· 10 mins · Management Skills

5 things to stop doing in employee one-on-one meetings (and what to start doing!)

Avatar of Mike Arnone Mike Arnone

As someone who has had a number of managers in my lifetime, from entry-level retail positions to corporate leadership, I have always loved my one-on-one time. I have always seen it as a way for me to gain feedback on myself and continue to grow as an individual and an employee.

But while there have been one-on-ones over the years that left me feeling like I was growing, and there have also been one-on-one meetings that made me feel like I was running into a brick wall!  

It’s really easy to slip into bad one-on-one habits – especially as the manager. And the frustrating part is, the biggest mistakes that managers have made in my one-on-one meetings are the smallest things. So easy to avoid. And take it from an employee: as managers, you definitely should avoid them! Have you ever heard the saying “People don’t quit jobs, they quit managers”? Have you read the stat that managers account for at least 70% in the variance of employee engagement scores?!

Managers have a lot of power when it comes to having happy, thriving employees. And that starts with amazing one-on-ones.

Here are five things that you should stop doing in your employee one-on-one meetings – from the eyes of an employee! 👀

1. STOP 🛑 Using employee one-on-one meetings as status updates

I’ve had managers whose whole idea of one-on-one time consisted only of “Work Updates.” They focused our precious bi-weekly half hour on timelines, workloads and project updates.

As an employee, it was incredibly difficult to build up friendship or rapport in this kind of one-on-one. This was my time, but it was never focused on what was going on with me, like career building, and things that were going right and wrong.

Work updates are simple. You can pop over to my desk and ask, or send me an email or Slack message. Don’t waste our valuable one-on-one meeting time with this stuff.

START ✅ Coming into each one-on-one with a plan

As a manager, I know you’ve got a hectic work schedule. Between departmental, project and team meetings, not to mention one-on-ones, a day can go by in a flash. But you still need to come to each one-on-one meeting prepared to really focus on that individual, what do they hope to accomplish in the next 1,3,6,12+ months, are they reaching their goals and what can YOU do to help them succeed.

I know that as the employee, our one-on-one is my responsibility. I’m the one that should be setting the agenda. But not all employees are going to open up naturally. So instead of going into a one-on-one meeting blindly hoping that employees will bring up matters or issues that matter to them, give them some help. Add some in-depth questions to the agenda to help drive positive conversation and build a whole new level of trust and rapport with your team members.

2. STOP 🛑 Treating all employees the same

The beautiful (and difficult) thing about being a manager is that not all employees are the same. Being able to wear different hats, use empathy and build a meaningful relationship with each employee to truly understand that person’s values and motivators are key areas that can separate the good managers from the great managers.

Why? Because when you treat all employees the same, you send the message that you don’t have the time (or energy) to learn about their individual idiosyncrasies and nuances. You don’t care about their unique working style. You send the message that you don’t care about them.

This makes employees feel like s***. Seriously. As an employee, I work hard to learn how my managers like to work: how they prefer to receive information, their ideal modes of communication, their schedule. I learn because I know it will make our relationship better over time. So when a manager clearly doesn’t have any interest in taking the time to do the same for me, it’s going to have serious repercussions on our relationship.

START ✅ Learning how each employee wants to work

Use your one-on-one meeting time with your employees to understand them. Not to judge or compare, but to understand.

Learn about your employee’s recognition style, the way they take in information, and most importantly their career objectives. Keep this information at the top of mind and work with your employees to show that not only you are listening, but working to best suit their needs.

For example, I am someone who is a blend of both visual and physical learner. I absorb the most information by either seeing or doing. I once had a great manager who took the time to sit down with me when I first started at the organization to learn about what made me tick. Instead of asking me to do the “standard” training of reading a bunch of manuals and modules, she instead let me shadow another associate, and let me work with the system for the first week – then she had me read the modules to reinforce what I had already learned through my natural learning style.

As a result, my job performance, but also my outlook on the team, company and my manager was drastically altered for the better. I was able to develop my skills and learn the system significantly faster than if we went down the “standard” training route – and people took notice of how fast I was able to hit the ground running.

3. STOP 🛑 Avoiding difficult discussions:

Difficult discussions are never easy…otherwise, they would just be called “discussions” 😁. But jokes aside: these discussions can be a very touchy subject. All too often an employee will end up staying silent about an issue instead of bringing it up with their manager. Why?

