10 proven tips for better 1:1 meetings with your team
So you’ve decided to ditch annual appraisals after reading last week’s blog. Congratulations! You won’t regret it. Instead, you want to move towards a culture of coaching and regular feedback. You’ve put in place job scorecards, OKRs and a behavioural framework based on your core values. These will help everyone in your company get clear on what’s expected of them and what good looks like.
Now you need a mechanism to keep all these wheels turning in your business. Based on my experience leading fast-growing tech companies, by far the best is 1:1s. But how do you get the best out of every check-in with a team member? And how do you coach them to higher performance?
1. Make 1:1s weekly
To be effective, 1:1s should happen every week. Not every fortnight. Not every month. Every 7 days. There’s a reason for this. Evidence backs it up. In his book, ‘Nine Lies About Work’, Marcus Buckingham explores the frequency of check-ins and their effect on staff engagement. He describes how Cisco moved to a weekly rhythm of 1:1s with managers but this was rolled out inconsistently. They got an amazing set of data tracking performance against the frequency of 1:1s. If these took place weekly, there was a massive uptick in productivity. This dropped dramatically when 1:1s were monthly and at six weeks or more, they had a negative impact, meaning you were better off not doing them at all.
Weekly 1:1s don’t need to last long. 10 to 20 minutes max with maybe a 5-minute buffer. But they need to be prioritised as important. If this sounds onerous to you, just think about the massive uptick in productivity you’ll get from this regular investment of time in your team.
2. Discuss key metrics
Get everyone used to tracking the same numbers every week. If you’re using OKRs and job scorecards, the person being coached will have a set of KPIs and one key metric that allows them to measure their effectiveness every day. Whenever I think of scorecards, I’m reminded of something Mark Green said in his book ‘Creating a Culture of Accountability’. He referred to scorecards as ‘the metrics that justify to your organisation why they are investing in your role.’ It’s important that your team keeps this top of mind. 1:1s are a great way of reinforcing this message.
The responsibility is on the employee to turn up prepared. They should say whether they’ve hit their KPIs, whether their key results are on track, and whether they’ve delivered on the key task or issue that was highlighted the week before. If they haven’t, they need to work out a plan to get back on track. Guidance can be offered by the manager to unblock any stucks or issues.
3. Use 1:1s as an opportunity to say thank you
Showing appreciation is massive for staff engagement. And yet we often forget. 1:1s will give you a regular opportunity to say thank you if, like me, this isn’t one of your natural strengths.
At Peer 1, we introduced a global tool that allowed staff to say thank you to each other. Each person could give a points-based award to someone they felt had gone above and beyond. Points could then be spent on top quality company swag (and I mean top quality – no cheap tat please!). This acted like internal currency, giving us a great handle on who the good managers and teams were. Some got loads of points and some didn’t. In general, you could see A Players being rewarded more than B or Cs. This was a function of their high ‘say:do’ ratio. They’d been thanked because they said they’d do something and they followed through and did it. It still amazes me how rare this is.
So make sure every 1:1 is an opportunity to discuss whether they’ve received recognition either internally or from customers. It won’t take long to realise who your A-Players are if you do this every week.
4. Get the employee to book their 1:1
Make sure your people are under no illusion. The 1:1 is their meeting. So they need to make sure it happens. Put the onus on the team member to get it booked into their manager’s diary. It’s on them.
If you’re a manager and one of your team forgets to book their 1:1s, it gives you a piece of data that you didn’t have before. Lack of commitment can be an indicator of other issues with performance and this will help with any future talent assessment.
5. Ask questions rather than offering solutions
You want your 1:1s to be more like coaching conversations. As a template, we use Michael Bungay Stanier’s 7 questions – they’re simple and straightforward. Introduce them to the whole team and get them well practised at using them. You’ll start to build a coaching culture, developing skills that will serve people well when they’re promoted to management.
