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How 1-on-1 meetings can boost team alignment and clarity for your employees

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Salman Asari
Story by
Salman Asari

You’re in yet another boring 1-on-1 meeting. It seems like all you do is go over random updates, or just chat about life. You could be using this time to do real work instead! But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The 1-on-1 meeting, when done right, can be the most powerful tool for building alignment and clarity in teams. If you’re a manager, you need to be using them to their full potential, otherwise you’re flying blind. You might still make it to your destination, but you’ll smash into a lot of obstacles on the way. Even if you’re not a manager, you should understand the support you should be getting (it’s up to you whether you want to ask for it).

Luckily, doing them well is pretty straightforward. Focus on building better habits, and then practice, practice, practice. So, let’s dive in:

Keep regular meetings

Firstly, you should be meeting once every two weeks. Monthly meetings tend to only work when you already have a high level of trust and communication. I’d advise to never meet less than once a month, but if you must cancel a meeting, reschedule it immediately rather than skipping it. Also, make sure you never ask your employees or colleagues if they’re “okay with skipping” because they’ll almost always say yes, not because they don’t need one, but because they don’t want to appear needy.

Remember this meeting is your commitment to show that you care, and they’re a priority. Every cancellation sends a message. What kind of signal do you want to give?

Listen more, talk less

Let your team member set some agenda items beforehand (tools can help with this, see below). This will make it far easier for you to jump to any pressing concerns or challenges they’re working on. If you don’t have an agenda from them, ask them at the beginning of the meeting. This can be as simple as asking, “What’s on your mind?”

Embrace awkward silences. Your goal is to try and flush out what is worrying them. It’s your job to force the conversation into sometimes uncomfortable territory. Also, avoid using 1-on-1s as a status update meeting. There are far better (asynchronous) ways to get status updates. Make the most of this valuable time you are spending together.

Be human. Don’t spend the entire meeting (or any of it!) on your phone or laptop (take notes in a notebook if needed). You are here to listen. Give them your full attention. If you aren’t listening, they will definitely notice, and likely be less open to sharing in the future. This will make it more difficult over time to understand their concerns.

Address the elephant in the room

Your team member may not want to discuss it, but 1-on-1s can be a great medium to raise and discuss sensitive issues. If you do this right, you can learn a lot about how the controversial message is being received. Pay close attention to their tone and body language. Such invaluable signals are often missed when discussing tricky topics in group settings. This can be exhausting if you do this with your whole team, but it’s still worth it. Would you rather spend a few hours diving into this and figure out the state of affairs, or leave things up in the air? Remember that by the time any real issues surface, they may have evolved into something far worse.

Take the temperature

Take notes during/after your 1-on-1 to identify key issues raised. Highlight any areas for yourself that might be a flag, and be sure to followup on it as soon as possible. Record a simple “green/yellow/red” measure for each team member. Look out for extended patterns of yellow/red…

Pay close attention to their tone, words, and body language. You can usually see the signs of a disgruntled employee way before it’s too late. Be pro-active. It only takes a couple of skipped 1-on-1s to miss even the strongest warning signals. Companies move fast, but so do people.

Track performance

Use 1-on-1s for tracking details about incidents related to performance. Sometimes, it can be difficult to see when an individual is underperforming. Each week is a mix of good and bad, so things never seem that bad. That is, until you look at your notes over a three month period, and notice some disturbing patterns.

Communicate your concerns in each meeting. Provide clear guidance to get them addressed. Use the recurring meeting as the platform for reinforcing your expectations. Be as specific as possible. If you have to take the difficult decision of letting someone go, these notes will enable you to decide with data. It’s not only about defensibility and fairness, it’s also about peace of mind during a very stressful period.

You can track positive performance achievements the same way. Use this technique to help justify your recommendations for compensation or other awards.

Follow up

I recommend sending out emails every meeting for the following: reminder emails the day before a meeting, with a reminder of action items from last meeting. Team members should reply with their desired agenda items for this meeting. Also, followup emails after the meeting with the action items agreed upon in the meeting.

If you wish to automate the above, consider using an online 1-on-1 management tool. Be sure to actually review the previous action items in the next meeting. Doing so sets the expectation that you are both going to follow-up on any commitments made. In turn, this reinforces the value of the meetings to both parties.

Hopefully you’ve gotten a sense of how important 1-on-1s are for your organization. Try applying a new technique for a couple weeks, and see how it works for you. The best path to long-term improvement is iterative changes.

This article was written by Salman Ansari, a software engineer, writer, artist, and former startup founder. He currently splits his time between working with an AI startup and exploring creative projects. Salman writes a weekly newsletter, Quick Brown Fox, on creativity, learning in public, and embracing a polymath life. His past roles include: founding engineer at Involver (acquired by Oracle), co-founder and CTO of the healthcare startup Rested, and senior engineer at Facebook. You can read the original piece here.

Published July 9, 2020 — 06:30 UTC