As I sit waiting to board a plane, I notice a manager and employee of the coffee shop I’m in sitting at a table nearby. My ears perk up so I can eavesdrop a little. I love listening to effective communication between people at work. Great communication has the ability to create alignment, increase empathy, develop new skills, guide people through difficult times… I could keep going, but my basic belief is that most problems at work (and, I’d argue, outside of work) come down to communication issues.

So I listen in for a minute and realize that they are having a recurring talk, like a biweekly one-on-one-type conversation. This gets me even more excited, because these kinds of interactions can really create some momentum for great work. But as I tune in, I realize the manager doesn’t really know what questions to ask, that the focus is all wrong if he wants to create a powerful experience. The employee just isn’t that engaged in the process.

What a shame! If done right, these conversations can uncover deep truths, reveal previously unspoken concerns, and highlight future growth opportunities for both the employee and the manager, as well as the organization as a whole.

Rethinking the one-on-one

As a consultant, one of the best tools I have in my pocket besides my own experiences is to connect deeply with the people who work inside the client’s organization. My projects typically begin with one-on-one conversations with people on the team. There is so much to uncover, learn, and adapt from sitting right in front of us. This same technique is what I used for years as a leader in the restaurant industry.

But a lot of it goes untapped, because we approach the one-on-one conversation with the wrong frame of mind. Many savvy managers have created a space for one-on-one’s to happen with their team but then find that they aren’t getting the impact they had hoped for. In about 90 percent of these cases—where a manager and an employee actually meet on a regular basis, but the conversation isn’t producing the culture-boosting results promised above—the issue is that the conversation is focused on status-update types of things, or focused on the manager giving the employee feedback.
Neither of these things is wrong. They both need to happen on a regular basis. I’d suggest that reviewing important metrics and status updates has its own space as frequently as possible—like daily shift huddles, weekly results reviews, or shared “scoreboards” posted in the restaurant. And the feedback should be happening in the moment, as close to the behavior as possible.

But by turning your attention to your employee during the one-on-one, you can create an engaging conversation that is focused on their growth, their feelings, and the story they are telling about working with you. These conversations should be about obstacles, opportunities, and the learning behind the results and feedback. If you find that your one-on-one conversation could have been sent via email, I’d encourage you to step back and rethink it.

Creating a simple framework

Having a clear model for a one-on-one can help get things started and give you and your employee some expectations about what to expect and prepare for during the session. One of the reasons I see inconsistencies in the quality of these conversations is that neither party really has clarity on what to bring. So the conversations go back to status updates and feedback review. Try this 25-minute framework for quick and impactful one-on-one conversations instead.

  • 7 minutes: Review any action items from last time and catch up on personal life.
  • 15 minutes: This is the employee’s time to set the agenda. The employee should come with items to review, explore, and problem-solve together.
  • 3 minutes: This time is for the manager to review any important updates or changes. Avoid the tendency to use this time to provide performance coaching or corrective coaching. Both of these are best done outside of the one-on-one and as close to the issue as possible. Instead, share important company news, recognition for great work, or other departmental updates that impact the work of this employee.
  • 5 minutes: Use the final 5 minutes to review commitments, accountabilities, and action items due between this session and the next one. Either the manager or the employee should document the agreements. The easiest way to do this is to simply store the notes in the meeting invite in your calendar or with a shared document that you both have access to and refer to frequently.
Employee Management, Mike Ganino: Crafting Culture, Story