Why 1–1s are vital in an organisation

The Dive

If you’re working for a company where 1–1s are an integrated part of your organisation’s work-flow, keep reading, and keep doing them. If you’re working for a company that has never tried 1–1s as a management tool, keep reading and make a plan to start. 1–1s are an integral part to any organisation that is serious about creating an office environment and work culture built on trust.

The previous company I worked for has been doing 1–1s for the past 7 years. Seeing how essential 1–1s currently are for this company’s organisational structure and cohesion, it’s very difficult to remember a time when they were not doing 1–1s. Yet, they didn’t always happen. Management didn’t wake up one morning and start doing 1–1 meetings automatically without any sort of growing pains at all. They had to train themselves as managers and direct reports to get in the habit of doing 1–1s on a regular, consistent, weekly basis. They had to train themselves to get in the habit of doing 1–1s in a sustainable manner that fit the company culture and helped the organisation blossom into a place where everyone could learn and grow.

These meetings take time, effort, and space; however, the payoff is HUGE.

But what exactly is a 1–1 and why does this management tool hold the keys to helping transform a company’s culture from one of top-down management with little time for thinking, feedback, or empowerment to a culture of collaborative growth and understanding? In this article I want to explore this question, as well as other key issues, challenges, and benefits of 1–1s and why they are vital to an organisation’s sustainability, success, and growth.

What is a 1–1 meeting?

For the purpose of this article, we’ll be using the terms “managers” and “direct reports” where an organisation could consist of different departments, business functions, project teams, etc, all filled with a complex network of relationships that make the office culture so rich and vibrant. The primary relationship we’re focusing on here, however, is that of a manager and the person who they are directly managing, aka their “direct report.”

In a 1–1 meeting, a manager ideally meets with each individual direct report on a weekly basis at a regularly scheduled time for a 30 minute session.

This meeting is specifically designed for managers to be managing their people, not the products or projects they might be working on or trying to sell. 1–1 meetings could happen between employees and colleagues, employees and managers, family members, etc, but for this article we want to focus on the soul of the office relationship which is often proudly touted by managers, but sadly feared and dreaded by employees: the relationship between the manager and their direct report.

If these meetings are so earth-shaking, why don’t we do them in my company?

This is an excellent question. However, there are many reasons why organisations, especially management, might be resistant to and even fear the idea of 1–1s if this type of meeting is not currently in the company culture. Below I’ll try to tackle some of the most common issues companies face when they initially try to start 1–1s but cannot follow-through, or they decide they are not going to go down that path in the first place because they are just too difficult to make sustainable.

1. There’s not enough time to give each individual a 1–1 meeting

This is often the number one reason that managers seize up in their guts and clench their bowels in doubt when deciding whether or not to go through with 1–1 meetings. Manager A oversees 8 employees. This amounts to 4 hours each week devoted to 1–1s. Often this is the first number that comes to mind when a 1–1 novice manager contemplates taking the dive into 1–1s. But I ask managers to turn thinking around and look at it from the perspective of their direct reports.

According to each individual’s perspective refusing to give 1–1s based on not having enough time would essentially translate to each employee, “I’m unable to give you 30 minutes of my week each week.” Remember that the typical work week has 40 hours. By this math, a 1–1 would only amount to 1/80 of any particular work week, give or take.

2. I know my direct reports already. There’s no need for me to have 1–1s with them because they won’t have anything to talk about.

While it might be true that there may be some managers who have relatively good relationships and rapport with their direct reports, it’s extremely challenging to maintain and build trust without having meaningful 1–1 conversation. When a manager talks with a direct report, and that trust has not been established, the chances are that more likely than not the direct report will let the manager direct or dictate the conversation. The direct report doesn’t want to say anything wrong, and whether or not the manager knows it or is aware of it, managers always have a certain amount of role power that they can use consciously or subconsciously to direct the conversation.

Without a relationship built on trust and openness, the direct report is always going to be saying what they think the manager wants to hear rather than what the manager needs to hear. Direct reports are people, and chances are they are already saying what they need to say to you, but they are telling it to someone who can’t do anything about it.

