Three common traps to avoid when it comes to one on ones (and one thing to dial up)

One on ones with your direct reports are one of the most important meetings you’ll have as a leader. If you’re still not convinced, read this.

But it’s not enough just to have them. How you approach your one on ones, and what you focus on during them, can be the difference between wasting time or providing huge benefits to both you and your team member.  

Here are three common traps to avoid when it comes to one on ones – and one thing you should dial up right now:

1: You only focus on tasks and not enough on the person doing them. It’s important to check progress on projects. Are we on track? What might get in the way of deadlines and milestones? How are you going on KPIs (or whatever you call them)? But only having task-related conversations is a huge miss when it comes to one on ones. The best one on one meetings have “how are we/you going” conversations, as well as “what are we doing” conversations. The following discussion starters offer up the space to have this type of dialogue.

  • What have been the highlights and lowlights for you at work over the last month?
  • What are you finding challenging or difficult and how could I best support you?
  • What are you proud of?
  • What is an insight or learning from the last month? How could you apply this going forward?

2: Not listening and coaching enough. Advice giving feels good to the advice giver. And many leaders I work with sheepishly admit that their listening skills could be improved. Your direct report should be doing more of the talking in your monthly one on ones and you should be doing more listening and coaching. A powerful coaching question like the ones I outline in this blog (which includes a downloadable PDF with coaching questions) will mean your direct report feels listened to. It will also enable them to get better at problem solving, raising their self-awareness, and making better decisions. If you find yourself doing most of the talking, this is a sign you need to up your listening and coaching game in your one on ones.

3: Not asking or being open to receiving feedback. You might think that one on ones are for giving feedback on how that person is going in their job. You’re not wrong. They can be a great mechanism to review how that person is tracking. But they are also a chance for you to purposefully ask and receive feedback on how you are leading them. What you need to keep doing, stop doing, or start doing to improve the way you lead this person. The best leaders regularly seek feedback (including negative feedback) and don’t make it a career limiting thing when people are honest. Here are some great questions you can use to do this:

  • How do I get in your way?
  • What do you need me to dial up? Dial down?
  • If there was one thing that if I stopped doing, would improve the way we work together what would it be?
  • What are things I do or say which are helpful or make you feel valued?
  • Over the last month, what are the occasions when from your perspective we worked well together? When we didn’t?

And of course when they are honest, thank them, listen deeply, and reflect. If you do this with all your direct reports, you will quickly start to see themes emerging on how you can improve your leadership.

Those are three things to avoid when it comes to one on ones. Now, here is one thing you should dial up right now, given the challenging working environments we’re experiencing:

Check in on their wellbeing and show them that you genuinely care.

Research shows us that if a person feels their boss genuinely cares for them, they’re less likely to get burned out and will be more engaged.  

Here are some wellbeing questions you can pop into your discussion:

  • On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your wellbeing right now? What do you think might be influencing that score?
  • Overall, how satisfied are you with workload at the moment? Tell me more.
  • Do you feel there is anything that can be done to improve things at the moment when it comes to your wellbeing at work? How can I help?
  • What worries you the most when you’re at work?
  • When are you at your best at work? What are you doing? What are the conditions? What is present?
  • Compared to when you started your role, how would you say your mental health is? What might be behind that?

Start focusing on the person, not just tasks. Show them that you really care. Make this a two way feedback conversation. Do these things and you’ll see a massive difference – not just in the person and their performance, but also in the way you lead them.

3 Comments

  1. Jonathan M. Becker, PhD on October 6, 2021 at 10:02 pm

    This is good advice Suzi. I’ll incorporate these suggestions when I give one-on-one’s with my team members. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Christina Wedgwood on September 29, 2021 at 7:46 pm

    So good Suzi! Love these reminders ahead of doing 2 of our teams one on ones in the next 2 days. A couple of extra questions I’m going to weave in 🙂

  3. Jared Goad on September 29, 2021 at 5:59 pm

    Love this! I and other leadership team members follow something very similar with team members. Thanks for sharing this is my first time tuning in but I really enjoyed this read!

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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