Your one-on-one meeting with your manager is your most important work meeting. This is where you can align priorities, get feedback about your performance, and set career development goals.
The purpose of one-on-one meetings is to keep you and your manager aligned and to build a functional working relationship. If alignment and communication breakdown, then it’s inevitable that your relationship will also break down, regardless of how much effort you put into your job. Conversely, good alignment means you will be working effectively, which means you’ll achieve better results with less effort.
Here are 7 mistakes to avoid in your one-on-one meetings with your manager and what to do instead:
- Getting defensive when your manager gives you constructive feedback.
- Arriving late or unprepared.
- Not taking ownership of the meeting.
- Getting stuck in the past.
- Forgetting to take notes and assign action items.
- Not telling your manager what they need to know
- Not bringing up your wins and achievements.
Mistake #1 Getting defensive when your manager gives you constructive feedback
If your manager doesn’t like something you’ve done, it’s better to know about it before it comes out in a negative performance review or worse!
It’s never easy to hear that you’ve done something wrong. It’s tempting to avoid blame and make excuses. However, being a great listener involves making the other person feel heard. If your manager does not feel heard, then feedback is more likely to degenerate into an unpleasant disagreement.
“If you’re not one of those people who instinctively welcomes criticism as an opportunity to improve, you’ll of course feel a strong urge to act defensively – or at the least to explain yourself. This is a natural response, but it pretty much kills any chance that you’ll get the person to offer the gift of candor again. So don’t feel bad that you are having this very normal human reaction. Manage your feelings rather than letting them manage you.”– Kim Scott, Radical Candor
Never take feedback personally because good feedback is not about you, it’s about your actions and you can always change your actions. If your manager is upset or angry, that’s their own emotional state. Remember that “anger is a gift that you don’t have to accept”.
💡 Do this instead:
Don’t get defensive or argumentative. Instead, show your professionalism by listening and taking on your manager’s input. The best way to resolve mistakes is to listen, acknowledge and then ask what your manager wants you to do about it.
This will help both of you move on from an unpleasant problem to finding a common solution. And remember, it’s important to thank your manager for the feedback.
“If you are irritated by every rub, how will you get polished?”– Rumi
Mistake #2 Arriving late or unprepared
Arriving late and forgetting the meeting agenda are total novice moves because they show your manager that you don’t respect their time which is going to damage your relationship. The less obvious downside is that if you’re late or unprepared, then you’re going to get less time for the topics that you want to cover.
💡 Do this instead:
- Set time aside to arrive early, which will give you time to get your game face on. Personally, I like to use this time to remind myself of my agenda so I’m extra ready to smash through it.
- Don’t just schedule your one-on-one meetings, also schedule time to prepare for them. Better still, make this a part of your weekly rhythm. Scheduling time is effective because this is how you take an activity from your to-do list, into a dedicated time slot. I like to combine my one-on-one meeting preparation with my weekly work prioritization on Monday mornings.
- Got a manager with a run-away calendar who consistently pushes your one-on-one meetings back? On the day of your one-on-one meeting, check-in with them before your meeting to let them know that you’re ready and waiting.
Mistake #3 Not taking ownership of the meeting
It’s not about getting everything right in a single, perfect one-on-one meeting. You can’t build a good relationship in one meeting. It’s the regular practice of dependable communications that works.
And don’t rely on your manager to know what they are doing either because few managers have had any training in how to have one-on-one meetings with employees.
💡 Do this instead:
- Trust the process. Have regular one-on-one meetings with your manager. Even if the road sometimes seems bumpy, it’s going in the right direction.
- Don’t rely on your manager, take ownership for knowing what to prepare and what to do in one on-one-meetings by improving your own one-on-one technique.
Mistake #4 Getting stuck in the past
Of course, reporting back on what you have achieved is an important part of the one-on-one meeting. But the past is done, you can’t change it. Your one-on-one meeting with your manager is an opportunity to change the future. Getting stuck in the past is a waste of time.
💡 Do this instead:
- Speak about your future, what you want to do in your career, and where your manager sees you going.
- Always remember to align future priorities by sticking priorities onto the agenda.
- When receiving (or asking for) feedback, instead of getting stuck in unpleasant conversations about what happened in the past, ask your manager about what you could do to change in the future.