3. Won’t this just open the doors to negative feedback and backlash? If employees need to give honest feedback, shouldn’t that be something they are doing with HR?

Sure, this is one way to look at it — to focus on honest feedback as a problem that HR can “handle.” And sweep under the table…and forget about. And then those employees leave and you’ve got a situation on your hands because HR is being pressured to find new people to replace the “disgruntled” employees who have just left, while at the same time being the open ear who listens to feedback, complaints, etc. However, most likely, these employees are talking about issues that have been ignored by managers and accumulated like find sediment in a river bed over time. Most likely these issues didn’t start out as complaints, but rather more like a pebble in a shoe. After time, the pebbles start to add up, and the shoe needs to be thrown away.

When people feel like they can talk about their issues openly and honestly directly with their managers, they won’t need to talk about these issues behind their backs. All too often someone may be putting on a display of calm contentment on the outside; meanwhile, they are making secret plans to leave the company, join another, or start-up a new business with a group of colleagues. These issues can be noticed and needs are addressed early on in the game with practice and 1–1s.

So what are the benefits of 1–1s?

Ok, so you’ve decided to take the dive and give 1–1s a shot. Again, if 1–1s are something that your organisation hasn’t traditionally done, there will be a challenge in getting them on board. However, it’s essential when you start doing 1–1s in your organisation that you are able to get the management team on board as soon as possible. For some managers, especially older and more traditional ones, you might need to do a bit of convincing to get them jumpstarted. You may even need to convince direct reports that these 1–1s are good for them as well, even though there might be a bit of apprehension when first starting. For those managers and employees who are somewhat doubtful about the benefits of 1–1s, below is a more positive look as to why having these meetings will help everyone in the company in the long run.

1–1s creates relationships built on trust between managers and employees

If a company is NOT doing 1–1s, it’s also possible for managers and employees to have relationships built on trust. The most important thing that needs to exist for building a relationship based on trust is there needs to be dedicated time, space, and effort from both parties. Again, it’s possible that this time, space, and effort already exists in your company. However, it’s highly likely that without 1–1s, people may be feeling left out, the bases may not be covered equally for all direct reports, and the meetings are inconsistent.

Sarah Keenlyside, the CEO at Bespoke Travel has been using 1–1s for more than 3 years and has found them especially useful in catching issues that she may not have know existed before. Even though her company consists of only around ten people, problems will arise, and she notes that “problems that fester will eventually lead to bigger problems. 1–1s prevents this from happening.”

1–1s increases overall employee engagement, productivity, and empowerment

When people feel like they are working in an environment where they have some control, say, and empowerment in their workplace, they are often more effective employees. This is a very simple, yet often overlooked statement — why would anyone do a good job if they do not like or have no intrinsic motivation about what it is they are doing? And yet, so many people are stuck in amidst the vicious rat race of having a job just for the sake of having a job and paying the bills. By providing each and every employee with an open heart and open mind and giving each individual 1/80th of your work week, managers are helping to provide a chance to see if employees are really doing the type of work they want to do, they need to do, and are getting to use their strengths each and every day. 1–1s gives employees a chance to let managers know about what types of things might be distracting them or keeping them from being more engaged or productive. By opening up and actively listening, managers are giving employees a chance to grasp their own steering wheel and know that they, too, can be empowered within the company.

Just the simple act of active listening, helps employees know that they have a say in what they do at work. Marissa Kennedy, Senior Program Manager and HR Director at The Hutong (with around 40 employees) is a huge fan of 1–1s and takes her utmost time with her direct reports, not rushing her 1–1s during the process. With regards to staff empowerment and engagement, she remarked, “When you can be HEARD, you know that someone is listening.”

