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I have worked in places where one-on-one meetings (a meeting where only the boss and one other employee are present) are a weekly thing and topics can vary from "what did you do this weekend" to "do you think this project is on track" and "I would like to learn this technology" to places where these never occurred and at best you would send e-mails about some things and you would be lucky to have them acknowledged.

What is the purpose of these meetings? What should I be trying to get out of them? and What is my boss looking to get out of them? If it is just status reporting why not just do that as a group or via email?

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Voted to close as too broad - different places have different purposes. Even some of those various purposes are actually productive/useful. –  Telastyn Aug 22 at 16:18
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Hi user2813274! I've edited your question to better fit our format and hopefully get you more answers and upvotes. Please feel free to edit it some more if I messed anything up or to improve it further. I hope to see you around! :) –  Matt Giltaji Aug 22 at 16:22
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@Gnat - I think he meant looking for a guideline. I think the core question from the title is good. But the edits have taken it away from a good base into something less on topic. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Aug 22 at 17:11

4 Answers 4

up vote 16 down vote accepted

First things first: I've worked in a number of different industries, but always related to software development. I will attempt to explain why for my points, so you can adapt them to your situation.

Also, further reading for those who haven't already from a manager's perspective.

What are they?

Generally, when people talk about one on ones, they mean a semi-formal meeting (almost always in the boss' office) scheduled between you and your boss (or you and each of your direct reports) on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. I've seen ones scheduled less frequently, but I do not recommend it (see below for why).

What are they for?

1. Getting feedback

From the manager side of the table, the far most valuable thing I got from one on ones is feedback on how I'm doing as a manager. What works? What doesn't? Since your boss will infrequently be around to see you interacting with your team, and your team will be wary to provide feedback in group settings - this provides really the only time for you to get that feedback.

2. Listening

More often than not, one on ones end up being bitch-fests (for lack of a better term). As a manager, you will often end up acting as a stand-in therapist. This is useful to you as a manager because you can learn what frustrates your reports and why. You learn what is important to them. You build trust that you're someone your reports can talk to without fear of judgement.

As an employee, having a manager who is capable of listening - and who at least feigns interest in what makes my job annoying/difficult/frustrating is invaluable. It is the single largest thing that contributes to my job satisfaction. I understand that you won't be able to solve all the problems; maybe none of them. But by simply caring about the problems I face is a step above many managers.

3. Giving Feedback

There's an old adage about yearly reviews that "in the best reviews, nothing is a surprise". This is your opportunity to provide your direct report with feedback about how they're doing. What is good? What could they do better? How? What did you discuss at the last 1:1, and did it work?

4. Learning to work together as a manager and employee

This ties into feedback, but is important enough to get its own bullet. Everyone is different. Managers have different management styles. Employees have different work styles. People have different personalities. The relationship between a manager and their direct report is a special one though. Once you get that relationship where one person can tell another what to do (or else), things get weird. The one on one is the time for the two of you to work out the differences that make you each special, and line it up with the whole "order you around" thing.

The manager needs their direct report to do well for them to do well. And the direct report needs their manager to do well for them to do well. Now you need to figure out how you can best help each other do that.

5. Career Planning

Along those lines, the one on one is the time to talk about all of the long term things that matter to the direct report. Where is my career going? How am I going to get there? Too often people are swamped in the day to day work to focus on the long term work to make themselves the best employee they can be. As a manager, this is where you can save yourself a lot of headache later by helping your reports be satisfied with their career, not just their work.

6. Clarifying/Reinforcing Messages

How many times have you seen a presentation, and it concludes with "okay, any questions?". All the time. How many times have there actually been questions? It's uncommon. As a manager, here's your opportunity to follow up with your direct reports to make sure that they understand the message given, and have a private opportunity to voice concerns or ask questions that due to human nature, were left unasked in the group.

What are they NOT for?

1. Skipping

The number one thing that managers can do to harm their team is to cancel or be consistently late to their one on ones. It's essentially saying to an employee "your well-being is not as important to me as X". A quick and effective way to kill employee engagement.

2. Talking about yourself

As an employee, I don't want to have a meeting where I hear about the boss' Schnauzer. As a manager, I actively don't want to hear about your wife/kids lest I be accused of discrimination later. Most importantly though, socializing isn't something that's limited to the boss and the direct report. "Get to know you" time is best served with the whole team, so everyone can get to know each other.

3. Praise

This is an odd one I know. Praise is a necessary part of feedback, but if the direct report is truly deserving of praise, then they are deserving of public praise. In today's workplace, where teams so often interact having a manager come out and say "Bob did a great job with X. Thanks Bob!" is powerful.

4. Status

You don't need to meet in person to get status. As a manager, if you need to wait a week or two to get status, you likely don't know what's going on.

4b. Current Projects

Along those lines, a one on one isn't really about solving problems with your current work. Sure, some things will come up, but you spend the other 39-79 hours a week doing work. Spend the time on employee improvement. Also, any current work problem should be dealt with as a team, not one on one.

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I am not surprised that in your experience the spectrum of topics covered was large.

