4 tips to make the most of your 1-on-1

Done well, 1-on-1 meetings can have a major impact on your work product, career trajectory and overall happiness at work.

Yet too often, 1-on-1 conversations are rushed, overly focused on deliverables-du-jour, or at worst, get postponed until there is “more space in the calendar.”

Whether you’re the boss or the employee, dedicating your focused attention to these conversations is crucial. Here are four tips to help:

Don’t put them off

We’re all busy, and the odds of your calendar magically one day freeing itself is quite low.

Because 1-on-1s aren’t typically viewed as urgent, they’re easy to kick down the road. Resist this trap. Continually delaying these longer-term, developmentally focused conversations can be costly in the long run.

After a few rounds of “next week, I promise,” strategic thinking, engagement and morale start to fade. Punting a 1-on-1 is exponentially worse when you’re the boss. If you’re a leader, you’re (hopefully) having 1-on-1 conversations with each one of your direct reports. Yet each person on your team is only having one 1-on-1. You need to give them your undivided attention.

Come prepared

When meetings are back-to-back, it’s easy to come “Dukes of Hazard” style skidding on one wheel into this important conversation.

Most 1-on-1 conversations involve some level of tactical update: Where are your projects? What roadblocks are you experiencing?

The more prepared you are to discuss the status of your work, the faster that part of the conversation will move and the more time you will have for longer-term discussions, like your career growth.

Take a few minutes before the conversation to think about what you’d like to accomplish in terms of delivering updates, mitigating challenges, and discussing longer-term topics.

Take notes

This makes coming prepared much more feasible. When you can confidently (as an employee or boss) start the conversation with, “Last week we talked about XYZ and the update on that is ____,” the pace of the meeting is more efficient.

Taking notes also enables you to look for themes. In conversation, themes are easy to miss.

For example, you might only spend one minute of the hour discussing a particular roadblock. In writing, they become more obvious. You’re more likely to notice the things that make the list every week.

Ask questions

Our ego gets in the way of asking questions. On the boss’ side, you don’t want to come across like you’re interrogating your employee. On the employee side, you don’t want to come across like you don’t have all the answers. Both assumptions are costly.

Questions are the jump-start of robust discussion — otherwise, your 1-on-1 is just a report-out. If you’re the employee, ask questions about your boss’ biggest priorities, what feedback they have on your work and how they see you growing in the future. If you’re the leader, ask questions about what challenges your employee is facing, what support they need from you, and how they’d like to grow in the organization.

I often think about 1-on-1’s like exercising. Will missing a workout kill you? No. Will continuing to deprioritize your health in favor of more “urgent” tasks cost you in the long run? Absolutely.

Without these grounding conversations, both sides of the relationship can become untethered, descending into an overloaded inbox of status updates. Taking the time to ground the work and the relationship always pays off.