doing?” Keep your tone
neutral and your body language open. Express your appreciation for their being candid with you.

Follow through. When managers get busy or a crisis arises, one-on-ones are often the first meeting that is cut. Because it’s a regularly scheduled “internal” meeting, it’s easy to cancel or postpone. The problem is that direct reports read this as a signal that you don’t care and that supporting your team is not a high priority. The same holds true when managers read texts or take phone calls during the one-on-one. Give your direct reports the same attention you’d give your manager or a valued client.

One-on-Ones Are the Job

The higher you climb in an organization, the more your achievements hinge on making others successful. The best leaders understand that one-on-ones aren’t an add-on to the job, they are the job. How you use your one-on-ones will determine whether they’re worth the energy. The key is to shift your thinking from this being just another meeting to attend to an opportunity to invest in the strength, capability and commitment of the people whose success has been entrusted to you.

Kimberly Paterson is executive coach and CEO at CIM.

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