I believe that those one-on-one meetings are a way for supervisor and direct report to connect, not only as co-workers but also as human beings.

Therefore, I would not impose an agenda on those meetings and would let the individuals decide for themselves what they want to talk about.

It is a way for the supervisor to keep an eye on what is happening and applying minute course corrections week by week rather than huge corrections on a more irregular basis.

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+1 Never underestimate the long-term advantages of people treating each other as human beings. It can prevent a lot of misunderstandings and tends to keep things positive. I worked at a company where the boss encouraged people to socialize even on the job. –  JeffO Aug 22 at 17:06

I think they are most needed in environments where the managers and employees don't naturally interact through the day. I think they are also sometimes needed when the manager is significantly different from the employee (such as age, gender, personality type, very large seniority gap (a trainee is less likely to feel comfortable talking to a VP even if it is his immediate boss), etc.) to the point where the employee might not naturally come confide in this person when needed. People who are new to the workplace espcially seem to need it in order to really understand the boss's needs and perspective. No one teaches you how to deal with a boss when you are in school.

I have learned through the years to go to my boss when it is needed and to make sure there are no festering issues. So I would not find a formal on on one either useful or appropriate at this stage in my career. Now it would be more of an annoyance that is interrupting what I need to accomplish.

But when I was young, that was a different story. I was shy and somewhat intimidated about talking to my boss. It didn't help that my first real boss, didn't actually give me any feedback good or bad. I didn't learn to help my boss help me by communicating until I moved on to another job and had a much more competent boss. That person did make it a point to talk to me individually and often (although never on a formal schedule) and I learned what kind of information he needed from me and how to talk to anyone in the organization and why I needed to.

So as I see it, the first reason for having one on ones is for the employee and the boss to get comfortable dealing with each other and to gain some trust in each other. This is espcially critical that you develop that trust so that when there is a serious issue that needs to be brought up (such as how to deal with the impact of your cancer diagnosis or the guy who is attacking you in the office (2 subjects not chosen at random)), the employee will feel comfotable talking to the person who needs to know.

It is not so much about passing information up the line (although that happens too) because there are other channels for much of that.

It can be for bringing up issues you might not feel comfortable talking about in a group. For instance, many people won't discuss problems they are having in front of other people. So they may say everything is fine in the group and then come talk to you privately about an issue. And certainly there are some issues that only belong in a one on one such as when my coworker had to bring up her cancer diagnosis.

My personal opinion is that formal scheduled one on ones tend to defeat the purpose. This becomes something we have to do and it doesn't happen on the schedule of when you might actually need to bring something up. I tend to prefer the boss making sure he stops by to talk to me often and him or her making sure I know that I am weelcome to come to him when needed. So many bosses are so scheduled with meetings though that this is becoming harder and harder and scheduling is the only way to get a block of time.

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My understanding is that the number one reason to have 1-on-1's (presumably with a manager) is employee engagement. The idea is that the efficiency loss from sacrificing two people's time for a meeting must be offset by the increased fervor (from inspiration) or efficiency (from obstacle removal) per time period.

Do you like examples? I like examples.

I would expect a 1-on-1 to open with the something like the following question:

What can I do to help make you enjoy your job even more?

  1. This is an open question that suggests open response. It allows the answerer to address any difficulties or problems faced in the workplace.

  2. This is a positive question. It allows discussion of difficulties without suggesting negativity.

  3. This is a holistic question. It focuses on employee directly rather than on product. Happy employees produce better products faster, and since we're optimizing in product, we must also optimize in employee happiness.

  4. It's not necessarily work related. An acceptable answer could be "Well, my progeny has a sporting event of some sort I can't make because of a certain meeting." Happy employee, better project. Excuse the meeting or reschedule.

  5. It still suggests work related. Another answer could be "I would like to be using TSP/PSP instead of agile since our project has more than 1000 function points." This allows direct discussion of workplace methodology and goals.

  6. It isn't necessarily employee focused. "I would like you to stop micro-managing." allows for improvement of the questioner as well as the employee. Note that this requires protections on the employee and an open, accepting workplace to be maximally efficient.

Another question I would expect to ask of an employee:

Do you have any goals for yourself or our team that we might be able to help you accomplish?

Similar to above.

If they aren't intended to be manager run, I would expect questions like:

Please help me better understand what our team is optimizing in that I may apply this reasoning to my individual responsibilities?

What more can I do to promote the long term health of the company?

Does our company have the capability to provide additional support for my co-worker?

Is senior management aware of this powerful new technology, and, if not, may I prepare a presentation for us to give?

I believe positive, respectful, caring dialogue in 1-on-1's will, in general, promote a healthier company and healthier, happier employees.

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When should they be manager run vs employee run? –  user2813274 Aug 22 at 16:37
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@user2813274 that depends on the purpose of the meeting. If the manager is trying to ask the employee what he can do to make things better, then the manager needs to take point. If the Employee is trying to improve the process than the employee needs to take point. Rule of thumb is if you request the meeting you have to lead it. –  RualStorge Aug 22 at 17:44

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