1–1s help increase staff retention, saving the company precious resources such as money and time

The first part of this positive aspect from 1–1s is quite obvious. If employees are working in an environment where they are being heard, they are feeling empowered, and there is greater overall engagement in the work that is happening, they will be less likely to leave the company. These types positive results from 1–1s help build an overall stronger company culture, increasing the ties that individuals have to a company. With more attachments and sense of unity and cohesion as a result of 1–1s, people will naturally want to stay with that company. A company can have great benefits and high salaries, but if there is a poisonous and negative office culture, these extrinsic factors alone are not going to be enough to motivate someone to stay. By having greater staff retention, this will save the company resources such as time and money. There will not need to be the need to search for replacements for staff who leave the company early or unexpectedly. There won’t need to be a constant stream of new hires who need to be on-boarded unexpectedly as well.

Perhaps the most surprising positive aspect of 1–1s is that they will actually save managers time in the long run. Besides saving HR the time and money devoted to hiring and on-boarding new staff, time is also saved due to a reduction of distractions and interruptions. As a manager, do you ever feel like you are constantly being interrupted as your direct reports seek you out for small problems? Or vice versa, you need to interrupt your day to check-up on small projects that need to be continued with direct reports? 1–1s help solve both these issues as they create a dedicated time and space for each individual to address aspects of work that are important to them. In order to have this positive benefit, both the manager and the direct report need to prepare prior to the meeting. I always made a list of the things I thought of during the week that I needed to talk about with my manager and saved this list for the 1–1. Managers can also do the same as well, provided that they don’t hijack the meeting.

Ada Cuaresma who worked for HSBC before starting her own company, led 1–1s on a weekly basis for 8–10 employees. Her company had more than 300 employees, yet they realised that 1–1s are important because “they help develop a culture of “checking in” with staff on a regular basis. Direct reports feel their performance and goals are valued.” When people’s performance and goals are valued through these check-ins, retention levels increase across the board.

Direct action points often come as a result of 1–1s

Through the consistent and methodical build-up of trust that comes as a result of 1–1s, there are often productive by-products that come from these meetings in the form of direct action points. If the manager is doing a good job and actively listening, there may be cues and leads to follow with the direct report that can help channel the focus of the 1–1 to direct action. This direct action could be something that is followed-up by the direct report, the manager, a 3rd party, or perhaps even the whole company. There were numerous times in my own 1–1s with my direct reports where both of us suddenly got excited about an idea or a new initiative, and we followed that excitement after the 1–1 to make direct action points that could incorporate other individuals or a department. The manager needs to be taking notes and listening for patterns that are mentioned to lead to action points. It could be something as simple as a direct report mentioning numerous times about an issue with another staff member. At this point, the manager could ask the direct report if they can follow-up with this other staff member after the 1–1, or if they can have a meeting with the three of them to address this issue. The manager needs to keep in mind the confidentiality of the 1–1 and clearly state the intentions to follow-up on action points that may involve others. The reason for this follow-up is to help overcome challenges, follow-through on ideas, and put plans into action. This is how the manager helps show support, and how 1–1s help to push an entire company in the right direction by carrying out action directly from 1–1s with tangible results. Tangible results may not come from every meeting, but they may slowly be crafted and take shape over time.

Colleen O’Connor remotely managed global teams to administer study abroad programs in China and would have up to one to three 1–1s per week. She mentioned a specific example of how action came from a 1–1 meeting, leading to a positive result for team morale and program quality:

“I had a direct report handling a major student group dynamic issue and she and the team felt at a loss. She explained the whole situation to me and I was able to give her advice, since I was outside of it and not personally involved, which led to the direct report feeling empowered to address the problem from another vantage point. It also led to great results! We are all ‘in the weeds’ when it comes to our own work, so one-on-ones are a great space for managers to share perspective and empathy during difficult times.”

