Managing people is not an easy task. It doesn’t matter if you’re a sales, engineering, or marketing manager — being in charge of a team can be challenging, especially if you’re doing it for the first time.
Most managers know one-on-one meetings are an important part of their role. However, many of them are still using these meetings to ask for project updates, forgetting to collaborate on an agenda, and doing most of the talking — instead of letting their direct reports lead the conversation.
If you’re looking to improve the quality of your meetings with employees, you came to the right spot!
We compiled a list of the ten most common mistakes managers make during their one-on-one meetings, so you can avoid them altogether and develop great relationships with your direct reports:
1. Not collaborating on a meeting agenda prior to the meeting
The first mistake managers make is coming to their one-on-one meetings unprepared. This results in blank stares, awkward silences, and the typical “I don’t have much to talk about” from employees.
“It’s rare that an amazing conversation springs forth when nobody has a plan for what to talk about,” says Julie Zhuo, author of The Making of a Manager.
This is why the world’s greatest managers collaborate on meeting agendas before their one-on-one meetings:
“Every morning, I’ve gotten into the habit of scanning my calendar and compiling a list of questions for each person I’m meeting with,” says Zhuo. “Why questions? Because a coach’s best tool for understanding what’s going on is to ask.”
But planning what you are going to ask during the meeting is not enough. Just like it takes two to tango, it takes two prepared individuals to one-on-one! Let your direct reports know that you care about what they have to say, and encourage them to add talking points to discuss.
In The Manager’s Path, Camille Fournier recommends using a shared document to build your meeting agenda so you can know exactly what the other person wants to talk about ahead of time:
“For each person you manage, maintain a running shared document of notes, takeaways, and to-dos from your 1-1s. This is helpful for you to keep context about what has happened, and is useful for remembering when and what feedback was given,” says Fournier.
Learn how other managers are using Fellow to collaborate on 1-on-1 meeting agendas, assign action items, and track feedback.
2. Doing most of the talking
The second mistake you should avoid is speaking for the majority of the time.
According to Ben Horowitz, author of The Hard Thing About Hard Things, the key to a great one-on-one meeting is acknowledging that your direct report should be the one leading the discussion:
“During the meeting, since it’s the employee’s meeting, the manager should do 10% of the talking and 90% of the listening. Note that this is the opposite of most one-on-ones,” says Horowitz.
Here are a couple of things you can do to ensure your direct reports are doing most of the talking:
- Use a shared document and encourage them to collaborate with talking points.
- Add question prompts to get them thinking about those deeper topics before the meeting.
- Move their talking points to the top of the agenda (so they kick-start the conversation).
Asking your direct reports to add to the meeting agenda every time you have a one-on-one will empower them to lead the discussion, and ask those tough questions that might not get asked otherwise.
“I tell my reports that I want our time together to be valuable, so we should focus on what’s most important for them,” says Julie Zhuo.
3. Not inquiring about their overall well-being
In the book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman describes Emotional Quotient (EQ) as the ability to acknowledge different emotions and sense what people around you are feeling. In fact, research shows this is the most important quality a manager can have — even over technical and organizational skills.
In 2011, Google released a study that focused on understanding the qualities that make a great manager. After gathering and analyzing information from 10,000 managers and teams, Google came to the following conclusion about hiring managers based solely on their technical expertise:
“It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing,” said Google’s former VP of People Operations, Laszlo Bock. “It’s important, but pales in comparison. Much more important is just making that connection and being accessible.”
Another study conducted by the Australian School of Business found that managers that are empathetic and compassionate have the greatest impact on organizational profitability and productivity. This is why you should always ask employees how they are feeling during your one-on-one meetings.
“Once in a while, it’s useful to zoom out and talk about your report’s general state of mind — how is he feeling on the whole? What is making him satisfied or dissatisfied? Have any of his goals changed? What has he learned recently and what does he want to learn going forward?,” says Zhuo.
Asking these sorts of questions will help you get to know your people, and build more authentic relationships at work.
Once you start asking about more personal topics, your conversations will go much deeper — and naturally… feel a little awkward. However, great managers like Julie Zhuo argue that these “awkward” conversations help you develop a positive culture:
“There’s no wordsmithery that gets around the awkwardness of expressing a sentiment like, ‘I don’t feel that you recognize when I’m doing a good job’ or ‘Last week, when you said X, it made me feel as if you don’t really understand my project.’ But these things need to be said in order to be addressed, and with a bedrock of trust, the conversations become easier,” says Zhuo.
4. Making it a status update meeting
In the book Radical Candor, Kim Scott says that the purpose of one-on-one meetings is to listen and clarify — so you can understand how your direct reports are feeling, and the direction in which each person working for you wants to head in.
This is why you shouldn’t spend the entire meeting exchanging project updates or sharing information such as metrics and stats:
“If people just give you updates that could simply be emailed to you, encourage them to use the time more constructively,” says Scott.
Here are some things you can talk about to steer away from status updates:
- Team dynamics
- General engagement
- Challenges and roadblocks
- Career aspirations and goals
- Feedback and requests for change
“In 1:1s, I’d ask my reports for status updates. We’d go through the latest design work, the product debates of the moment, and the timelines and expectations for the next week,” says Julie Zhuo (In The Making of a Manager). “It turns out that doing this kind of knowledge transfer during 1:1s is poor management practice for many reasons. One-on-ones aren’t for the manager’s benefit; they should be about what’s helpful for the other person.”
5. Allowing distractions
You might not notice how often you look at your phone or glance at your emails during your one-on-one meetings, but your employees do.