  • Lack of trust
  • A fear that management will use the information against them
  • A feeling that nothing will get done
  • A worry that their self-image will be tainted with that manager

And all of the above fears are made all the worse by a manager that doesn’t actively encourage employees to open up.

START ✅ Getting comfortable having hard conversations

One of the best managers that I had always made it a point to set aside time each one-on-one meeting where both of us left our ego and emotions at the door and had open, trusting conversations with each other about things that were going right and wrong.

At first, I thought it was really weird. It’s hard when your manager asks you to be that vulnerable. At first, he only asked for small issues, concerns or feedback. It made it easier for me to get over the fear of having these conversations and to build trust as week after week I was able to come to him with more candid feedback (and vice versa) because we were both able to develop that comfort level gradually with one another. As an employee, it took away that crushing fear of having to deliver or receive “bad news” and instead allowed us to have an open conversation and work towards fixing any problem that may have come up.

As an employee, knowing that I could chat with my manager about potential issues, problems or concerns without any negative responses allowed us to open up a dialogue that would otherwise never been had.

Ensure your employees know that you are listening to their concerns and that they aren’t falling on deaf ears. The more your employees see that you are open to help them and stand by their side when things aren’t at their best, the easier it will be to build a long lasting trust.

There are plenty of things that you can do to prepare for difficult conversations that, as an employee, I loved to see:

  • Getting all the facts
  • Stepping into your employee’s shoes
  • Acknowledge – and remove – any emotion
  • Think about possible solutions

All of these go a long way. They show the employee that even though the news you are delivering isn’t the best, this isn’t something that you are taking lightly and have proactively come up with some solutions to the issues.

Much like how I spoke earlier about learning how each employee wants to be recognized, there is also a flip side to that: learning how each employee takes criticism. Like recognition, criticism is tricky. But learning and growing with your employees, being empathetic and building that trust is something that will continue to help your team grow, even on the bad days.

(Psst…for more tips, check out our ultimate guide to difficult conversations!)

4. STOP 🛑 Cancelling one-on-one meetings

When dealing with a busy calendar it’s common for unexpected things to come up. And when they do, managers will often look to their calendars to see what can be moved or cancelled. Sadly, more often than not, that thing that gets cancelled or moved is a one-on-one. If this sounds normal to you, odds are your employee one-on-ones aren’t as nearly as successful as they could be.

At my previous job, I had a period of almost two months without a single formal one-on-one with my manager. Why? Because when things came up, her first instinct was to cancel the “unimportant” meetings (a.k.a. my one-on-one) to make room for more important ones.

I cannot begin to tell you how that felt as an employee and the importance of keeping that time open for your team! I was constantly overcome with the feeling that my career progression was on a standstill as my manager was “too busy” to help develop me as an individual and this caused a great deal of stress.

START ✅ Treating employee one-on-one meetings as sacred

The one-on-one meeting is a sacred time that you get to share with your team. A time to show you care, and you are listening and looking out for their best interest. 🙌

Nine times out of 10, if a manager tells their employee they need to cancel or more a one-on-one, the employee won’t push back. Because of this, it is up to you, the manager, to make sure these one-on-ones happen!

5. STOP 🛑 Surprising employees at review time

As an employee, reporting to a manager that you don’t have the best relationship with can be very stressful – but that’s especially so during review time. Far too often, I’ve seen a co-worker come out of a quarterly, mid-year or annual review meeting looking like they just saw a ghost as they utter to me “I thought everything was going well!”

If your employee has ever left a review feeling blindsided, that means there is a gap in your communication – and a problem with the types of conversations you are currently having in your employee one-on-one meetings.

START ✅ Giving ongoing feedback (no surprises!)

When open dialogue and ongoing feedback are given throughout the year, a review meeting is a simple conversation about the successes and challenges of the previous year, with everyone on the same page. Yay!

One of the most common mistakes managers make when having difficult conversations is waiting too long to talk – and that’s a mistake you can’t afford to make. Taking the time to step back and reevaluate your relationship with your employee on an ongoing basis will help to diminish this gap, leading to a far happier and in turn, more loyal team.

The things that have the potential to ruin one-on-one meetings are surprisingly simple – and easy to fix. As your friendly neighbourhood employee, I’m here to tell you that taking the time to make your one-on-ones as amazing as possible is well worth the effort.

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