1–1s are beneficial for managers’ growth and development

The benefits of 1–1s are not just a one way street. Besides being a space for direct reports to be able to build up that trusting relationship with their managers, 1–1s also provide a space for managers to exercise their own managerial skills. All too often, managers get stuck in a busy cycle where they are bogged down by delegating and overseeing large work loads, and instead of managing people, they are managing products and projects. The essence of management, however, is in managing the team aspect, and teams are made of individuals. The best way for managers to reach these individuals is by meeting with them on an individual basis. Each team member has different strengths, skills, and needs that must be attended to, and it’s part of the manager’s role to provide presence, guidance, and a safe space where people aren’t afraid to take risks and challenge themselves. If there is little to no communication or 1–1 time with managers, direct reports may feel fear, uncertainty, and distance with their managers. By having 1–1s, managers can close that gap that naturally forms between the layers of hierarchy at times. 1–1s are the time for hands-on management, and they are great opportunities for learning where managers can also feel safe to take risks as well.

Miguel Rincon’s 1–1 with his manager at Gitlab Inc. evolved over time to help address higher leverage needs. He notes, “When I first started, I used weekly 1–1s with my manager to check on day to day work. As I felt more comfortable in the role, we started to create and follow career growth plans.” Besides using 1–1s to address daily work, as the relationship grew, both Miguel and his manager could take risks to talk about more longer term and sustainable needs such as developing a career pathway. This is no easy topic for managers to discuss, as there are subtle nuances according to the individual, but 1–1s gave a safe and open platform to address this topic.

Useful tips for putting 1–1s into practice

So if you’re organisation is starting 1–1s, or if you are in an organisation that continues to do 1–1s to this day, there are some helpful tips to consider, when approaching them, both from the managerial, or the direct report’s perspective.

For Direct Reports

  1. Come in with notes and a plan. What do you want to talk about?
  2. Take risks and approach topics that address your needs. Exercise the boundaries of the safe space as time goes by.
  3. Think about your recent challenges, successes, bottlenecks, or things you are excited about with regards to work and/or personal life.
  4. Be honest with your manager. Now is your chance to use this time well.
  5. Ask for follow-up action points, but be patient. Not every 1–1 needs to have action points, as it is a continuous process and conversation.
  6. Ask to have notes shared with you that the manager takes.

For Managers

  1. Be aware of your role power during the 1–1. It’s very easy for you to dictate the direction of the 1–1 and hijack the meeting without even realising it.
  2. Take notes during the 1–1 meeting to show active listening and share the notes afterwards in a collaborative space.
  3. Proactively ask for feedback about your own managerial skills with questions such as “how can I support you in your job or professional development?”
  4. Try to give the focus to the direct report by listening more than speaking with an average balance of 70% for direct report’s speaking time and 30% manager’s speaking time.
  5. Set your meetings on a recurring and regular schedule on a calendar that you both share. By having it appear regularly on your calendar you are displaying your emphasis and importance on this weekly meeting.
  6. Be prepared. Look at the notes from the last 1–1. If the direct report wants to talk about other things, it’s ok — be flexible; however, have these notes ready to show you are prepared to continue the conversation.

Let’s Take the Dive

Deciding to make a change in your organisation can be a frightening thing. You may have reservations about doing 1–1s. You may be apprehensive about the time commitment and what you will discover. You may even undervalue and lack confidence in your own skills as a manager. Whatever the reasons for hesitating to take the dive and start 1–1s, remember to be patient. There is no such thing as instant gratification when it comes to nurturing a relationship built on trust. 1–1s teach us how to be patient and enjoy the process of building relationships as well as building our own communication skills. That first step to taking the dive is a challenging one, but once we commit ourselves, the learning process can begin and sustain itself over time if we are patient with ourselves and others. And the great thing about 1–1s is that they can help lead to and integrate themselves in other parts of company culture, spreading their benefits to other aspects of our professional lives.

“One-on-ones are an effective tool that can help with employee engagement that should be complemented with other tools — group meetings, cross-pollinate with other departments on projects (mitigate silo-ing), and company events help increase employee engagement as well. They are just one slice of the employee engagement pie.” — Colleen O’Connor

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The Clock Stops

The Clock Stops

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American residing in Asia since 2004. Blogs focusing on life observations, improv, food, creating a learning organisation, management, and stretching time.