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Dynamic Duos: A Survival Guide for 'One-on-One' Meetings

A woman is watching a video on her computer.

​Managers may have differing views about engaging and bonding with team members, but one area where interpersonal skills are in high demand is one-on-one employee meetings.

According to data from Quantum Workplace and Gallup:

*Staffers who meet regularly with managers on a one-on-one basis are three times more likely to be engaged on the job than employees who don't have those meetups.

*86 percent of "highly engaged" companies hold one-on-one meetings regularly, compared to 50 percent of "disengaged" firms.

*Turnover at software giant Adobe dropped 30 percent after the company switched from annual performance reviews to more frequent one-on-one meetups.

"One-on-ones aren't just for talking about goals or banging out a task list together," said Adam Weber, chief people officer at Emplify, an employee engagement advisory firm in Fishers, Ind. "They're meant to create a strong foundation for relationships with employees. To that end, these meetings should have a balance of tasks, goals, rapport and feedback. It's essential to use this time to build a solid relationship with each of your employees, where you feel you can give constructive feedback that will be well-received."

To reach that engagement level, management experts advise embracing these one-on-one strategies:

Let the employee start the meeting. Give staffers the power to get their points across early.

"Maybe they've come in with an entire agenda that they want to cover with bullet points, questions and key objectives," Weber said. "Maybe they just want to talk to you for 10 minutes about a show they're watching. It's their time, so you should set up your meetings to reflect that."

 If employees are reluctant to take the reins, Weber has a suggestion.

"If one of my employees isn't quite sure where to start, I ask them to pick a color to reflect on how they're showing up today," he said. "Red means there's something seriously wrong, like a pressing issue or fire. Yellow means they are doing OK—not feeling their best, but also not their worst. Green means they feel great and positive and are showing up in a good place."

Lay the groundwork. For Kristine Stevenson, a financial coach at Advocate Financial Coaching, an advisory firm in Austin, Texas, the hard work comes before a one-on-one employee meeting.

Stevenson, who regularly held one-on-one meetings as a remote manager at TurboTax, strongly urges each side to prepare prior to meetups.

A manager should set expectations up front. "State how often you'll meet and when," Stevenson noted. "In the fast-paced workplace at TurboTax, relationships must be quickly built and steadily maintained over the course of a number of stress-filled weeks, which was no small task."

Make a list and stick to it. To run her one-on-one meetings efficiently, Stevenson created a meeting "set list" for herself and her team members (she managed 31 people and met them one-on-one twice a month).

Here's how she laid out her meeting blueprint:

*Limit the meeting to 30 minutes.

*Schedule no more than 15 meetings per week. "This allows for good preparation ahead of time," Stevenson said.

*Use OneNote (Microsoft's note-taking software tool) or a similar notes tool to document what is discussed or what needs to be captured during the meeting. "You want to capture snips of metrics or stats to paste in OneNote," she added. "Later on, refer back to these metrics to compare and contrast improvements in subsequent one-on-ones to see if improvements are being made. Also, use your notes to capture personal details about life outside the company, recording things like pets, family, where they live, a college they love, a favorite sport and meaningful things like that."

*Always start the meeting with a two- or three-minute chat asking how the employee is doing. "Make sure you mean it," Stevenson said.

*Try to start the meeting with praise or positivity messaging before moving to more challenging areas.

*Ask your employee, "Based on what we're discussing, what do think you could say or do differently?" to solve a problem or to improve in a specific area. "Get their buy-in as part of the one-on-one process," Stevenson said.

* Adopt a coaching mindset. "This means you ask good questions and help guide the employee so they find the answer," Stevenson noted.

Make sure you're getting the information your company needs. "Start off with requesting feedback from your team member on recent changes in the organization," said Ben Heinkel, co-founder at Barcelona, Spain-based Ethical Clothing, an online platform that offers advice on energy-efficient clothing brands. "That shows you value their opinion and appreciate what they bring to the table. After that, I follow up with action points and issues discussed in previous meetings and check the team member's progress and offer my help, if needed."

Once per quarter, Heinkel checks in to ensure an employee's position and responsibilities at the company remain aligned with their dreams and goals. "I always close with a request for feedback for myself, to understand how I can improve and follow up on that feedback," he said. "There is nothing worse than an employee mustering the courage to criticize the boss, and having that boss completely ignore the conversation afterwards."

Use the meeting to push for more robust performance. Refer to an employee's most recent performance review and have one area of improvement to highlight during a one-on-one meeting.

"As a manager, you're always watching your people grow, so these improvement areas will become clearer to you and to the employee," Weber said. "Remind your team member how the area of improvement you're bringing up will help them succeed. Use a one-on-one meeting to show your staffer how the steps they're taking today—no matter how small—are moving them forward."

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2001) and The Career Survival Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2004).


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