How to Make the Most of Manager 1-on-1s

Employees don’t leave companies. They leave managers.

If that sounds counterintuitive, think of it this way: a manager is an employee’s link to everything that is the company. When it comes to the employee experience, they can either be an asset or a detriment.

Recently, Gallup devoted an entire section of its 2017 State of the American Workplace report to management’s role in the sad state of employee engagement (just 33% of employees are engaged at work).

Why? Because managers are vital to employee engagement and, ultimately, a company’s success. When employees are connected to their managers — meaning they trust their managers and have real performance conversations with them — they understand their impact at work, find meaning in their jobs, and connect with the company as a whole.

How to make the most of manager 1-on-1s
This means the manager 1-on-1 is one of the most overlooked and underutilized tools companies have for creating a culture of continuous feedback.

It’s time for this to change.

If your most valuable resource is your people and your people managers aren’t trained properly, how are you making the most of that investment?

— Kim Dawson, Director of Employee Experience, Kazoo

The Kazoo team has poured its passion for this topic into company-wide training geared towards making the most of 1-on-1 meetings. To cap this off, we’re sharing our knowledge on this process with anyone interested via this recorded webinar and 1-on-1 frameworks any company can use.

What can companies change?

By making the most of 1-on-1s, companies are actually creating a culture that has no surprises.

Many companies still do annual performance reviews. In these, employee performance and manager relationships are evaluated once a year only to discover — surprise! — discord and distrust have been derailing performance for some time.

There are three areas companies can change to turn 1-on-1s into a vehicle for continual performance feedback that breeds employee-manager trust and connection, making managers a reason employees stay at companies rather than jump ship, and helping companies avoid surprises.

It’s easy to demonize managers for ineffective performance management, but part of the problem stems from onboarding practices.

Many times, managers are hired with the expectation that they just know how to “manage.” In reality, each company’s expectations are different, so it’s imperative that every manager is onboarded properly, has ongoing training, and receives ongoing check-ins to make sure everyone’s still aligned with those expectations.

This cannot be stressed enough. If your most valuable resource is your people and your people managers aren’t trained properly, how are you getting the most from that investment?

Manager preparation.
Too often, managers take an off-the-cuff approach to 1-on-1 meetings. Whether they are viewed as an important necessity or an annoying obligation, a lack of preparation will cause these meetings to devolve into managers giving employees a list of things to do or berating them with reasons they’re performing poorly.

Neither of these outcomes creates trust or desire to engage from the employee’s point of view. Whereas if the meetings serve to show employees the importance of their contribution or impact and the managers are invested in their success, they’ll be motivated to perform.

Simply put, plan for these meetings. In our 1-on-1 webinar resources, we’ve included multiple frameworks for planning and executing manager 1-on-1s. These frameworks are designed to not only bring purpose to meetings, but also to equip managers to connect with employees in meaningful ways.

From an employee’s perspective, managers can’t fake connection. If you don’t know me, I don’t believe you’re invested in my success. It feels disingenuous.

Follow Through
A common mistake managers make in 1-on-1s is thinking the discussion ends with the meeting. What progress was identified? What challenges? What action items?

When managers make it a habit to follow through on these items outside of meetings, trust is built, and employees become more accepting and open to feedback. It also sends a clear signal to employees that their manager is invested in their success. These are two of the clearest signs your company is making the most of manager 1-on-1 meetings.

We cover “start/stop/continue,” goal-focused, and agenda-based approaches to following through in our 1-on-1 webinar resources.

Questions from our webinar

A Manager’s Playbook: How to Hold Effective 1-on-1s,” was one of Kazoo’s highest-attended webinars. We ran out of time before we could cover every audience question in the Q&A portion, so in an effort to help out further, we’d like to answer some of them here:

How do you handle the employee that’s constantly negative and defensive in one-on-one meetings?

Every situation is different. The big advice I give on this is to just be a regular, honest, straight-talking person.

