Skip to content

Building Relationships Through One-on-Ones

As a leader, one of your goals is to build a strong, high-performing team. To do this, you'll need to establish and develop relationships within the team and with each other. One approach I've found helpful to build and sustain these relations is through one-on-ones.

When most people think of one-on-ones, they typically think of some scheduled time, every so often, where they talk about work concerns or whatever is on the leader's mind. Some might find one-on-ones a waste of time and skip them.

Let's face it, we've all had bad one-on-ones where the conversation was forced and stiff. Or, it felt like the other person wasn't listening or cared about what was being talked about. If enough one-on-ones go down this route, it's no surprise that people don't want to have these conversations.

So, how do we improve the situation? In this post, I'm going to show you three things you can do to improve the one-on-ones you're having with the team by making sure that they're being heard, relationships are being built, and, just maybe, you might even get to know them better.

It's Not a Status Update

A common mistake is treating one-on-ones as status updates for work or projects. Even though it might be tempting to get an update (especially on important projects), remember this time is for the other person to talk with you about what's on their mind. They can't do this if you're asking for updates on work. If you're leveraging stand-ups or a task board, then you should be able to get updates from there. If this isn't sufficient, ask for updates outside this conversation. The one-on-one is where you give the other person your full attention.

Despite your best intent, this can be a tough habit to break. To help get out of this mindset, start time-boxing the updates to be a set period of time (e.g., ten minutes) with the goal of making this period shorter in subsequent one-on-ones.

Another technique I use is resetting, where I remind my teammate of the purpose and goal of the conversation. Doing this, it's a gentle nudge in the correct direction and reinforces that this time is for them, not for whatever is on my mind.

Don't Get Distracted

In the world of working remotely, it's easy to get distracted by chat notifications or emails. You're on the call, and you see the notification at the bottom of your screen, and before you realize it, you've read it and already thinking about a response. This may be great for you getting things done; however, for the other person, it's clear that you stopped paying attention. So what's important? Is it the notification or the other person?

pedestrians looking distracted in downtown
Credit to Matt Quinn via Unsplash

To help reinforce the focus, I put myself in Do Not Disturb mode, which will hide notifications from me until the meeting ends. If the issue is truly important, then someone would give me a call, in which case, I can excuse myself from the one-on-one to see what's up. In this rare case, I will reschedule our conversation as it's essential that we meet.

Allow Them to Set the Agenda

Another mistake I see leaders make is that they'll come to the one-on-one with a list of topics they want to discuss for the day. This can be particularly true if you're coaching this person and you want to provide concrete feedback. However, remember, the goal is to build and strengthen the relationship, and you can't do that if you're always setting the agenda for the conversations.

I find it amazing that you can learn quite a bit about the other person based on what they bring up. For example, if they're speaking about a conflict with another person, that lets me know that they're aware of relationships and how they're being perceived. On the other hand, if they're talking about a project and the concerns they have, then they're thinking outside of a task and are thinking at a higher level.

In one case, I was in a one-on-one with an engineer where they brought up their concern about supporting an API as they didn't know much about it. My first impression was that they didn't know how to read the code, but digging in, it turned out that they didn't see how the API fit into the bigger picture of the system. Learning this was a great fact check because I thought it was a technical issue, but in reality, it was a system question, which changed my perspective on them.

(Bonus) - Seeding a Conversation

I mentioned that the other person should own the agenda, but sometimes, they may not have much on their mind or a topic that sticks out to them. For these cases, I come prepared with a list of questions to help start the conversation.

pedestrians looking distracted in downtown
Credit to Markus Spiske via Unsplash

In Warren Berger's The Book of Beautiful Questions, he talks about the power of open-ended questions and how they can help people be more open. So instead of asking, "How's the project coming along?", which can be answered in a binary fashion, we could instead ask, "What's one thing about the project that stands out to you?", which could give us a richer response and allow you to learn more.

For those looking for questions, here's an excerpt of questions I've used to help seed a conversation:

  • What's one thing about the current project that turned out to be harder than you thought?
  • What was your biggest win last week, and why does it stand out?
  • What's something that happened in the past week that you want to learn more about?
  • I know you've been working more with this past week, talk to me about that experience
  • What's something that you're looking forward to?

Wrapping Up

To build great teams, you will need to foster relationships with the team and the individual members. Having one-on-ones can help with build these relationships, but only if you treat them like so. By allowing your teammate to set the agenda, giving them your full attention, and cutting out project updates, you can improve the quality of your conversations and get to know them better.