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You’re Not Asking These Questions During One-on-Ones. You Should Be.

You’re Not Asking These Questions During One-on-Ones. You Should Be.

Free Resource

If you’ve come to this article, you’re likely aspiring to become a better manager, know the importance of one-on-ones, and have been conducting them regularly with your team. That already puts you ahead of the pack. No matter the role, experience level, or personality, one-on-ones are a valuable tool to build trust, strengthen lines of communication, solve problems, and clarify goals and priorities. But the value of one-on-ones comes from the contents of the meeting, not its existence on your calendar. So what are you asking in those meetings to keep your team happy and productive?

The essential element of any manager-employee relationship is trust. Direct reports who trust and feel trusted by their manager are higher performers, champions of office culture, and are less likely to quit. These effects increase as the level of mutual trust grows.

Managers aren’t going to build trust by reading off the same template every meeting; different times call for different questions and priorities. Cadence is crucial, but there’s more to a productive one-on-one than running through a carbon copy agenda. This is precious time to have an honest, private conversation about what’s going on, both personally and professionally.

Instead of wasting time revisiting group conversations or meeting takeaways, try asking a few questions we’ve listed below, designed to help you gain a better understanding of your direct reports and how you can best put them in a position to succeed. This list is by no means conclusive, and if you aren’t asking these questions or something similar, the best time to start is now.

Understand work habits to maximize productivity

It is important to know how to maximize the potential of each member of your team. One on ones are a chance to learn how to put each person in a position to succeed and thrive within the larger group. By understanding work habits, you will be better able to support their day-to-day happiness and efficiency.

  • What are the biggest time wasters for you each week?
  • What are your most and least productive times of the day?
  • Are there any changes to your schedule that would help you be more productive?
  • Are there any meetings or discussions you're not currently part of but feel you should be? Are you included in any you don’t need to be part of?

Align with long-term goals

Above all perks and benefits, people, especially younger workers, want to be in roles that align with their long-term aspirations. Employees working outside of their dream industry, team, or department can still develop relevant skills for their eventual career shift, but the onus often falls on managers to highlight how the current role aligns with the long-term goals.

Source: Harvard Business Review

If you can show your direct reports how the current role fits their growth goals, and make small adjustments to give them exposure in their desired areas, you’ll enjoy the perks of an inspired, motivated, and grateful team. Otherwise, you may be burdened with recruiting, interviewing, and onboarding a replacement.

  • What work are you doing here most aligns with your long-term goals?
  • Are there any barriers to achieving your goals that I can assist with?
  • What were you hoping to learn in this role relevant to your long term goal that you don't feel you've made progress on?
  • What parts of your job would you like to focus on or get additional training in?
  • Are there any future projects you would like to work on if given the opportunity?

People love to talk about their dreams, but might be hesitant if it doesn’t align with their nominal job description. They’ll need to trust you, and that their passion for something else won’t result in being fired.  If you are still building a relationship with your direct report, or your company, in fact, does fire employees with outside interests and aspirations, you shouldn’t expect a candid answer.

Measure fulfillment and work-life balance

There’s a growing body of research showing businesses benefit when employees are capable of and feel comfortable enjoying their lives outside the office.

As a manager, you need to be aware how work-life balance affects each member of your team. Every one-on-one should have some casual and personal questions to learn about their personal lives and how to make sure that their work doesn’t unnecessarily interfere or detract from their quality of life outside the office.

  • Do you feel challenged in your role?
  • Do you feel you have the skills needed to succeed in your role?
  • What’s one thing we can change about work that would improve your personal life?
  • Do you understand how your work contributes to the overall success of the company?

Create bonds, not reactions

People typically spend more than eight hours a day sitting beside, collaborating, and enjoying (or tolerating) the quirks of their colleagues. Maintaining team chemistry and troubleshooting interpersonal conflicts are among a manager’s most important responsibilities. Your team doesn’t need to be best friends, but when conflict arises you’ll need to quickly decide if it demands intervention before boiling over, or the conflict is healthy and can resolve itself.

  • Do you have any challenges or conflicts with other team members? How can I help make the situation better?
  • What’s the one thing you would like to change about the team?
  • Who do you work well with?
  • What aspects of the team dynamic do you like best?

Many people understandably dread, if not fear, the thought of complaining about a coworker and having word get back. One individual is powerless to stop the currents of office gossip, but every manager should abstain from the practice. Your relationship with your direct reports depends on it.

Make sure direct reports know their feedback and frustrations will be handled and communicated anonymously, and that you’ll address any conflicts brought up with the discretion necessary to avoid ruffling feathers.

Final thoughts

Don’t fret if your direct reports have a less than sunny disposition. It means your team trusts you enough to be candid, and you want honesty more than compliments or feigned happiness. Their honesty gives you the information you need; now it’s your chance to take action and make changes.

The questions we’ve covered don’t need to be asked every single one-on-one, but it’s important to have a pulse on how everyone is feeling. If you feel like you’re not getting honest answers, you may want to consider increasing the frequency of your meetings.

You won’t always be able to accommodate a direct report’s request, but if you’re honest and advocate on their behalf, you’ll be rewarded with their trust and loyalty.