I was 26 years out of law school before I moved in-house.
In those 26 years, I had never heard of “one-on-ones” (outside of the context of basketball). When I moved to a corporate job, folks were astonished by my ignorance. (A small part of that astonishment had to do with my unfamiliarity with one-on-ones.)
I’ve now been working for four years in what I take to be a typical (indeed, world-class) corporate environment, and I’m ready to declare the truth, thus offending every human resources professional who has ever lived: One-on-ones — individual weekly meetings between managers and each of the people who report to them — are generally unnecessary.
I know, I know: One-on-ones guarantee that the manager knows what’s happening in his or her department. And the meetings let managers give immediate feedback on how members of the team are performing. And there’s nothing like personal conversations to build relationships and esprit de corps.
A manager doesn’t need weekly meetings to learn what’s happening in the department. A manager just needs team members who know what’s worth reporting and when.
If there’s a zillion dollar crisis that might blow up tomorrow, the manager has to know about it — now.
The team member should realize this and report it — now.
If the team member waits until the next one-on-one on Wednesday, then the team member blew it. Wednesday is too late.
So, too, for notices of government investigations, events that must be reported promptly under consent decrees, and the like. Those things can’t wait for weekly meetings, so weekly meetings add no value there.
There’s also a natural pace to less urgent stuff — briefs to be reviewed, trial dates recently assigned, likely requests for settlement authority in anticipation of upcoming mediations, and the like. All of these must be reported at a pace that makes sense. The reports can be written or oral, individual or collective — whatever’s logical. But we surely shouldn’t need to schedule weekly meetings for managers to extract information from folks who report to them. (I’m being an equal-opportunity curmudgeon here: There also should be no need for weekly meetings for the person to whom I report to extract information from me.)
Report everything that people should know at a pace appropriate for the information being reported.
I concede that many people don’t report things intelligently and, for those employees, it may be necessary to schedule one-on-ones. But that’s really implicit criticism of the underling’s performance more than scheduling meetings that are truly necessary.
Why do people under-report?
Let me count the ways.
People hoard information, because the hoarder wants to be the only person fully informed about the situation, thus increasing the hoarder’s importance.
People don’t want to burden the boss with too much information. They don’t report because they don’t want to annoy the boss.
People can’t distinguish the wheat from the chaff. They honestly don’t know what’s important and what’s not, so they report the wrong things (or nothing at all).
And on and on and on.
I understand this. But these are again all implicit criticisms of the underling’s performance. If the team member could distinguish what matters, understand the boss’s desire for information, and share information appropriately, there would be no need for weekly meetings.
The same is true for information flowing in the other direction: If the manager should alert someone on the team about an event, then send the alert. There’s no need to schedule a regular meeting. If the team member needs feedback, advice about performance, or the like, then provide it. You think you’d naturally be doing that anyway: When a manager receives good work, you would expect him to praise it. When the manager receives bad work, he should suggest how it could be improved. That doesn’t require a one-on-one; it requires common sense.
I never participated in weekly meetings when I worked at law firms, and I never saw a need for them. When I was an associate (and thus personally handling the details of projects), I reported to partners what they needed to know, when they needed to know it. We didn’t schedule weekly one-on-ones to give me an opportunity to speak (or my supervisor the opportunity to question me).
When I was a partner, I received reports from folks working on cases with me. I didn’t schedule weekly meetings to debrief associates; I relied on them to know what was worth reporting at what pace, and the associates kept me informed.
Shouldn’t that system work at corporations, too?
I’ll grant only one exception to my heretical rule: If you’re supervising people in distant time zones, making it hard to speak to those folks regularly, it may be worth scheduling periodic phone calls. For someone in Chicago to talk to someone in Melbourne, it probably will be necessary for one person to place a call early and the other to receive one late. If you won’t naturally be speaking during business hours, it probably makes sense to schedule periodic calls to be sure that the two of you remember each other’s voices and maintain your relationship.
But for folks down the hall from you, who can swing by whenever something’s cooking? Or folks who can conveniently pick up a phone to keep someone else in the loop?
Schedule weekly one-on-ones for under-performing employees who can’t figure out what’s worth reporting and what isn’t. For your good performers — people who naturally report the stuff you need to know at the pace you need to know it — cancel the one-on-ones. They’re a waste of time.
There! I’ve said it!
Let the HR professionals boil the tar and pluck the feathers before they run me off the web!
Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.