I still remember the day when I held my first one-on-one as a manager.
I was nervous. I had read a dozen articles filled with advice from “let them lead the conversation” to “come prepared”. I had a list of questions in front of me, all carefully worded to spark great discussion.
When I finally sat down for my first one-on-one, I remember that we talked about some of the challenges he was facing at work, how he was feeling about his role and about his career at a high level. I felt pretty good about the ground that we covered. But one thing I never said out loud was: “Let’s forget about the business in these meetings and just focus on helping you be successful in your life.”
I had made a mistake: I’d treated our one-on-one like it was just another meeting.
Not Just Another Meeting
Most meetings are deliberately designed to serve the organisation’s needs. They value efficiency, not reflection. The usual aims of one-on-ones are to maximise team productivity and to break down any barriers that might be in the way of this.
This is out of balance, though: businesses are already great at taking care of productivity. What they don’t do as well at is take care of their people. This is something that one-on-ones are uniquely capable of doing — so I think we need to treat them more like conversations and less like meetings.
We ask more and more of the people on our teams. We want them to be creative, innovative, and willing to take risks. We want them to change the world and put a dent in the universe.
As managers, it’s important we acknowledge that these qualities can also take their toll on people. Constantly taking risks can be stressful and it’s not uncommon for creative people to struggle with depression and self-doubt. It’s easy to find ourselves talking too much about projects and productivity and not enough about our lives, our worries, our hopes, and our coping mechanisms.
At the same time, these are all qualities of being human. When we start to embrace more than just work in our one-on-ones, we’re able directly to tackle root causes of any issues rather than trying to treat the symptoms. We can build up trust with the people on our team in order to help them become better at resting and coping with stress, so they feel more confident and relaxed, and learn how to balance their work with the complications that inevitably occur in their lives. This makes it possible for us to take better care of them and, ultimately, to take better care of our organisations as well.
We can start to transform our one-on-ones so that they become a little more human. More human one-on-ones recognise that life doesn’t always run smoothly and that the things that affect us outside of work can be just as important (or even more important) than what happens at work.This approach lets us help people to succeed as people instead of as just employees.
Let’s throw out the traditional rulebook for meetings and redesign our one-on-ones for real life. People management should be recognised as a highly creative endeavour, and one-on-ones are one of the greatest creative works that managers get to produce.
With that in mind, here are a few adjustments I’d like to suggest we make to the way we approach one-on-ones:
Assume by Default That People are Struggling
It’s a rare moment in life when everything runs perfectly smoothly. If we want to have deeper, more human conversations, we need to move away from the expectation of a short or simple answer. Life is complex, and it doesn’t always fit neatly into action steps.
Take, for example, the issue of rest. Rest isn’t just about getting adequate sleep and downtime, it’s also the way that people become inspired and rejuvenate themselves. It’s like the legs of a stool: it holds us up and supports us as we do our work.
Any workplace that needs creative people also needs people with the ability to rest and recover their strengths and inspiration.
As a result, rest is a skill that requires constant attention, like any other. Yet it still seems to be something that happens on the fringes of our lives: in the evening, on the weekends, or during the occasional vacation. It’s not typically seen as part of the work domain, so it often goes unnoticed. The consequence is that we have people who are great at working but who don’t know how to rest. Without the ability to rest properly, people are only able to bring their best effort forward in fits and starts. Doing great work becomes unsustainable. It’s no wonder so many people burn out. We could instead take the opportunity in our one-on-ones to understand the ways that the people on our team rest and to encourage them to practise and to continually get better at it.
Besides encouraging people to get better at resting, we can also make a slight shift to the way we frame our questions. Instead of asking, “How are things going?” try asking, “What are you struggling with this week?”. By acknowledging that the answer won’t always just be, “Great!” we can start to truly help our team overcome their challenges.
Hold One-on-Ones According to the Need, not the Schedule
Life doesn’t follow a schedule, so when we plan our one-on-ones in advance we end up holding them either too soon or too late.
Let your team know that you want them to ask for a one-on-one when it feels like it might be most useful to them — and feel free to do the same yourself. You can set a recurring spot in your calendar that’s open for anyone on your team. That way they can always set up a one-on-one for the next day or two at most.
By having our one-on-ones ad hoc, we’re able to treat them like a resource that can be called upon when needed instead of an obligation. This will help them feel fresh and invigorating, and you’ll find that you don’t need an agenda anymore because there will always be a clear purpose behind the meeting.
Remember: If it’s important enough to discuss in a one-on-one, it’s important enough to discuss right away. People on our teams shouldn’t have to wait a week or two to bring up big challenges or thoughts with us. This may require a little scheduling gymnastics, but it’s worth it.
When most people picture a meeting, they imagine a conference room, an office, or a quiet desk inside a building.
These environments might be good for productivity, but they’re not inspiring at all. They aren’t conducive to having deep conversations where people need to get out of their day-to-day rhythm and recognise larger patterns.
One quick way to start having more human one-on-ones is to start having them outside. You’ll find it easier to expand your mind, to consider new possibilities, and to discuss larger issues. Being outside also reduces the pressure to answer every question right away; you become less reactive. You can look around, take a sip of your coffee, or stretch out before answering. It sets up a proactive, engaging environment.
There’s a great saying by French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
If you want people to “long for the endless immensity of the sea” and not just fulfill a series of tasks, you need to get them to stop working inside the ship and bring them out to look at the ocean from time to time.
Managers have a powerful opportunity to keep people inspired. But that’s difficult to do if our most invigorating and meaningful conversations — our one-on-ones — happen in uninspiring places, require calendar reminders, and always revolve around projects and progress.
We don’t need to hide behind OKRs or metrics. Businesses have plenty of mechanisms in place to make sure that those are healthy. Let’s reclaim our one-on-ones for the health of our team.