A research-backed one-on-one meetings framework for team leaders

One-on-one meetings are the backbone of successful team leadership and the basis for building a strong culture in your company. But for some reason, they’re often done badly or worse, forgotten by managers.

One of the main reasons for that is that many team leaders don’t know how to do one-on-ones. They haven’t been trained on how to get started and are usually unsure of what they should discuss with their coworkers.

In this article, we will review four important areas of the research on people’s performances. Together, they offer us a framework for one-on-ones that works based on research.

These findings are essential for managers who want to develop their team members and build a strong culture of high-performance. You can use these findings as knowledge to help you manage your team better, not as recipes or verbatim scripts for one-on-one meetings.

The four research areas on people’s performances that we will cover are mindsets, grit, building habits, and effective teamwork.

Why are one-on-one meetings so important?

We wrote another article about the importance of one-on-one meetings for managers and team leaders in companies of all sizes and industries. In short, there’s no better way to build a culture of high-performance and growth than frequent quality one-on-one conversations.

With more teams becoming permanently remote, it is more important than ever for leaders to have a strong habit of talking to their team members one-on-one to ensure that they do not miss out on the individual relationships and bonds that lead to a strong collaborative environment.


Four essential research findings for managers and team leaders

Growth mindset and the science of success

A growth mindset is characterized by believing that people can grow and develop their skills through effort, good strategies, and help from others. It’s a belief that your brain is like a muscle: the more you use it, the smarter and stronger it becomes.

The opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed mindset. Carol Dweck, the most prominent researcher in this area and author of the book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” puts it this way:

“Individuals with a fixed mindset believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting these qualities instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.”

Carol Dweck

Before we dive into the practical steps, it’s worth citing the most important finding from the research on mindsets. A large body of research now shows that a growth mindset is one of the most important factors to success, more than innate ability or talent.

One of the most powerful effects a leader can have is to instill a growth mindset in their team.

The easiest way for a manager to instill a growth mindset in their team is by focusing on continuous improvement, showing them the importance of failing and learning from mistakes, asking them to revise their work, considering what went well, and what could be even better.

A manager with a growth mindset will establish high expectations for his team members but be understanding when they fall short of the goals and help them find paths for improvement.

Grit and the science of achievement

Another way to get the most out of your one-on-ones is to focus on perseverance and grit. According to Angela Duckworth, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who has studied success in academics and sports, only ten percent of success comes from talent, and ninety percent from hard work.

Prof. Duckworth identifies three components of grit in her bestselling book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance”:

  • passion and interest for a long-term goal (values),
  • combining talent and skills with effort (practice), and finally,
  • not giving up in the face of failure (purpose).

If you see achievement as ninety percent the result of hard work, not talent, you completely reframe what’s possible to achieve as a team. It’s no longer a matter of who you have in your team but rather how you decide to tackle the challenges and work together.

In practical terms, going into your one-on-ones, you should focus on challenging the team member to take more responsibility and ownership of their work. It is important to focus on the process and track the progress. Grit and perseverance are all about the process, not the result.

It is worth noting that there are several ways to develop grit in your team. One way is by helping team members discover their passion through discovering which type of work they love doing most. It’s also important to help them build the necessary skills to succeed. Once they have the passion and skill, setting up challenging objectives with tools such as OKRs will enable them to put their grit into practice.

In a one-on-one meeting, you should focus on discussing your team member’s progress towards their goals and challenge them to look at things differently. You may also want to ask them what they think are possible future obstacles for them to overcome and what resources they need to overcome those obstacles and succeed.

Building a culture of high-performance is not about telling team members how you want them to do things. It’s about removing obstacles for them to succeed, helping them develop their skills, and challenging them to push themselves farther than they believe is possible.

Tiny habits and the compounding power of small changes

One of the key innovations proposed by the Continuous Performance Management movement is the switch from occasional, cycle-based performance reviews to an on-going process based on frequent one-on-one meetings.

One of the positive side-effects of such an approach is the compounding effect that builds over time, something that is the basis of the Tiny Habits approach. The premise of the Tiny Habits approach is that if you take small but daily actions towards your desired outcome, it will compound to reach a profound effect over time.

James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, puts it like this:

“Here’s how the math works out: if you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. Conversely, if you get 1 percent worse each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero […] Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them.”

James Clear

This is why having regular one-on-one meetings and maintaining consistency is so important. The regular check-ins will remind both you and the team member about their goals and provide a time to discuss progress.

The compounding effect of tiny habits applies as well to the way you structure your one-on-one meetings. If you plan in advance and don’t let your meetings become a free-for-all, you will spend more time discussing important things with your colleague.

Let’s say you scheduled 30 minutes meetings every week, and by planning and having a clear structure for the meetings, you manage to gain 5 additional minutes of quality conversation.

How much better would each meeting be? Five percent? Ten percent, maybe? That’s an improvement between 10x and 100x in one year.

Knowing in advance what topics you want to cover will also help your team members prepare by thinking about what they want to get out of the meeting. How much better will this meeting be?

That’s why we recommend managers should have short, 30 minutes weekly one-on-one meetings with each of their employees and be as consistent as possible to turn the behavior into a habit.

Project Aristotle and the science of teamwork

The Project Aristotle is the name behind an initiative by Google, which set out to find an answer to one of the most pressing questions in business: what makes a successful team?

In 2014, Google’s People Analytics department launched a comprehensive investigation that looked at more than 200 teams from every corner of the company. For almost two years, they analyzed thousands of different teams and their attributes and behaviors.

One of the main lessons learned by Google’s Project Aristotle was the importance of psychological safety for high-performing teams.

In simple terms, psychological safety is the sense of trust and respect within a team. When people feel safe speaking up, they can admit to mistakes without fear of retribution.

This is crucial because it enables a team to learn from mistakes quickly and avoid them in the future. It enables employees to speak up when they notice that something is wrong, instead of waiting for meetings and discussions to point out problems. This way, teams are proactive rather than reactive.

To develop an innovative culture, team members will need to be able to speak up with their ideas without feeling judged by their fellow workers. As Brian Welle, the Director of People Analytics at Google wrote: “build a culture that feels safe.”


Conclusion

As you can see, the purpose of this article is to help you reframe what your one-on-one meetings are all about. There are no recipes or scripts to follow but rather a framework that will help you manage your team better.

Not only do these four areas of research make up a scientific foundation for conducting one-on-one meetings, but they also apply to management more broadly. These topics will largely determine the success of your team and the culture in the company.

By implementing a framework for your one-on-one meetings, you will spend less time preparing for each meeting, use your time together with your colleague more efficiently, and ensure that you address issues that are out of your comfort zone but critical to building team culture and trust.

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