One-on-one meetings: useful tool or waste of time?

Jun 05, 2024

6 mins

One-on-one meetings: useful tool or waste of time?
Kaila Caldwell

US Editor at Welcome to the Jungle

Have you ever felt invisible in your workplace? You’re not alone. According to one study, a striking 86% of employees think that voices within their organizations aren’t heard. This alarming statistic not only highlights widespread communication breakdown but also the growing disengagement epidemic. Further compounding this challenge, it’s estimated that 68% of workers are disengaged, either contributing minimally or struggling with job dissatisfaction. This silent crisis of engagement—or lack thereof—casts a long shadow, threatening productivity, morale, and, ultimately, retention.

In the context of unseen and unheard employees, one-on-one meetings emerge not just as a managerial tactic but as a crucial lifeline—a tool designed to bridge gaps, clarify voices, and strengthen the fabric of workplace relationships. These sessions are far from your average managerial chore; they’re a focused opportunity for employees to share their ideas, challenges, and ambitions. Rather than serving as mere performance reviews, one-on-one meetings offer a unique platform for personal and professional development, where trust is built and engagement is nurtured.

So, what makes these meetings so transformative? How can managers and employees alike harness the power of these interactions to foster a more inclusive and engaging work environment? These are the questions that Dr. Steven Rogelberg, an organizational psychologist, seeks to answer. Rogelberg’s research has gained significant attention in the media, and his most recent book, Glad We Met: The Art and Science of 1:1 Meetings, offers strategies to elevate one-on-one meetings, unleashing the potential of these simple interactions.

What is a one-on-one meeting exactly?

One-on-one meetings are regular, predictable engagements between managers and their direct reports. They’re designed for managers to gain a deeper understanding of what’s in the minds of their people, covering a range of issues from personal well-being to work and the team to the organization, both in the short term and long term. A manager orchestrates and facilitates these meetings, but importantly, they’re not for the manager; they’re for their employees to be truly seen by their manager.

What findings has your research uncovered about the current state of one-on-one meetings, and what strategies do you recommend for making them more effective?

I’ve discovered a troubling trend: organizations seldom provide their managers with the necessary training for one-on-one meetings, which are crucial for individual and team success. Interestingly, leaders often believe these meetings are successful, a perspective starkly different from the less favorable views of direct reports. This discrepancy can lead managers to underestimate the importance of feedback and the potential for improvement, perpetuating issues like irrelevant agendas, overly lengthy discussions, and unfocused dialogue. Such pitfalls contribute to ongoing dissatisfaction and disengagement among team members.

When conducted properly, effective one-on-one meetings go beyond routine check-ins. They enhance operational efficiency and foster trust and psychological safety. Success in these meetings is most likely when the conversation prioritizes the employee’s interests and needs over the manager’s immediate concerns. Managers should ensure these discussions happen regularly, enabling genuine dialogue, asking meaningful questions, offering support, and assisting team members in achieving their short-term and long-term objectives.

When managers genuinely focus on you as an individual without pushing their own agenda, that forms the base of a trusting and honest relationship. It’s a common misconception that simply keeping our doors open or telling people we’re available is sufficient—it’s not. What really matters is showing through our actions that we’re genuinely willing to invest in the relationship. The natural outcome of feeling listened to and supported is a sense of connection and attachment to the other person. This is, fundamentally, the cornerstone of building any relationship.

How do one-on-one meetings contribute to addressing employee disengagement in large organizations?

As I discuss in my book, large organizations often leave employees feeling like a number, their voices lost in the daily churn. One-on-one meetings are a powerful tool to combat this. They provide a dedicated space for employees to step outside the daily grind and be heard. It’s a chance to discuss their ideas, concerns, and frustrations – all without judgment – employees who feel valued and listened to are far more likely to be engaged and motivated. By fostering open communication and addressing employee concerns, we can help people feel connected and motivated to bring their best selves to work.

Still, one-on-ones aren’t a one-way street. They’re a two-way conversation where employees can also discuss their career aspirations and get guidance from their manager. It’s about alignment – ensuring employee goals and ambitions are on the same track as the organization’s needs. This can lead to some excellent outcomes, like setting clear development plans and creating a win-win situation for both the employee and the company.

