One-on-one meetings are underrated, whereas group meetings waste time

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

I have had good results with a style of management where I mostly have one-on-one meetings. These meetings can be just 15 minutes, or maybe 30 if there is a serious issue that needs to be discussed. If I’m leading a small team (less than 20 people) I’ll have meetings with each person at least once a week, but with key players more often than that.

In a meeting of two people, both people typically feel involved with the conversation, whereas in group meetings, it is common that someone is daydreaming, because the meeting really has nothing to do with them.

During a one-on-one meeting, I can ask tough questions, and the person I’m talking to can offer a long answer, without fear of boring the rest of the team, since the rest of the team is not there to be bored. And the person can speak without being interrupted by some third person. They can offer negative opinions about their co-workers, without worrying that their co-worker will find out and retaliate. They can also offer positive opinions about their co-workers, without the too obvious incentive of their co-worker hearing their praise.

If a person is running late on a project, the best way to find out the reason is to have a one-on-one meeting with them. They are free to incriminate themselves, in ways that I find useful. For instance, they might put all the blame on someone else. After the meeting I will investigate their accusations and discover the truth. Is the other person to blame? If I conclude that the other person is not to blame, then I know I have a person on my team who both runs late and dishonestly blames other people for their problems. Where possible, I will remove such people from my team. But what if it turns out they were right, that this other person is really the cause of all of the problems? In that case, I’ve learned something important, and I’ve learned it because of the freedom to speak that people have when they are alone with me. If I’d called a group meeting, and that other person was in the room, it’s unlikely that anyone would have told me the truth. Instead I would have heard some vague excuses.

What if someone finishes a project much faster than I expected, or with much higher quality than I was expecting? I definitely want to talk to that person alone, one-on-one. I want to ask them some very specific questions, so I can get a sense of how much more work I can give them. I also want to hear their ideas about what we should do next. I also want to know if they got help from someone else, and do they enjoy working with that other person, and should I henceforth assign tasks to them together? If someone on my team reliably impresses me, then I’ll want to get an accurate idea of how much more work or responsibilities I can give them. And these kinds of detailed conversations can only happen in one-on-one situations. It would be awkward to try to have these conversations while other people are in the room.

You might be thinking, “What is wrong with group meetings? I love group meetings. I get to talk to everyone at once, which is much more efficient than talking to each person one at a time.”

If you feel that way, I should warn you, I’m about to attack your deeply held beliefs. Get ready.

I once had a client who insisted that the marketing team should meet with the tech team once a week, to collaborate on the creation of marketing copy that would be informed by those who understood the technology. This is good in theory, but less people would have been more productive. As it was, during the typical meeting we had 15 people in the room, most of whom were bored. The conversation was typically dominated by the 3 most opinionated marketing people. Imagine this going on for 20 straight minutes:

AMY: Consumers are saturated with advertisements. The only way to break through is to connect with them at an emotional level. That’s why we need to consider long-form advertising. We need to tell stories that…

HENRY: No, no, no! Nobody has time to read a story! If you write more than 10 words then you’ve failed. We need a slogan that is memorable, something we can use in every ad, something that…

AMY: Studies show that people don’t remember facts, they remember emotions, we need to connect with those emotions, that is why we need to consider…

HENRY: Great, so we come up with 10 words that pack an emotional wallop, but we don’t write a damn novel, nobody has time to read anymore, nobody…

AMY: I read a novel a week, sometimes two — some people crave stories and look for stories and we should give them ads that they actually enjoy and want to share with their…

SUSAN: People don’t want stories so much as they want authentic, we really need to forge a connection with them that feels authentic; if we indulge in some silly fiction that’s just going to…

HENRY: If we find the right 10 words, it will resonate with them as authentic, that’s our job, to find the 10 words that feel authentic! What do you think we are doing…

AMY: Authenticity is not a pack of Ramen noodles, we can’t create it in 10 minutes, it’s something that takes time and…

So who is right, and who is wrong? You’ll need to figure this out, but you don’t need to do so while 12 other people are in the room. If you are the manager who is overseeing this, it is up to you to get people back to work.

Among marketers, the debate over facts versus emotions versus slogans versus stories will go on forever. 50 years from now they will still debating the right strategy. You need to make a decision. You might hold a brief meeting with both Amy and Henry to be sure you understand their points of view, but don’t let yourself get sucked in. Sometimes you can wait till a consensus emerges, but often you can not and should not wait that long. Pick a strategy, and go with it. Don’t hold meetings where unrelated people are forced to listen to people who like to pontificate.