The questions start with, ‘What’s on your mind?’ Don’t stick at the first thing that comes up. Follow with, ‘And what else?’ at least three times. The first three things they mention are unlikely to be the real challenge. You’re looking to narrow down to one important focus that’s likely to make the most difference to their performance over the next week.
Don’t fall into the advice trap. If you’re giving advice, you’re not coaching. By asking open questions, you can lead them to work out how to solve the problem for themselves. Sometimes managers can’t help but give the answer. It makes them feel important. But this reinforces a pattern of behaviour that’s unhelpful. It’s a bit like feeding your dog from the table. It’s your fault they’re bothering you! You’ve trained them to expect titbits when you sit down for a meal. In the same way, don’t complain that your people are always asking you for an answer. It’s because you’re always giving them advice!
6. Focus on one thing
Keep it simple and focus on the one thing that’s come up through your questioning. You don’t want to overload the conversation by trying to fix too much at once. Get agreement on the one thing that you’ve identified as the main challenge. By applying consistency, you’re building trust and providing a useful sounding board to work through issues.
Next, you need to ask them, ‘What do you want?’ It could be a shoulder to cry on, or they need some help with something they’re finding tricky, or they just need to vent. Ask them, ‘How can I help?’ and ‘If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?’ People are busy. It’s not that they don’t know the answer or what they should do. They’ve not done it because other habits have got in the way. It’s your job to guide them so that they can see this for themselves.
7. Listen rather than tell
Finally, ask them what was most useful for them in this discussion. All the way through this 1:1 you’ve been listening. As a manager, this will give you feedback on whether your coaching is helping or not.
Listening builds trust and it’s one of the most important skills for good managers. At all times, you’re listening for how they want to solve the problem rather than telling them yourself. If you’re using tools like Gallup’s CliftonStrengths or Patrick Lencioni’s Working Genius, you’ll see whether the solution they’ve arrived at plays to their strengths or weaknesses. If it’s skewed towards their weaknesses, they may need to find some other way. They’re never going to be good at this so how can they approach it differently?
8. Set 1:1 meetings in stone
1:1 meetings are the foundation of staff engagement in your business. So they must never be cancelled. Ever. If they’re regularly being scrapped in your business, it’s a sign of poor management.
And yet we see it all the time. Managers get busy and decide they haven’t got time. Well – they shouldn’t be managers. It’s that simple. Coaching their team is their single most important task. 1:1s should never be axed because they’re not the manager’s meeting. They belong to the team member in question.
Remember, we’re talking 10 to 20 minutes tops. If you have one of these a week, it’s the same as an hour-long meeting once a month. But I promise you, weekly meetings will be far more effective. They work equally well face-to-face or on Zoom, so there are no excuses.
9. Make sure there are consequences for lack of progress
We’ve sat in on 1:1s in the past that are run as the manager’s meeting. People just go through the motions because it’s another thing they’re told to do and the whole experience is valueless. Partly, this can be down to a lack of consequences for not meeting commitments. There has to be a sense of continuous improvement that runs through 1:1s. If people are hitting their KPIs at a particular level, a year from now they need to be adjusted upwards.
For every 1:1, the person being coached needs to turn up curious and willing to learn. They should come prepared with all the information they need for the meeting and an open, growth mindset. These are the types of people you need for a growing business. You can cultivate these A-Player strengths through regular 1:1s.
10. Zero triangulation in your 1:1s
Finally, if there’s venting going on, let it run its course but don’t get involved. It’s important for psychological safety that you set some rules around triangulation. If your team member has an issue with another person, you need to encourage them to have that difficult conversation with them directly. You can talk through together how best to approach this. You could even offer to facilitate. But make sure your 1:1 doesn’t turn into a bitching session. There should be rules around not criticising others when they’re not in the room.
This is all part of building radical candour as a framework. You’re working on increasing the level of task conflict and reducing the level of personal conflict. So you and I might fervently disagree about something on a philosophical level. That’s ok. But we should be able to do this without slinging personal insults.
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