How to do 1:1 meetings effectively: What works for experienced leaders

For some leaders, 1:1 meetings are a popular part of their work, and other leaders struggle with how to grasp them properly. Whether you're a rookie or a veteran, we've got practical tips from experienced leaders just for you. What works for them? Take a peek under the hood of their work with people.
Lenka Šilhánová
May 2, 2023

Why do 1:1 meetings?

There are leaders who may see them as wasted time not spent on 'real work'. However, the opposite is true, 1:1s are one of the cornerstones to building trust and good relationships within a team. They have a direct impact on engagement and loyalty because they make people feel that they are being heard and their concerns are respected. It's also an opportunity to talk through obstacles, thereby increasing productivity.

Keeping your team happy and engaged is one of the main roles of a leader, which is why 1:1s are one of the best tools to achieve this. "From a team leader's perspective, I quite like these meetings, I enjoy them, I enjoy pushing people, pushing myself, and I enjoy seeing progress," revealed our very own Dušan Murčo.

How often should you do 1:1s?

It depends on the size of the team, the agenda, and whether you work in remote or office mode. "Personally, I prefer a weekly structure because since we are not in the same office, I have time to see how people in the team are doing and what they are experiencing not only at work, but also outside of work. It helps me better understand the unspoken things—their personality and often the reasons behind their attitudes or decisions. So I definitely recommend it, especially in a remote environment," explained Eva Kianičková, Head of Customer Care in CEE, Websupport/Loopia.

Jakub Žilinčan, VP of Global Marketing, Berlin Brands Group, spends 4-6 hours per week on 1:1 and uses different types of meetings depending on the agenda. "Quantitatively and structured through monthly 'team pulse checks', qualitatively through unstructured 1:1 discussions and last but not least on occasional offsites where you can learn the most in a relaxed atmosphere."

What should you talk about on 1:1s?

The key is to have a clear agenda so that the meeting is productive and clear expectations are set. "For me, 1:1s are about two basic things: feedback and people development. With new people I used to lead it, but after a while we got to a point where people were leading 1:1s a bit on their own—so they were better prepared for it and enjoyed it. When it has a clear agenda, they can take a whole month to get feedback on what they want to say and really prepare the notes ahead of time," recommends Dušan Murčo.

However, at 1:1s, you don't just have to deal with the workload, it's an opportunity to get valuable feedback that leaders shouldn't be afraid of. "I would add not only feedback on the employee, but also interest in the employee's feedback on the company, job description, tasks, and more. 1:1s seems like a great opportunity to possibly pick up on an employee's dissatisfaction at a time when I can still do something about it. And a lot of leaders are simply afraid of feedback—because what if they find out the employee is unhappy. I agree with listening—we often have a tendency in 1:1s to whizz through the agenda in excel, check KPIs, and not care. But it should be the meeting where there is no one else on the team who is heard more or speaks up faster. And to be able to listen to my colleague, I need to be able to be silent," advises Barbora Malinovská, freelance coach, mentor, and trainer.

Another important ingredient for good 1:1 meetings is a review of progress, both work and development. So what to focus on? "Look at what was said at the last 1:1 and say what is the current state, where has it moved, what is the relevance, e.g. for meeting personal goals, what has changed, be fair. And a separate chapter is listening and clarifying (listening for understanding rather than reacting, even if we want to give useful feedback), giving space, not being afraid of silence, and then putting it on 'paper'," adds Lenka Karlíková, Life & Business Coach (ACC, ICF) and Trainer.

What to avoid doing?

Irregularity of meetings. Don't do them when it suits you, because that will give people a sense of unreliability. On the other hand, we're all only human, and there are situations where it doesn't make sense to push the meeting to happen at all costs.

"I agree with the regularity and it's an ideal top state, but (!) there are times when I really see that people would benefit from a bigger break in my time. Then we keep a weekly 1:1 on the calendar, but I send them out at that time to have coffee, go for a walk, read, play in the game room, just clear their head without the risk of someone filling that time with another problem to solve. Sometimes it's more beneficial than being cajoled, but it really does take a good intervention when it's needed. Not being afraid to break the rules (even my own) is a good leadership quality for me," Eva Kianičková revealed with honesty.

In other words, have meetings planned in advance so that both parties can count on them. But don't cancel unless absolutely necessary.

Another thing to avoid is mental absence. If you are looking at your phone during a meeting, you are subconsciously letting the other party know that they are not important enough to you to give them your full attention. We live in an age of fragmented attention, notifications jump at us from left to right, and so the art of being present in the moment becomes a superpower. For leaders, this is especially true.

"Be 'there'. Don't do anything else while you're doing it, don't answer the phone, don't do notifications, don't multitask (especially if you have 1:1 as a remote call). Be there for your team member," adds Dušan Murčo. "Just the signal that the phone is on the desk is bad. Change the environment—make those meetings outside the office. Go for a walk or go out for coffee/cake/etc.," adds Michal Dragan, Head Of Digital, Slovakia Travel.

What to do with 1:1 outputs?

What is written is given. "Take notes and save them to disk so you can both refer back to them. If they show clear steps to take as a leader—work on them. Because if it goes to waste, people will stop liking 1:1s, and feel like there's no point. You can start your next 1:1 meeting by reviewing what you talked about last time and where it led," recommends Dušan Murčo.

If you have more senior people in your team, they are probably used to taking their own notes and organizing their work independently. However, they will need to know what the priorities are (for example, to follow the Eisenhower Principle or any of the other methods) and what the context of the tasks is in order to be able to work independently.

Juniors and newbies need to be given more support without micromanaging them. In addition to the meeting notes, it will be nice to create specific assignments with tasks and guide them to be able to handle the tasks on their own like their more senior colleagues.

What do you actually ask the team?

Good questions are essential. Without them, the conversation may stall and you won't get what's on your agenda resolved. "I would add topic areas. I always have a set of questions ready that track well-being, because that's the bottom line for me on a 1:1. I ask them, if necessary to spark discussion, at every meeting. However, in addition to these, I also prepare topics for discussion that are driven by either the time of year, the current needs of the business, or significant changes," Igor Dudinsky, Chief Executive Officer, Enkon.

We are preparing a practical assistant for leaders that will recommend quality questions for different situations. Think of it as the secret weapon of effective leaders. Want to be one of the first to try the assistant? Leave us an email and we'll get back to you as soon as it's ready.

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Leaders, how do you do 1:1 meetings? Share your experiences with colleagues in the comments on LinkedIn and forward this article to colleagues because sharing is caring.

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