Have you ever been in a group meeting where half the room was not participating? Of course you have! That’s the norm for group meetings! I’ve had many clients where I was dragged into such meetings several times a week. I could look around the room and I saw many people who were obviously daydreaming. They were bored. None of the information being discussed was relevant to their work. More so, they had nothing to contribute, or, worst of all, they were not allowed to contribute!

Why do such meetings happen? There are 2 main reasons:

1. the manager is lazy and undisciplined and so invites everyone rather than thinking hard about who they actually need to speak to

2. the manager is an egotist who likes to force people to listen to the manager’s words

The lazy and undisciplined manager can improve their style of management by thinking hard about who they really need to talk to about a particular subject. They can then pursue one-on-one meetings with those people. The lazy and undisciplined manager finds it easier to simply order everyone to show up, and then they figure out who they actually need to hear from while the meeting is going on. This is efficient for the manager, but inefficient for everyone else, and therefore inefficient for the firm.

Some managers are egotists. Just like me, they can look around the table and see who is daydreaming. I’ve known many managers who feel that if an employee daydreams, then the employee is to blame for inattentiveness. But I would flip that. If you need to be sure that a specific worker understands a specific task, then have a one-on-one meeting with them. If you are disbursing general information to the whole team, send an email. If you frequently monopolize the attention of employees who don’t truly need to hear what you are saying, then you have bad managerial habits — the good news is that you now know what you need to do to become a better manager.

Ego is the enemy of productivity. A group meeting is fertile ground for ego. Often the top manager is to blame, but not always. Sometimes it is the people you’ve invited. You only need two egotists with strong opinions and suddenly your meeting is derailed with a 30 minute argument about a new fad theory regarding marketing/technology/consumers/sales. I’ve seen debates go on for as much as an hour, with most of the room clearly restless and disaffected. A bad manager allows these debates to continue. A good manager is smart enough to end these debates early. A great manager doesn’t allow such debates to exist, because they don’t hold the kinds of meetings where this behavior is possible.

If I ever need to announce something to a large group, I can send an email to everyone. I don’t need to get them altogether in a room. Even if I thought gathering people together was the best strategy, how would I handle the fact that on any particular day I might have key workers who are sick, or taking care of a sick child, or working remotely? How do you handle that? Do you send them an email? Have a one-on-one meeting with them later? If so, why not make that your primary strategy? Email for announcements, and one-on-one meetings for serious information exchange, has the advantage that, as a strategy, it scales well. It’s the best strategy when you have a team of 5, and also when you have a team of 5,000. (Obviously you don’t have one-on-one meetings with each of the 5,000 people, but you have one-on-one meetings with the managers who oversee the teams formed from those 5,000 people.) More communication can and should be done by email or chat — we are lucky enough to enjoy an abundance of options nowadays, and we should take advantage of them.

Once in awhile you have to coordinate activity between people. In these cases, you can allow yourself a meeting where three people attend (you and two other people). You can then act as referee while they figure out how to work with each other. But if you need to do this often, it might indicate that one of them is being obstructionist. Ideally, you can delegate much of the work of getting them to work together. If you can’t delegate that work, think about why that is. Which of those two people seems unwilling to accept the responsibility that you are trying to delegate?

What happens when two groups of people need to work together? Shouldn’t you get the two groups together, so they can all talk to each other? No! This is never productive. If you try this, most of the people in the meeting will be bored. They will be daydreaming, while two or three people work through the real details. So if two groups need to work together, the right approach is to get one person from each group, and have a meeting of yourself and those two people. Once they’ve worked out the details, you can delegate to them the responsibility of explaining the new plan to the groups they came from. And, again, if they can not be trusted with this responsibility, then you need to have a long talk with whoever is being obstructionist. And if they continue to be obstructionist, even after you spoken to them several times. then you need to get rid of them.

Is there a good use for group meetings? Yes! Group meetings are useful for brainstorming sessions. Peter Drucker touches upon this in 1985 book, Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Especially as a company becomes larger, there is a risk of ossifying into rigid habits. Drucker emphasizes that it must become a regular discipline to get together the best engineers, sales people, product people, managers, and have them brainstorm about how to take advantage of the possibilities that they see in front of them. A brain storming session is a rare situation where you want everyone in the room to talk, and you want as much diversity of opinion as possible. But I have rarely been invited to a group meeting where the goal was to brainstorm. In the overwhelming majority of cases when I’ve been invited to a group meeting, the focus has been on operations and execution, and this is where group meetings are terrible.

