The 5 Most Common Mistakes in One on One Meetings (And How to Avoid Them)
Effective one-on-one meetings are the first line of defense against “quiet quitting”—when people who stay in their job but only put in minimal efforts. That’s because quiet quitting comes from bad management, not bad employees.
In a study of over 2,500 managers and 13,000 direct reports, the managers who were the worst at balancing employee needs with results had three to four times more quiet quitters on their team. On the other hand, managers rated highest for caring about people’s needs had 62% of employees willing to go the extra mile and only 3% quietly quitting.
Whether you’re looking to grow your own management skills or the skills of managers at your organization, we’ve gathered some key principles for building positive employee-manager relationships with one-on-one meetings, plus five common pitfalls to avoid.
With flexible HR software helping enhance engagement, track performance, and facilitate communication, one-on-one meetings will quickly become can't-miss connection opportunities.
What Is A One-On-One Meeting?
A one-on-one meeting is a regular meeting between two people, typically a manager and team member. Discussion topics commonly cover performance, professional development, job satisfaction, and wellbeing.
5 Common Mistakes During One-on-One Meetings
1. Rescheduling—Or Worse, Canceling—the Meeting
Apart from sick days, vacations, and emergencies, never cancel your one-on-one meetings. As a people leader, things get busy, and it’s tempting to reschedule one-on-ones to give yourself more time to check things off your to-do list.
However, while you might earn yourself an extra 30 minutes, you’ll actually be doing a disservice to yourself and your team. A Harvard Business Review study found that a canceled 15-30 minute conversation with a direct report:
- Shows your direct report that they’re a not priority
- Makes it harder for your employees to improve the quality of their work
- Pushes your team to find other, much less effective ways to connect with you, such as flooding your inbox or hovering around your desk
Keep yourself and your team accountable for showing up to your one-on-one meetings prepared and ready to discuss every single time. This will save you time and frustration and avoid sending the wrong message to your team.
2. Letting Project Updates Updates Dominate The Conversation
The primary purpose of one-on-one meetings is to create a connection with your employees, not just to check up on their schedule or deadlines.
If you find yourself stuck in danger of this, here are some ways you can pivot to more growth and development conversations:
- Reset expectations: Let your direct report know that you feel you’re talking about project updates during one-on-one meetings too much and reiterate the purpose and goal of the meeting.
- Change your agenda: If you look at your meeting agenda and see that most of the items will lead you to talking about status updates, add different one-on-one meeting questions to your agenda, like the ones suggested above.
- Add a dedicated project check-in meeting: If you do need time during the day or week to check in on your team’s projects, then schedule a different time for that kind of discussion.
3. Mistaking Performance Reviews For One-On-One Meetings
Performance reviews are for talking about long-term goals and results, and one-on-one meetings are for ongoing coaching and support.
The goal of each meeting is completely different.
Performance review goals:
- Review the performance of a direct report in the last few months.
- Evaluate how their results stacked up against goals.
- Share feedback on strengths and areas of improvement.
- Determine a plan of action for the next quarter.
One-on-one meeting goals:
- Give employees a dedicated time to bring up challenges, issues, feedback, and build a relationship with their manager.
- Understand and eliminate roadblocks.
- Discuss growth and development opportunities.
- Provide ongoing coaching and feedback.
When you limit yourself and your team to sharing feedback once every three months, you’re not fostering an environment where open, honest, two-way communication can happen.
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4. Doing Most Of The Talking
One-on-one meetings should be treated as the employee’s time. Prioritize your employee's concerns and create an environment where they feel comfortable expressing themselves. This means that not only should you let them dominate the conversation and agenda, but you should encourage this behavior too.
Set clear expectations with your employees regarding the purpose and format of one-on-one meetings. Clearly communicate that you value their input and expect them to actively participate in shaping the discussion.
Then, make a conscious effort to enhance your active listening skills. Like we mentioned above, active listening involves not only hearing the words but also paying attention to non-verbal cues, showing genuine interest, and providing focused responses. Practice being fully present during the conversation.
5. Expecting Your Direct Reports to Open Up Before Doing So Yourself
Remember that you’re in a position of power, and it can be intimidating for an employee to open up to you. That’s why it’s important that you create a safe space where it’s okay to share thoughts, feelings, and challenges.
A critical skill that any people manager should continue to practice and improve on is vulnerable leadership. Leaders who can admit their strengths and shortcomings to themselves and their team can make the most out of their team.