Here’s our advice: be an active listener. Start by setting your phone and laptop to do not disturb, and focus on establishing eye contact with your direct report.
As Susan Scott argues in the book Fierce Conversations:
“You cannot be here, prepared to be nowhere else, when you are interrupted by beeps, buzzes, and bells.”
Mindful leaders do not just hear conversations. They listen and engage in the dialogue, take note of what’s being said and how people are saying it, and make continuous eye contact to ensure the person sitting on the other side of the table feels heard. Try to do this in your next one-on-one.
Sometimes, distractions can take the form of an interruption, or a comment that steers the conversation away from what your direct report has to say. Make sure you don’t get distracted by your own stories and ideas. Instead, focus on listening carefully to your employee:
“Don’t take the conversation away from the other person and fill the air with your stories. Leave your expert, storyteller, fixer, fix-it hat at the door. Come into the conversation with empty hands,” says Susan Scott.
6. Not following up on action items
Some conversations might not need action items, as the main goal of one-on-one meetings is to build positive relationships and trust with your direct reports. However, if your one-on-one meeting generates action items, make sure to follow through on them.
In some cases, it’s important to agree on ‘next steps’ — for example, when coaching employees on their career aspirations and professional development. These action items could be as simple as “read book X” or “meet up with an experienced professional in my field.” The important part is writing them down so you can keep track of these promises and follow-up in future one-on-ones.
“Many issues in a one-on-one lead to action required on the part of the subordinate. When they take a note immediately following the supervisor’s suggestion, the act implies a commitment, like a handshake, that something will be done. The supervisor, also having taken notes, can then follow up at the next one-on-one,” says Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, in the book High Output Management.
Like Grove and other experienced managers, you can leverage the power of one-on-one meetings by writing clear action items. This will not only make your meetings more productive but also make it easier for you to follow up on each direct report’s progress.
Learn how Fellow can help you keep track of action items and priorities.
7. Running out of time
According to Kristi Hedges, a leadership coach and author of The Power of Presence, giving someone your full, uninterrupted attention can make an extremely positive impact on your relationship with that person. This is why your direct report must never feel that you’re in a rush, or that you always have to run out of your one-on-one meetings.
For this same reason, you must avoid being late (and apologize if, for some reason, you are). If your employee has prepared an agenda and is looking forward to their weekly check-in with you, you don’t want them to feel that you don’t value this time. Here’s one piece of advice from Kristi Hedges:
“Come to the meeting focused and committed – don’t schedule between back-to-back meetings so you come late and have to cut out on the dot. Schedule meetings for 45 minutes rather than an hour.”
8. Always meeting in the office
We know life gets busy, and coming up with creative locations for your one-on-ones isn’t always realistic. However, research shows that you should take your meetings outside once in a while.
For instance, a study at Stanford University found that people’s creative output increases by an average of 60 percent when they are walking, and creative juices continue to flow even when they sit back down shortly after a walk.
Leaving the office is not only a good way to boost creativity — it can also make it easier to have those tough conversations:
“When you’re walking, the emotions are less on display and less likely to start resonating in a destructive way,” says Kim Scott. “Also, walking and looking in the same direction often feels more collaborative than sitting across a table and staring each other down.”
Meeting in the same room every week can feel repetitive for both you and your direct report. In order to avoid this, try switching up your one-on-one meeting location. If the weather is nice outside, go sit down at a bench in the park. If your office is near a coffee shop, walk there, grab a coffee, and have a nice chat.
“Your mind-set will go a long way in determining how well the 1: 1s go,” says Kim Scott. “I found that when I quit thinking of them as meetings and began treating them as if I were having lunch or coffee with somebody I was eager to get to know better, they ended up yielding much better conversations.”
9. Assuming your one-on-ones are effective
One of the most common mistakes managers make is assuming that their direct reports are benefiting from their meetings, instead of asking how they feel about them.
Have you ever asked your employees for feedback about your one-on-ones? Do they feel like these meetings are a good use of their time? Is there a different format that they’d like to try?
In the book Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott describes a manager that uses feedback forms to make meetings more effective.
He asks employees the following question after every one-on-one: “When you looked at today’s schedule and noticed our meeting, what was your immediate reaction?”
The answer options range from “Oh no! Two hours wasted” to “Great! I really need to talk about X.” He does this, hoping to get that last response most of the time.
This is one of the many ways in which you can use feedback to improve the quality of your meetings and your relationships with direct reports.
10. The worst one-on-one mistake … Not having them at all!
Let’s be real. The worst mistake some managers make is not scheduling weekly or biweekly meetings with their direct reports. In fact, some managers wait for quarterly (or yearly!) performance reviews to exchange feedback and have career conversations.
Luckily, forward-thinking companies around the world are encouraging more frequent communication between managers and reports by establishing one-on-ones as the norm.
The benefits of one-on-one meetings are vast. They empower you to foster great working relationships, enhance team productivity, and stay in the loop about issues.
If you’re just getting started with the habit, make sure to schedule a weekly or biweekly calendar event with every direct report (here’s a previous blog post we wrote to help you find your ideal one-on-one frequency!), create a shared meeting agenda, and let your employees know that the goal of these meetings is to get to know them more.
“Get to know their career so far, and ask them about their long-term career goals,” says Camille Fournier. “It doesn’t have to just be a focus on the next skill or promotion. Show that you are invested in helping them now and in the future.”
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The world’s best managers invest time in helping their direct reports grow. Avoiding these ten mistakes will help you have more productive one-on-one meetings, develop great relationships, and build a culture of guidance and trust! ✨