A brainstorming session needs to be focused on generating ideas. Be wary if the conversation drifts to some seemingly urgent short-term subject. I recently worked for a client where the top leaders invited each other to every meeting, and every meeting had a bit of brainstorming, but also some conversation about operations, budgets, and execution. Most of the time, this mixing of subjects suggests a lack of discipline on the part of the leaders. In the short term, you won’t notice any penalty for this style of leadership. But 2 years later, you will be asking “Why haven’t we made any progress during the last 2 years?” and the problem will be the undisciplined way that every meeting covers all subjects and ideas.

Another thing to consider: when you are an ordinary worker then your peers confide in you, so you often have immediate knowledge about what difficulties the company is dealing with. As soon as you become a manager, then people start telling you what you want to hear. Not all at once, of course, but slowly. It is subtle. People put a gloss on things when they report to you. A great way to breakthrough that distortion is to have one on one meetings, and make it clear that you want people to speak very honestly, and that there will be no negative consequences if they tell you something you don’t want to hear.

A final word about one-on-one meetings. Food is important. Getting away from the office is important. There is the old joke that French managers don’t have meetings, instead they have dinner. American managers would be wise to import this habit. I’ve seen the occasional sales team go out for drinks, and sometimes when the tech or marketing team works late, they later go out to celebrate. All of that is great. And socializing away from work is a rare case when having a whole group together can be a healthy thing, because it is a situation where efficiency is not the goal. But as a manager, one-on-one socializing has advantages. Think about the legitimate(*) reasons you might invite an employee to lunch — perhaps you are considering them for a big promotion and you need to get to know them better to be certain they are ready for the new responsibilities. Or you want someone’s opinion about someone else who you are considering for promotion, and you hope that a meal will create the ambiance that encourages them to speak freely. Whatever the reason, all the arguments in favor of one-on-one meetings still apply.

(* As we were reminded all through 2017, there are plenty of illegitimate reasons why a manager might invite an employee to a one-on-one lunch or dinner. As soon as a manager does such a thing, they become the enemy of the long-term health of their firm, and I can only hope they are soon fired.)

[ [ UPDATE ] ]

Interesting conversation on Hacker News about this.

[ [ UPDATE 2018-04-03 ] ]

Vlad Brown has translated this to Russian:

Встречи «один на один» недооцениваются, а групповые встречи тратят время

[ [ UPDATE 2019-07-24 ] ]

Also, remember, you can get a big group to agree to something, and then someone goes off and does something different, and most people will simply assume that someone else changed the plan after the meeting. If you, as the leader, were invested in the decision of that meeting, how do you enforce? In the end, keeping people aligned with decisions comes down to one on one conversations.

Here is a funny story about how gay relationships were added to the Sims, by an individual programmer who decided to ignore the design document that had been carefully crafted in multiple meetings.

[ [ UPDATE 2019-09-22 ] ]

This bit about skip level 1-n-1s is interesting:

When I was promoted to Engineering Director, I had no idea what I was doing. It was a role that I had little to no prior experience with, and it took me the better part of 18 months to figure out how to be effective in it. I characterize my performance during that time as being just useful enough to not get fired.

One of the things that helped me ride out those tumultuous times was skip-level 1-1s. Skip-level 1-1s are meetings with folks who are at least two levels away from you. For example, if your direct report is a manager, a skip-level 1-1 would be meeting with your direct report’s reports. As it turned out, skip-level 1-1s became an invaluable tool—one of the things that I feel like I actually got right during my tenure as a senior leader. Among the many benefits, skip-level 1-1s helped me build a stronger relationship with my organization, understand of how my managers were performing, and gain first hand accounts of how my decisions were affecting the people in my organization. So, I thought I’d share a few tips I’ve picked up on how to get started and operate them.

But I wonder, if you have time in your schedule to do skip 1-1s, then maybe that means your organization is overly hierarchical? If your organization is correctly flat, you should have so many direct reports that they take all of the time you could possibly devote to 1-1s. I am doubtful about skip level 1-1s, though the idea is interesting.

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