How to Make the Most of One-on-One Meetings

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Corporate life comes with a lot of guidelines. There are rules about working hours, sick leave and vacation, as well as suggested protocols for everything from dress codes to complaint procedures. But look through any employee handbook and you'll be unlikely to find any guidance on how to best structure one-on-one meetings, even though they've become a standard part of the job. Here's how to make those mandatory check-ins more productive and use the time to get at the heart of more serious issues.

For Employees

Discuss good and bad highlights

It's sometimes reflexive to go into a meeting with your manager and unload on all the terrible things that happened during the week, what's not working, and areas you feel exasperated. While it's crucial to keep your boss up-to-date if a project is in danger or if there is a serious problem, ask yourself if all the negatives are worth talking about, and if that's the best use of the scheduled time. Just as important is to touch on what is working and what projects have you excited. By being just as vocal about the good parts of your job, you can help be more proactive in paving your career path and planting the seed early about projects you want to work on.

Explore growth options

Do you want to take on additional responsibility? Has it been several months since your formal review and you are curious about the next steps in your career growth? Again, don't go into the meeting saying you want a raise or a promotion (that's best left to more formal review meetings) or worse yet, ask vague questions. Do be sure you go into these regular meetings with extremely specific questions or recommendations about a project you'd like to lead or a next step you'd like to take. Then you can focus the discussion on a narrow topic and come up with a very specific plan.

Ask for feedback

It's not always easy to give or receive feedback at work, especially if it's going to be negative, but it's the best way to grow professionally. If your boss isn't overly communicative, ask specific questions about projects, including what they thought worked, what they felt didn't work, and suggestions for either revisions or changes they'd like to see next time. It's also fair to ask your manager to discuss what they perceive as your strengths and weaknesses – but keep it specific about projects or management style, not an overall review of your performance. Most importantly, remain open-minded and be ready to receive the feedback and put the advice to use.

For Managers

Keep a regular schedule

Too many deadlines and daily meetings mean everyone is short on time. Management experts advise unless there are extenuating circumstances, develop a regular weekly or bi-weekly schedule and stick to it. This helps your direct report feel valued, and when they know the meeting is recurring, will be better prepared to come with actionable discussion items.

Ask questions about long and short-term goals

There won't be time every week to talk about longer-term career (and personal) goals, but make time once a month or so to check in on issues beyond immediate action items. It will help develop a sense of community and trust and encourage your team to proactively come to with issues that may be weighing down their work performance. If you ask about long-term career goals, it will also help you guide them towards the the most productive path and keep motivation and morale high (if they feel you've got their back) during tough times.

Encourage smart problem solving

Expect employees to come to you with questions and concerns, but it's not your job to do all the mental hard work and solve all the problems for them. Instead, help them to learn how to solve problems on their own by providing guidance and best practices. Use the scheduled time to ask probing questions and walk them through scenarios and end goals.