Your 1-1 meetings are inefficient. Here's what you can do instead.

1-1 Meetings

This may be a bit of a controversial post, so I want to get a few things out of the way before jumping into the main points of my argument:

  1. I think 1-1 meetings might be the most important meeting you can have as a team leader. If you don't have personal, 1-1 interaction with your reports on a regular basis, you might be a bad leader.
  2. I am a fan of these meetings. I enjoyed them as an individual contributor, team leader, and I enjoy them now.
  3. I think routine communication habits like 1-1 meetings are what separate the great leaders apart from the not-so-great ones. It's why I started working on Friday in the first place.

With that being said, I think there's a lot of cruft that's built up over the past few years. I understand that for many, these meetings are sacred due to the meaningful human interaction that can transpire. At this same time, this shouldn't keep us from exploring how to make these meetings more effective and efficient.

That's the point of the rest of this post.

Is there a way to improve these meetings while retaining the personal element?

Let's start off by diving into what the best practice advice looks like.

Current best practice advice for 1-1s

Right now, if you were to spend a few minutes searching around for advice on how to conduct a 1-1 meeting, you might triangulate that the "best practices" look like the following:

  • It should be 30 minutes
  • It should happen weekly
  • You should do this with all your direct reports
  • The employee should own the agenda and come prepared with topics for discussion.

Heck, I even wrote a guide about this a couple years ago and it's one of the top results for 1-1 meetings in search results.

If a team leader follows this advice with a team of five direct reports, they will spend approximately 2.5 hours per week in these meetings. This assumes that these meetings don't run over, which depends on the person ūüėĄ

These meetings tend to feel like a therapy session at work, so team leads don't want to cut the meeting off when one of their employees is in the middle of venting. I certainly wouldn't feel good telling someone, "hey, sorry to cut you off, but your 30 minutes is up."

This is precisely why 1-1 meetings become inefficient over time. This gravitational and emotional pull prevents many people from objectively evaluating the effectiveness of these meetings.

Before I jump into recommendations for improving these meetings, I'd like to go back to source material for where one on ones originated and show you how the original framework has drifted over time.

High Output Management: the origin of 1-1 meetings

All paths point to 1-1 meetings originating via Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel and the author of what I consider to be the best book on managing a team - High Output Management.

In this book he introduces the concept of 1-1 meetings. Quite frankly, it looks a bit different than the best practice advice outlined above. 

1.) "They should be 30 minute meetings"

According to Grove, "there really is no answer to this, but the subordinate must feel that there is enough time to broach and get into thorny issues....I feel that a one-on-one should last an hour at minimum. Anything less, in my experience, tends to make the subordinate confine himself to simple things that can be handled quickly"

Interesting. That's a bit different than the current best practice advice.

2.) "These meetings should happen weekly"

According to Grove, "How often should you have one-on-ones? Or put another way, how do you decide how often somebody needs such a meeting? The answer is the job - or task-relevant maturity of each of your subordinates. In other words, how much experience does a given subordinate have with the specific task at hand?"

Interesting. Once again, quite a bit different than the best practice advice.

3.) "You should do this with all your direct reports"

According to Grove, "At Intel, a one-on-one meeting is a meeting between a supervisor and subordinate, and it is the principal way their business relationship is maintained."

Good. The best practice advice applies to this one ūüėā

4.) "The employee should own the agenda"

According to Grove, "it should be regarded as thee subordinate's meeting, with its agenda and tone set by him."

Okay, now we are 50% right with the best practices.

Key Takeaway

My goal with showcasing the origin story was not to discount current approaches and routines - one size doesn't fit all teams.

My point was to show the drift that's taken place from the original advice and to prime you to be a bit more open-minded by proposing a new approach to your 1-1 meetings (that also happens to be quite a bit more efficient).

Introducing a more efficient approach to 1-1 meetings

In the rest of this post, I'm going to show you another approach that you might consider. This new approach can:

  • Cut the number of real-time 1-1 meetings you have by 50%, which saves you at least five hours per month (and saves your team another five hours)
  • Improves the effectiveness of your 1-1s, reducing the awkwardness and "prodding" that happens in the first 15-20 minutes of the meeting
  • Gives you valuable & more honest insight than a real-time meeting.
  • Creates just enough structure so 1-1s are truly the "employee's meeting"

Here's how this works.

