Wednesday, April 21, 2021

One-on-Ones: Length

Actions to take: Schedule your one-on-one meetings for 30 minutes. The first 15 minutes is for whatever they want to discuss, the second 15 minutes is yours. Expect most employees to go over time. Allow it to happen several times, then offer a light request for change.

To be a truly effective boss, the most important thing you can do is build a trusting relationship with each employee. By far the easiest way to do that is through routine one-on-one meetings. recommends that those meetings are scheduled, 30 minutes, weekly, and rarely missed, with the first half of the meeting spent on whatever they want to discuss and the second half for whatever you want to discuss.

Upon rolling out weekly, scheduled one-on-one meetings with your team, a funny thing will happen. When you announce the plan, your employees will wonder what they could possibly talk about in the meetings. Several of them might even claim that they won't have anything to discuss. Then, after the newness of the first meeting, more than half of your of your team will take up the entire 30 minute meeting every week if you let them. There are two obvious ways to handle this: 

  1. Enforce the agenda by cutting them off at 15 minutes.
  2. Make the meetings longer.

Both strategies are wrong. 

For years, possibly their entire careers, your employees have managed without these meetings. Yet once the meetings are in place, many will fill every minute. What explains this apparent contradiction? The fact is, most employees have all kinds of things they would discuss with their boss given the opportunity. However, those things don't feel important enough to warrant interruption or a scheduled meeting. When you finally give an employee the opportunity to discuss literally whatever is important to them, the dam bursts. Years of thoughts, ideas, questions about their work, suggestions for improvement, and the simple desire to get facetime with the boss come flooding out.

Do not stifle this flow. Using one-on-ones as a designated time and place to talk about the work, conduct some coaching, give feedback, and so on, these are great benefits to doing them. But they are not the main purpose. The reason we do one-on-ones is to build a trusting relationship, which in turns makes communication fast and easy, which ultimately leads to better organizational outcomes. The outpouring of thoughts from your employees is a backlog of desire to forge that relationship and feel heard. You want to encourage that feeling, not put a stop to it. 

That is an effective argument for not strictly enforcing the 15-15 agenda. So why not just make the meetings longer? 

If you extend the meeting, you're treating the symptom, not the disease. Your employees are going to take every minute they can get because they aren't acclimated to the idea that this will indeed happen every week going forward. Don't make changes to the length of the meeting based on the way your employees act in the first few weeks. Thirty minutes per week is enough time to cover the highlights for almost every position in almost every industry. Once you get good at the meetings and comfortable with each other's communication style, that is enough time to hit 5-10 topics each. It is the rare employee indeed that needs to cover more than 20 issues every week.

You might think, "I'll just schedule them for an hour, and if they end early, great!" This will bite you. Eventually, things will level out, and an hour will be too long. Since the purpose of the meeting is relationship-building, ending it early would imply there is not enough relationship to build. While this is not rational (40 minutes is longer than 30 after all), it is how the situation will be perceived. Perhaps not consciously, and perhaps not by everyone, but enough that you need to avoid it. 

This leaves the question, what should you do when your employees suck up all the time in these one-on-ones? Let's break it down week-by-week:

  • Weeks 1-2: Ideally, wait until at least five minutes after the meeting was meant to be over. If you have another meeting immediately after, then wait until the very last minute. Find a place to gently interject to end the meeting. Show enthusiasm and appreciation for how much they engaged. Do not mention that they went over time.
  • Weeks 3-4: At 25 minutes in, find a moment to interject. Say, "I have a few things on my list to get to. Could we find a stopping point in the next minute or two?" Get through as many things on your list as you can without rushing too much, but end on time. 
  • Weeks 5-6: Do the same as weeks 3-4. Then at the end of the meeting, say something like this, "I love how much energy you are bringing to these meetings. These past few weeks, I've had a few agenda items I haven't been able to get to. Could you aim for wrapping your half of the meeting after 15 minutes next week?" (Note that this does not follow the feedback formula described in this blog. This is not feedback; it is a request.)

If this feels like an especially soft approach, that's because it is. Focus on your most important priorities. With one-on-ones, the most important priority is not teaching time management. It is to build the relationship and make communication easier. The method described above is guided by that priority.

The majority of employees will self-correct before you get to week 5. Of the remainder, most of will correct after one or two of these comments. Only perhaps 1 in 100 will need more explicit direction than this. In that case, go ahead and use the feedback formula to more directly advise them on the impact of their going over time. 

If there is anything very important you couldn't get to, avoid the temptation to go over time. Model the behavior you want. Instead, find a time outside of one-on-ones to address it. This shouldn't be unfamiliar. You just started doing these meetings. Handle it however you used to when you needed to address something with an employee.

Following this approach, you will get your one-on-ones smooth and efficient while maintaining your talkative employees' motivation and positivity.

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