The 4 Mistakes You’re Making in One-on-One Meetings

A lot of has been written about the merit and how best to conduct one-on-one meetings. One such excellent article is One-on-One, written by Ben Horowitz, founder and general partner of Andreessen Horowitz.

Yet, there are skeptics.

One possible reason is the misalignment of expectations. For example, employees may see one-on-one as a trusted way to get unbiased, forward-moving feedback, that at the end of the day will help them advance in their career. But, through the supervisor’s actions, it appears this is not top in the supervisor’s mind, leaving employees feeling one-on-ones are not worth their time.

The one-on-one is the single most important tool for any organization to be great.

I believe the one-on-one is the single most important tool for any organization to be great. After all, is there any better tool to encourage openness, engage employee frequently, coach employee to become leaders, and help surface big issues to the top?

Here are some common mistakes managers make that prevent one-on-ones from being effective — this time from the view of those being supervised.

1. Not Making It Safe

A sacrosanct aspect of one-on-one is trust. People absolutely need to trust it is safe to share their thoughts. This means any thoughts they share will not make them worse off later especially their job security.

For example, if they reveal a perceived weakness or mistake, the supervisor, ideally as a company policy, cannot use it to affect the employee’s performance negatively or be used as part of the decision-making process when there is a lay-off. If one doesn’t believe employee perceive this as an issue, try asking it in your next anonymous Employee Survey. And if you really serious, include employees who had left the company as well.

2. Not Acting as Coach

In one-on-one meeting, supervisor needs to act as a coach.

A supervisor who acts like a coach turns “stretch” assignment into a real opportunity to develop his or her team to do bigger things, and not give the impression that cost saving was the primary driver but repackaged as development.

This means allowing people to experiment, making room for genuine mistakes as a result of treading in uncharted territories.

The weakness of anyone in our team is our weakness. The easy way out is to trim away weaknesses. The harder approach is to invest time and seek out new possibilities in coaching. Bear in mind, what works for a supervisor ten years ago, might not necessary work any more today. Open-minded supervisors also make employees feel safer.

Open-minded supervisors make employees feel safer. Click To Tweet

And companies need to ensure supervisors are measured by how well they have developed their team members strengths and help them overcome their weaknesses.

If this doesn’t happen, we would have lost employee’s belief in the one-on-one, and miss out on benefits to drive employee engagement, openness and transparency in the organization.

3. Not Making It Worthwhile

A worthwhile one-on-one to an employee is one where she feels that a roadblock has been removed.

An example of a roadblock that a manager could remove for an employee could simply be opening the eyes of the employee to new possibilities that have not been considered. In other words, removing a mental road block.

Another could be helping the employee to secure the buy-in of the manager’s manager on new ideas.

Managers themselves must also be open about their own shortcomings. What we want to avoid here is the manager’s weakness being projected as employee’s weakness. For example, how can a manager help employee become better in decision-making if he or she is indecisive?

The goal here is ensure nothing gets in the way of employees contributing their best for the long run in something of which they can be very proud.

The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership. — Colin Powell

4. Not Following a Consistent Process

Frankly, it would be presumptuous to think there is a universal and comprehensive answer to an ideal one-on-one process. What works very well for one company might not work wholesale for another company. In other words, the CEO also needs to solicit from her employees what would be considered an ideal one-on-one for them. The intention after all is to help employees so that they can better serve our customers.

Depending on the context of the one-on-one and the strategic challenges of the organization, some sample questions may include:

  • How would you like me to help you?
  • Are you happy with our progress so far?
  • What worries you?
  • If there is one thing you would change what would that be?
  • What areas, maybe outside of our department, are you curious about?
  • Here are some issues management are facing, if you were me, what would you do differently?
  • What are you most proud of so far?

Each employee knows best what is most helpful to them individually. Only when we are helping people in a manner they want to be helped would they agree it is worthwhile, barring any approach that is far better than what the employees have already suggested.

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