Step #1: Schedule a bi-weekly 1-1 meeting cadence

The first step is to schedule a bi-weekly meeting cadence and to chunk these real-time meetings together so they are back-to-back (in the morning or afternoon). This should probably happen on a Tuesday or Wednesday. This step isn't exactly rocket science.

Some of you may already be saying, "no no, this should be weekly, otherwise you can't catch potential problems as quickly as you should."

True!

Keep following along to the next steps. We have a way to handle that, but it's going to look a bit different.

Step #2: Run an asynchronous check-in every week

This is where the traditional path starts to diverge a bit!

We are going to create a feedback loop to catch these potential problems and understand the general mood of the people on our team, but we don't need a meeting to do this. We can do this asynchronously and complement things with a bi-weekly real-time meeting...or ad-hoc follow-up meetings if necessary.

How it works:

  1. Ask your team a few questions approximately 24 hours before your 1-1 meetings
  2. Ask questions to gauge mood, performance, and to collect discussion topics
  3. Responses should only be visible to the team leader

At Friday, we can help you automate this cadence (try it free), here's how I have it setup with my team:

1-1 Meeting Check-In

Questions to ask:

  1. How did you feel about the week? (emoji question)
  2. How productive were you this week? (1-10 scale)
  3. What went well this week?
  4. What do we need to work on next week?
  5. Should we sync up about this feedback in real-time? (yes/no)

You can see with this cadence I have people fill this out at the end of the week, but you could easily customize the questions to be something like the following:

  1. How are you feeling about work? (emoji)
  2. What went well this week?
  3. What should we discuss in our 1-1 meeting?

One major benefit of the emoji question in particular is that people process emojis similarly to how they process facial expressions.

Collect responses and use this data to kickstart meetings:

As the responses roll-in, you can use this insight to kickstart your 1-1 meetings.

1-1 Check-In

Another benefit to this approach is that you can start to benchmark trends and quantify results over time. 

Why this complementary approach works

With an asynchronous check-in, there's little data loss. In fact, you may get better data. The reason why is that asynchronous communication has some interesting benefits listed below.

1.) People are more honest behind a screen

Have you seen people on Facebook or Twitter say things they would never say in-person? This is called the online disinhibition effect, here's how it's defined:

Online disinhibition is the lack of restraint one feels when communicating online in comparison to communicating in-person.

This may seem obvious. What may not be as obvious is benign online disinhibition:

Benign online disinhibition describes a situation in which people get benefit from the absence of restraint on the cyberspace. With the help of internet anonymity, people could share personal feelings or disclose themselves in the way they are reluctant to do in real life.

The takeaway is that people can be more honest behind a screen and you can use this in positive ways, especially to collect rich insights before your meetings.

2.) The ability to revise and create a clear message

The next advantage of an asynchronous 1-1 check-in is that it allows people to revise their message and establish a bit more clarity vs. being put on the spot with an unexpected question in a meeting.

Some people don't mind being put on the spot. Some people would prefer to have a little time to think and formulate their thoughts.

Once again, as a leader, this helps you capture information and insight that you probably wouldn't be able to get in a real-time meeting.

3.) A record can be saved and referenced over time

Another benefit to asynchronous 1-1 check-ins is that it automatically creates a running log of notes that you can reference over time. This can help resolve any ambiguity as it's the equivalent of transferring a conversation into "long-term storage."

4.) You can use this info to be more efficient when you meet in-person

This last point is self-explanatory, but you can use the asynchronous check-in to kickstart the conversation before you walk into the meeting. As a result, you can accelerate the conversation and talk about the meaningful topics and spend less time with the icebreaker/small-talk.

Key takeaway

When asynchronous communication is paired with real-time interaction and relationship-building, it can create additional benefits. While I don't believe there's a replacement for spending time building relationships in-person, asynchronous communication can play a complementary role and allow you to spend more time building relationships and less time asking icebreaker questions.

Parting thoughts

In conclusion, I think it should be okay to question the effectiveness of 1-1 meetings in their current format, especially considering this format is a departure from the original method proposed by Grove.

I can understand that you want to give your team space to give honest feedback and to have enough time for coaching, but you can dramatically improve the effectiveness of these meetings by asking a few questions beforehand.

This approach can dramatically reduce the number of meetings you have, while retaining the most valuable parts of your 1-1s. I've done this for years and it works.