Why you need to stop cancelling your one-on-ones

Two people facing each other while they sit down by a wooden table with both their laptops open.

When I first became a manager, I kept hearing that one-on-ones were the most meaningful time leaders had to engage their team.

I didn’t get it.

Out of all of your responsibilities as a manager, how can a 30-minute one-on-one be the most important meeting in your calendar?

After over a decade leading venture-backed companies, talking with thousands of managers in the tech industry, and building products to help foster these conversations, I can now say for certain that, when done right, one-on-ones are a manager’s best tool for engaging their team. They positively impact employee motivation, satisfaction and, put simply, whether or not people show up to work and try.

Conducting effective one-on-ones can be the difference between a bad manager and a great leader. Below I outline the main benefits of one-on-ones when done right, tips for how to make them worthwhile, and why cancelling them does more harm than you think.

High performing teams thrive in safe spaces

Great results are born in safe spaces. In fact, Google ran a two-year-long study that analyzed over 180 internal teams to better understand common qualities of high-performing ones. Google found that psychological safety was the number one characteristic of an effective team.

What is psychological safety?

Harvard Business School Professor, Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” She explains that it gives people “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”

Psychological safety helps your team waste less time worrying about ego and how they come across, and more time focused on how to find the best idea.

When you have a dedicated place to build trust and be vulnerable with each member on your team, it’s easier for people to follow your lead and be themselves. Canceling your one-on-ones means that you’re losing key moments to foster a high level of psychological safety across the team. As a result, your team’s performance will take a hit.

How to foster psychological safety in your one-on-ones

It takes time to build a psychologically safe environment on your team. There’s no ‘hack.’ However, a best practice to help you get there is to practice vulnerable leadership.

Demonstrate that it’s okay to swim against the current and to be open. This could mean sharing that you’re burnt out, admitting you don’t understand something, or asking questions you think might be stupid.

The common advice is to ‘fake it until you make it.’ Don’t do that. Acknowledge your own fallibility and model curiosity. If you don’t demonstrate vulnerability as a manager, it won’t feel safe for your team to do so either.

A continuous feedback loop helps build trust

Many of us are accustomed to giving feedback during quarterly or annual reviews. This can’t be the only time you share feedback. Sharing feedback as soon as possible gives your team more opportunities to course correct and builds a foundation of trust. When you’re consistently exchanging feedback, no one’s startled to learn they’ve been doing something embarrassing for months.

Your one-on-ones are the ideal place to create a continuous feedback loop. They’re private, recurring touchpoints, so when you have feedback to share, you don’t need to send a stress-inducing Slack message asking for “a couple minutes to chat” or blindside your direct report in a quarterly review.

Instead, you already know you’ll have time to address any feedback each week, and vice versa. Cognitive psychologist LeeAnn Renninger explains that the best feedback givers also actively seek out feedback for themselves.

How to create a feedback culture in your one-on-ones

The lettuce pact is my favourite tool for making feedback sharing easier.

Everyone’s been in a situation where they or someone they know has lettuce in their teeth. We all know the right thing to do is tell the person about the lettuce, but it still feels difficult and uncomfortable.

There are a lot of similar situations at work when someone has metaphorical “lettuce” in their teeth.

Make a pact with your team member: if either of you have metaphorical (or literal) lettuce in your teeth, it’s your duty to tell each other. Then, when it inevitably comes time to share a small piece of awkward feedback, open up with the lettuce pact. It makes it clear that the feedback’s being shared with the best intentions and buy-in from both sides.

Cancelling one-on-ones signals you don’t care

There are huge benefits to one-on-ones, but when you start moving around or cancelling them it sends the wrong signals. You’re implying, whether conscious or not, that your direct report isn’t a priority.

It’s impossible to build safety and trust through a flakey touchpoint.

It seems small, but when your team members know they can rely on the time and day that you’ve committed to, they can focus their energy on preparing what they want to talk about during their dedicated time with you.

With a busy schedule, this is easier said than done. Here are a few best practices to help get started with consistent one-on-ones:

  • Work with your direct report to find a day, time and cadence you can reliably follow-through on. We talked to over 200 managers, and found that the most common cadence for one-on-ones are weekly, 30-minute meetings. But find what works for you and your team.
  • Ask your direct report to contribute three items to the agenda each week to make it meaningful, and encourage them to contribute to, if not own, the meeting.
  • Pull inspiration from questions other managers are asking in their one-on-ones, like:
    • What projects would you like to work on or be more involved with?
    • If you were managing the team, what would you do differently?
    • What’s your least favourite part of your day at work?
    • What’s something you’re proud of that happened this month?

Amidst the Great Resignation, it’s important to ensure you’re having consistent one-on-ones with your team. Depending on the role and seniority level, it can cost up to 150 percent of an employee’s yearly salary to replace them when they leave. One-on-ones help build a culture that fosters safety and trust and, ultimately, an environment where people want to stay. That’s why you should never cancel them.

Featured image from Airfocus on Unsplash

Brennan McEachran

Brennan McEachran

Brennan McEachran is the CEO and Co-Founder of Hypercontext, a suite of tools to help leaders and their teams streamline objectives, meetings and morale into one workflow. He has spent more than a decade in the leadership and employee engagement space building apps to create better relationships between managers and their teams.