With that in mind, make the negativity a part of the employee’s development plan in these meetings. There’s something missing trust-wise if they’re defensive. Why is that? A great way to find that out — just ask that question!

For instance, you might say things like:

“It feels like you’re being defensive every time we’re having a conversation; if we can’t address this, we won’t be able to move past it moving forward.”

“During our last 1-on-1s my feeling is that you’ve been 90% negative. In our next 1-on-1 I’m expecting you to dial that back. Don’t have to be perfect, but just dial it back. This negativity is holding you back; we could do better if channeling it into something more positive.”

Be yourself. We’re not wearing a “management mask” when talking to employees. We’re both people. Have a conversation, and don’t shroud the meeting in psuedo-management talk. Say what you mean if you want these meetings to lead both parties towards trust.

What if managers are not asking these questions at our company?

I believe the manager-employee relationship is as much the manager’s responsibility as the employee’s. If your manager isn’t asking these kinds of questions, tell them. You should have the kind of relationship where that can be requested.

For HR, this signifies there might be more manager training needed. Managers need to understand the “Why” of these 1-on-1 meetings. Help them understand.

How long should a 1-on-1 last? 15-20 minutes? I have eight employees, so could I just meet with each one for 20 minutes in one day?

Again, every company is different. Personally, committing an entire day to 1-on-1s isn’t the best use of my time. I would spread these meetings out and use the rest of the day to balance out my workload.

That said, I don’t think 15-20 minutes is enough for me to connect with my reports and what’s happening in their world. I believe 30 minutes is a minimum for doing this — sometimes you need up to an hour.

With one or two a day for 30 minutes each that’s an hour per workday. I might even suggest a full hour once a month.

These meetings are not “fact finding” excursions. They are meant to be conversations where we understand our goals, I can show you your impact, and I can have a good ratio of good-to-bad interactions. 15 minutes feels too short for that.

How do you handle an employee doing the bare minimum while working toward a second degree that takes them away from the company? I have already disciplined due to attendance and things have improved some, but how do I maintain that?

In this case, first I would make sure my expectations are well defined. If by “bare minimum” you mean they’re meeting those expectations, what is the concern? If they’re not meeting those, then a performance conversation is needed.

Of course, seeing the situation, you want people to continue to learn and grow, but if attendance starts to slip for instance, that is something to address.

All companies are unique. For Kazoo employees, our evaluation is less likely to note attendance, but more likely to incorporate performance conversations. If performance slips, that warrants a strict conversation.

Candidly, before pursuing more education, was this a person who was hitting his or her goals before pursuing further education? To date, has he or she shown signs of being engaged and invested in the company? I would consider these questions before heading into any further conversations.

Finally, have you worked to build trust, credibility, and the right expectations? If not, recognize these as opportunities to engage the employee.

What are your thoughts on using the webinar’s different meeting frameworks with the same employee over a certain period of time, just to switch things around?

You should use the tools in your toolbox however you think is best. Everyone learns and communicates differently, but I love the idea of switching things up — when 1-on-1s become rote, they become ineffective. Making them interesting can get difficult, so switching it up will keep these meetings fresh, making it easier for both parties to stay engaged and productive.

See Kazoo's resources for effective manager 1-on-1s

About Kim Dawson
Kim Dawson thrives when developing a unique, purpose-driven company culture. She oversees compensation, benefits, and HR for Kazoo. With a career spanning over 15 years in people-focused HR, Kim believes putting your employees first is the only way for your organization to thrive. Outside of work, Kim loves to laugh and hang out on the porch with her old dog, Dude.

About Kazoo
Kazoo is the employee experience platform powered by the science of motivation and the mission of improving the lives of employees everywhere, one company at a time. Founded in 2013, Kazoo grows company culture and improves bottom-line performance metrics through its robust engagement platform that delivers recognition, rewards, incentives, and team insights. Named to Entrepreneur Magazine’s list of Best Company Cultures in 2017, the Austin-based SaaS company and its technology platform are built on the four pillars of employee experience: connection, meaning, impact and appreciation. To request a demo, visit