5 Mistakes Managers Make During One-on-ones (and How to Avoid Them)

August 25, 2020

Managers are the single most valuable benefit that employers can offer their employees. In fact, a Gallup report found that one in two employees have left a job to get away from a manager and improve their life at some point in their career.

So, as leaders, how can we ensure that we are the manager that people want to work for instead of run away from? By taking the time to make the most of your number one opportunity for engaging employees and sharing feedback: one-on-one meetings.

While every one-on-one should be treated differently with each direct report, there are common mistakes every manager should avoid making during this time.

Let’s get started!

1. Mistaking performance reviews for one-on-ones

This is a more common misunderstanding than you’d expect. While 94% of managers claimed to have one-on-one meetings, 3% said they had these meetings every quarter.

Let’s make one thing clear: quarterly performance reviews are not the same as one-on-one meetings. The goal of each meeting is completely different:

The goal of performance reviews is to:

  • Review the performance of a direct report in the last three 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

The goal of one-on-one meetings is to:

  • Understand and eliminate roadblocks
  • Discuss growth and development opportunities
  • Share and receive feedback on an ongoing and frequent cadence
  • Give employees a dedicated time to bring up challenges, issues, feedback, and build a relationship with their manager
  • Provide ongoing coaching

While both are important to have, it’s critical that leaders don’t mistake them for the same thing. 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 occur.

2. Rescheduling, or worse, cancelling the meeting

Apart from sick days, vacations and emergencies, never cancel your one-on-ones. As a people leader, things can get extremely overwhelming. From juggling to manage your team with other responsibilities, rescheduling one-on-ones to give yourself a bit more time to check off things on your to-do list can be tempting.

While you might earn yourself an extra 30 minutes, you’ll actually be doing a disservice to yourself and your team. In fact, a Harvard Business Review study found that a cancelled 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 both time, frustration, and avoid sending the wrong message to your team.

Pro tip: Set a recurring calendar invite for all of your one-on-one meetings, and yes that includes your manager too!

3. Letting status updates dominate the conversation

The State of One-on-ones report mentioned earlier also found that 53.6% of managers responded that the purpose of their one-on-one meetings is to have a status update. These conversations are typically around things like:

  • What did you work on last week?
  • What are you planning to work on this week?
  • How far along is each project?

Instead of one-on-one meetings, these conversations belong in a scrum or daily standup. Leaders, remember that one-on-ones should be treated as a dedicated space for your employees to discuss their growth and development, professional goals, challenges, and share feedback.

If you find yourself stuck in danger of this, here are some ways you can stop one-on-ones from turning into status updates:

  • Reset expectations: Let your direct report know that you feel you’re talking about project updates during the one-on-one 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 in different one-on-one meeting questions to your agenda instead.

The data behind leaving status updates out of the conversation

One-on-one meetings are an incredible opportunity for leaders to build trust and rapport with every single person on their team. When you leave room to talk about things like growth and development, you’re also working towards engaging your team better. In fact, employees that get feedback from their superiors every week are 43% more engaged at work.

So that means, if status updates dominate your meeting, the opposite happens: you actively disengage your team.

Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace found that when employees receive consistent feedback around their performance, they become more attached to their work and company. As a result, that individual feels more motivated to produce higher quality work and experience higher levels of productivity.

According to the report, there are four levels of an employee’s performance development needs:

Status updates certainly have no place here, do they? This is not to say that you shouldn’t be sharing status updates across the team, it just means that these conversations should be avoided at all costs during one-on-one meetings.

4. Doing most of the talking

One-on-ones should be treated as an employee’s time with you. This means that not only should you let them dominate the conversation and agenda, but encourage this behavior too.

A couple ways to avoid doing most of the talking include setting expectations with your direct report and working on your own active listening skills.

Add expectations to your meeting description

Here’s an example of a meeting description you can add to your one-on-one:

“This is our time to talk about growth, strategy, company goals, and your personal development. Both of us own this meeting and are expected to contribute to the agenda and come prepared to discuss. However, you’re ultimately the owner of this meeting, so we will always go over your agenda items first.”

Don’t forget to make it your own and collaborate with your direct report before making it official.

Work on your active listening skills

Active listening makes you a better communicator because it pushes you to actually listen and absorb what the other person is saying. Some ways you can continue to practice this is to:

  1. Never interrupt. Let your direct report finish their thoughts (and actually listen to the rest of their thoughts).
  2. Remind yourself before every meeting that a successful meeting is one where your direct report is able to share how they’re feeling.

5. Expecting your direct reports to open up before doing so yourself

Remember that you’re in the position of power here and so it can be really intimidating for a direct report to open up to you. That’s why it’s important that you’re able to set the tone of the meeting and create a safe space where it’s okay to share thoughts, feelings, and challenges.

“I fully admit my own mistakes and areas that I’m personally looking to grow with my direct reports. I let them know that I’m a new manager and some of this is new to me, my goal is to work alongside them and get feedback along the way. This allows them to be comfortable sharing their fears, mistakes, and challenges with me. We’re all figuring it out and it’s okay to be honest about that.” –Connor Bradley, Growth Manager at Jobber

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 not only themselves, but their team too, are ones who are able to make the most out of their team. Some ways leaders can practice vulnerable leadership include:

  • Opening 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 really hard to be the manager you deserve, there’s definitely 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.”
  • Creating 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. Amy Edmunson walks through how you can do just that in her TED Talk.
  • Encouraging sharing. This goes beyond telling your direct reports that you’d love their feedback and input. How you receive feedback plays a huge part in whether or not your direct report will open up again. For example, if they share a piece of feedback with you and you blow up or react poorly, and 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!).

Wrapping up

One-on-one meetings are an incredible opportunity to build trust, share feedback, and push growth within yourself and your team. But, when approached incorrectly, they have the ability to cause friction, frustration and ultimately turnover. Avoid these five mistakes during your one-on-ones to truly make the most of your biggest opportunity to engage your team!

Author bio

Hiba Amin leads marketing at Soapbox, a meeting software that’s used by over 100,000 managers and their teams. You can find Hiba on Twitter.

Guest Blogger