Moreover, there’s a profound human element to one-on-one meetings. Helping others is a significant predictor of life satisfaction, and these meetings are a prime opportunity for managers to support and guide their direct reports. This visibility allows for developing deeper relationships, trust, and commitment—crucial components for a successful workplace, particularly as teams become more geographically dispersed.

Is goal-setting necessary in these types of meetings?

If an employee wishes to discuss their goals, seek advice on which goals the manager deems essential, or express struggles with specific goals and ask for input on prioritizing them, that’s perfectly fine. However, these meetings shouldn’t be about what the manager wants. As the manager, dictating, ‘Today we’re setting five goals, and here they are. What do you think?’ That’s not the purpose.

I encourage employees to think broadly about the topics they wish to discuss, whether it’s goals, aspects of the job, the team, or their career trajectory, in the short or long term. Managers need to be open to discussing whatever matters to them. However, making this a strict requirement misses the point of these personalized interactions.

What can both managers and employees do to improve ineffective communication?

For effective communication, the most crucial aspect for managers is listening and creating a safe environment. They might even need to show a bit of vulnerability to encourage more open sharing from the employee. Turning the focus to employees, it’s vital to acknowledge that successful communication requires effort from both sides. I often say it takes two to tango, and while managers play a significant role, employees also have critical behaviors to exhibit.

First, employees should enter these meetings with a clear understanding of what they want and need. This requires thinking ahead and identifying personal goals and objectives, not based on what they believe their manager wants to hear, but through honest reflection. Furthermore, engaging actively in the conversation by sharing, disclosing, listening, and responding is essential.

It’s important to seek help appropriately. The research distinguishes between dependent and autonomous help-seeking. Dependent help-seeking might involve asking the manager to solve a problem directly, whereas autonomous help-seeking involves seeking information or perspectives to address a challenge independently. This type of constructive, autonomous help-seeking is often a trait of high performers.

Another behavior that enhances these meetings is expressing gratitude and reinforcing positive interactions. Acknowledging when a manager listens effectively and offers support not only brings humanity to the relationship but encourages those behaviors to continue. It’s about engaging in a manner that promotes mutual growth and understanding. Ultimately, bringing humanity into these interactions, acknowledging each other’s efforts, and working collaboratively towards shared goals are vital to maximizing one-on-ones.

Can you delve deeper into how to be an active listener?

A major obstacle in one-on-one meetings is when the manager dominates the conversation. For these meetings to be effective, the employee should do the majority of the speaking. Managers need to ask insightful questions and practice engaged listening to facilitate this. This involves actively showing interest in understanding the employee’s perspective with prompts like ‘Help me understand,’ ‘Tell me more,’ or ‘What are your thoughts on this?’

Demonstrating empathy is also crucial. For example, acknowledge difficulties by saying, ‘I’m sorry this is happening to you; it must be challenging.’ These are active signs that you are listening without overpowering the conversation. These strategies are crucial to ensuring that the dialogue in one-on-ones is balanced and productive.

What advice would you give someone hesitant about conducting regular one-on-one meetings, and how would you encourage them to see the value in these interactions?

First and foremost, I’d emphasize that conducting these meetings isn’t optional. This is the one kind of meeting that cannot be substituted with an email. Neglecting to hold these meetings significantly increases the risk of leadership derailment and diminishes the potential for achieving peak team performance. Essentially, this practice distinguishes good managers from the rest, offering returns that far outweigh the initial time investment.

Moreover, I advise managers to communicate the purpose of these meetings clearly, linking them to both their personal leadership values and the organization’s values. While individuals might not explicitly mention one-on-one meetings when listing their values, their objectives—such as wanting to help, support, and uplift others—are inherently aligned with the principles of one-on-one meetings. This is the essence of why we hold them.

As communication styles, technology, and workplace dynamics evolve, how do you see one-on-one meetings adapting?

Looking ahead, the way we conduct one-on-one meetings may evolve, potentially shifting more toward virtual formats. We might start using various tools to better monitor and track the progress of these meetings, ensuring commitments are met. However, the fundamental aspect of human connection in these meetings has remained constant through the years.

Even as we adopt more virtual meetings, the essence of building and maintaining relationships remains unchanged. This enduring principle underscores the importance of the human element in one-on-one meetings, regardless of the medium through which they are conducted.

Photo: Thomas Descamps for Welcome to the Jungle

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