Here are some ways leaders can practice vulnerable leadership:
- Open up. This can be a simple phrase like, “This is the first time I've been in a management position, and while I'm working hard to be the manager you deserve, there's a lot I can work on. So, if you ever have any feedback, I want you to know that this is a safe space where feedback is encouraged both ways. That’s how we’ll both be able to grow over time.”
- Create a psychologically safe space. Does your team feel safe sharing feedback, challenges, and being their true authentic self within your one-on-ones? If not, you’ve got some work to do in creating a safe space.
- Encourage sharing. This goes beyond telling your employees you’d love their feedback and input. How you receive feedback plays a huge part in whether or not your employee will open up. For example, if they share a piece of feedback with you, and you react defensively or nothing changes as a result, you’re actively discouraging them to open up. The next time you receive a piece of feedback, analyze how you act after the fact and find areas where you can continue to improve (and keep doing it!).
Principles for Powerful One-on-One Meetings
1. Check In Frequently with Employees
Whether it’s in-person, over video call, or through instant messaging, managers should try to check in at least once a week—70% of employees say they want more weekly and even daily check-ins with their managers. Additionally, people who report getting meaningful feedback in the past week are four times more likely to say they’re engaged, says Gallup.
When you give feedback in the moment or in small increments along the way, you’re going to have a much better chance of helping employees improve or reinforce the things they’re doing well. If you wait too long, it’s not going to be relevant to what employees are working anymore, and employees are much more likely to feel like it’s too little late.
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2. Keep a Focused, Flexible Agenda
Agendas may seem too formal for some, but they can help you stay focused on what matters to the employee and make them feel purposeful (rather than just another meeting on the calendar).
Managers should ask the employee about the following topics:
- Wellbeing and engagement
- Work style and satisfaction
- Culture and team dynamics
- Concerns or roadblocks
- Professional development opportunities
- Personal connection insights
- Feedback and areas for support
If you need help coming up with an overall purpose, here’s an example of a description you can add to your one-on-one meeting:
“This is our time to talk about your personal and professional growth, goals, and development opportunities. Both of us are expected to contribute to the agenda. However, you’re ultimately the owner of this meeting, so your agenda items will be our first priority.”
3. Be a Present and Active Listener
For managers to have successful one-on-one meetings, they need to practice becoming better communicators through active listening. Active listening is about showing the other person you’re paying attention.
- Ask clarifying or follow-up questions to make sure you understand what the employee is saying.
- Never interrupt. Let your direct report finish their thoughts (and actually listen to the rest of their thoughts).
- Take notes, especially if there’s something you need to do for your employee.
Most of all, remind yourself that a successful one-on-one meeting is one where your employee is able to share how they’re feeling.
4. Offer Constructive Input and Support
One-on-one meetings are an incredible opportunity for leaders to build trust and rapport with everyone on their team. Instead of defaulting to status updates, managers should work to remove roadblocks and give their employees the resources they need to do their best work.
Here are a few better examples of how you can offer constructive input and support:
- How are you feeling about your workload? Too much work or poor project management can easily lead to burnout. It’s your job to notice when your employee is stressed or anxious, understand what’s behind it, and adjust accordingly.
- How have you already tried to solve this problem? Instead of immediately solving their problem for them, empower your employee to solve it themselves by suggesting relevant resources or people to ask.
- What was your process in this case? Obviously, in the case of a problem, you can help them identify where they can improve, but it’s equally important to point out when they have a successful process in place so they can replicate that great work.
- Is anything slowing you down or blocking you right now? How can I help or support you? Sometimes, employees may not have the visibility or authority to solve every problem in their way, so your job as a manager is to smooth out the road.
- What are you working on that’s most in line with your overall goals? Not everyone has a set career path in mind, but this question helps you understand their growth and development interests plus how their role currently contributes.
»Learn More: The Best Practices of Giving Employee Feedback
5. Encourage Incremental Improvement Through Feedback
One-on-one meetings provide a valuable opportunity for managers to deliver incremental improvement through feedback to their direct reports.
Here are a few key strategies to help your employees be more receptive to your feedback:
- Begin by acknowledging the employee's strengths and accomplishments, fostering a positive atmosphere before delving into areas for improvement.
- Rather than overwhelming employees with a laundry list of criticisms, identify a few key areas where employees need to grow, and provide clear guidance on how to enhance performance there.
- Regularly revisit previous discussions to track progress, provide ongoing support, and reinforce the importance of incremental improvement.
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