“The more concrete you are about what you want to know, the better. If you lead with, ‘Hey, how do you think my presentation went?’ you’ll probably hear responses like ‘I think it went well,’ which aren’t particularly helpful. Instead, probe at the specifics and make it easy for someone to tell you something actionable. ‘I’m working on making sure my point is clear in the first three minutes. How can I make it clearer next time?’”– Julie Zhuo, The Making of a Manager
Mistake #5 Forgetting to take notes and assign action items
This is a tip my own manager gave me. This isn’t just about making sure you don’t forget stuff. Taking relevant notes during your one-on-ones is an important part of building trust with your manager. It shows your manager that you are listening to what they say and gives them confidence that you will follow through.
As a manager, I can share with you that it’s frustrating when your employee doesn’t record action items. because you know your employee has no chance of remembering everything they should.
You’d be surprised how much miscommunication happens. Simply confirming back to your manager what your next steps are is going to save you a lot of time and mistakes. Using a meeting agenda tool like Fellow.app will help you record action items and ensure that there aren’t any misunderstandings.
Mistake #6 Not telling your manager what they need to know & forgetting to ask for what you need
Is there something coming up that your manager needs to know about? Like:
- Are you planning a vacation?
- Is there personal stuff going on in your life that’s going to affect your ability
- to work?
- Will you need extra support or resources from your manager?
- Is the budget at risk?
- Have you made a mistake that your manager needs to know about?
There’s no need to overshare, it’s just being considerate of your manager and their need to know what stuff that affects them. Conversely, it can open the door to getting the help and support you need. And if you’ve made a mistake, it’s better that your manager finds out from you and that you control the dialogue.
Discuss problems and risks before they become an issue.
When you’ve made a mistake, it’s tempting to try to avoid consequences by keeping silent. That’s a novice move. The pro move is to ask for your manager’s help / advice on how to fix the issue. In this way demonstrate your honesty and willingness to fix the problem while at the same time engaging your manager to be a part of the solution instead of resorting to blame and punishment. This is a pro move where you turn a negative into a positive!
“Take responsibility when you screw up. In work, in life, you’ll be more respected and trusted by the people around you if you own up to your mistakes. It’s impossible to avoid them, but it is possible to acknowledge them, learn from them, and set an example that it’s ok to get things wrong sometimes.”– Robert Iger, The Ride of a Lifetime
Mistake #7 Not bringing up your wins and achievements
The truth is that your manager probably doesn’t know that much about what you’ve done during the week. Sometimes it’s tempting to keep a low profile, especially if you’re not one to brag. But this could be one of the reasons why you don’t get as much recognition for all that great work you do. And worse, keeping quiet can leave your manager wondering what you have been up to.
The best way to keep your manager informed about your achievements is to let them know in a factual manner. Giving your manager something positive to report to their own manager is only going to be good for both of you.
Get your contributions recognized by telling your manager about your achievements. This is part of the status update on your meeting agenda.
Bonus The worst mistake of all…
And the biggest mistake of all is: to not have one-on-one meetings with your manager. If your manager doesn’t have regular one-on-one meetings with you it’s simply because:
- No one showed your manager the benefits of one-on-one meetings. And
- No one showed your manager how to have effective one-on-one meetings.
Instead you will have to take personal responsibility for building a good relationship and maintaining an effective communication channel with your manager.
If your manager has not scheduled regular one-on-one meetings with you, then don’t blame them, instead, take personal responsibility and tell your manager that you would like to take over the responsibility for scheduling one-on-one meetings.
Using Fellow.app will help both you and your manager to stick to good one-on-one meeting practices, even if your manager hasn’t had one-on-one meeting skills training.
And if your manager would like to learn more about the power of one-on-ones, tell them to read The Art of the One-on-One Meeting.
I must admit that I’ve made every single one of the above mistakes myself. None of my managers showed me what to do in one-on-one meetings and I had to learn myself. My hope is that by sharing this with you, you don’t have to make the same mistakes that I did.
And if you know of someone who needs some help at work, please share this post with them.
. . .
About the author
Keith Tatley is the founder of Manager Foundation – a site that helps managers learn essential management skills to improve work happiness and success. He’s also a reformed Chartered Accountant, yoga teacher, and current CFO at the medical device startup Rapid Response Revival.
Reach out to Keith for advising companies and training partnerships here.