Conquering the Fear of One-on-One Meetings

  • 6 mins read

As a leader, you have lots of things in motion, and your people have more than ever on their plates. Managing your team is enough of a challenge when dealing with the big picture.

But numerous details also need specific attention. You’re aware that many of them pertain to certain individuals, and the only effective way to manage these is one-on-one. This is an aspect of leadership that makes administrators uneasy, if not fearful. Does this resonate with you?

Many leaders dread or avoid one-on-one meetings because they are viewed as uncontrollable, unpredictable, or risky. They seem to require an almost perfect use of soft skills and techniques, and swing with as much variation as the personalities with whom you’re meeting.

These ideas stem from a lack of training in the leadership skills needed to conduct beneficial one-on-one discussions. Great leaders know that it pays to learn these skills because one-on-one meetings are necessary. If you struggle with these kinds of personal encounters your role will eventually be significantly compromised. This is detrimental to everyone.

Fortunately there are strategies and methods available to help you overcome these concerns and excel at one-on-one meetings. When you do, both you and your people benefit greatly and you’ll find these types of meetings to be the most powerful and satisfying tool in your arsenal.

One-on-One Meeting Purpose

Managing the activities under your authority creates many reasons for meeting with people individually. Some are vital to the administration of ongoing work. Others are important to address issues of concern, and yet others are advantageous to maintain an engaging leadership. One-on-ones are needed for a variety of reasons:

  • Assignment updates
  • Addressing project issues
  • Opportunities for your people
  • Discovering their needs
  • Performance appraisal
  • Mentoring or coaching
  • Engagement and relationship building
  • Addressing personal issues

One-on-One Meeting Policy

One-on-one meetings are a significant part of your leadership portfolio but you don’t want them to carry a stigma that signals trouble or concern. Integrate them into your policy as a regular part of administrating. Be clear that everyone gets to have them with you. No one is placed in a dubious category by meeting with the leader privately. Making the meetings a positive aspect of your team process eliminates the fear or awkwardness of calling them.

Stress the importance and benefit of this tool to your staff. The team operates at a higher level and each person’s job is more rewarding. Everyone will appreciate it.

Make it clear that the policy works both ways. Your door is open to those who want to talk. Any subject is fair game. If you aren’t available at request, make sure you schedule a get together as soon as possible. You’ll build trust and respect by attending to your people’s needs.

One-on-One Meeting Planning

The one-on-one is a special kind of meeting, which due to its nature, must be conducted with special regard. It is a personal appointment designed to benefit both a working and personal relationship, and is customized for the circumstances. 

Choose a setting appropriate for the individual. Your office may be best, or if you’re working with a lower level manager, their office. Another room or area on the campus may work well. Wherever it is, your attention needs to be undivided and focused on your employee to attain an effective level of trust—both ways.

Scheduling the meeting with your employee signals that you value their time, attention, and allows you to secure the proper setting.

Plan an agenda ahead of time, and stick to it to cover the needed topics. Respect the employee’s time by keeping the conversation relevant and work related. Chitchat should be minimal: a groundbreaker only.

For duty-related topics, share the agenda in time to allow the employee to prepare. You may want some materials that take time to assemble, or you may want a decision that requires some careful thought.

However, a discussion over a troubling personal issue generally does not benefit from a pre-announced agenda. In this case an advanced notice can cause misunderstanding and undo stress. Conversely, unplanned discussions about the employee’s performance or personal issues can feel like a surprise attack. Weigh these factors carefully.

The Right Technique

How you conduct a private meeting is just as critical as what you cover. Perhaps the most important guideline is to communicate clearly. This is a major point John Maxwell expresses consistently in his many books, in particular, The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader (Thomas Nelson, 1999).  Verify with your employee that you are understood.

Guide the conversation, but don’t rule it. Intent listening and acknowledgement are important communication methods. Pause to respond, doing it calmly, yet confidently. All of these show respect and consideration.

You will make a better connection with your employee by being a good observer. Note their body language. Gage their responses, questions, and tone of voice. Measure your interaction accordingly to provide helpful nudges, but not harmful shoves.

Be aware of your style and approach. Your eye contact and tone establish the proper sincerity. Gestures and volume should be low key, and your body language needs to be engaging, not disinterested. Resist blaming or getting upset. You won’t get the most out of your meeting if you’re not mindful of these things.

Provide positive feedback, which can also be integrated into constructive criticism. In a December 2013 Harvard Business School article, Michael Blanding observes that we generally focus more on negative comments than positive. We take them personally, and sense a threat. Therefore, make suggestions positive, effective, and helpful, especially if they are corrective.

The Difficult Conversation

The toughest challenge is the meeting to discuss a personal issue that is causing problems. Don’t shy away from hard topics, but pursue them with fairness, frankness, and firmness. Express the expectations for performance or behavior—your personal expectations and those of your organization. This won’t be effective unless you exemplify them yourself.

Never threaten people but rather offer insight, help or solutions. Ask the employee to contribute his or her own ideas. Communicate empathically. See the person over the circumstance, as Maxwell teaches. Try to grasp their perspective and show you believe in them.

Ultimately you want to reach resolution or agreement. Follow up is key. Make it a point to continue touching base while monitoring progress. Clarify any misunderstandings you perceive as you move forward.

Conquering the fear of one-on-one meetings will test you, but the rewards are a healthier, more effective team, as well as a more prosperous, satisfying leadership for yourself.

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