The Best Way to Be Among the “Best Places to Work”


The CEO of a consulting firm asked me how our company has landed among the “Best Places to Work” for the past five consecutive years. After considering a number of factors that drive employee engagement, I told him, “One-on-ones.”

“Oh yes,” he said. “We do those, too.”

So then I described what one-on-ones are like for us…

Private meeting

Every leader is expected to meet with people on their team at least once every other week. Despite pressing issues and deadlines, the meetings happen. And rather than filling the meeting with status updates, issue resolution, problem solving, blah, blah, blah, they are a place to connect.

We ask questions like:

“How are you doing?”

“How are you really doing?”

“How are you feeling about your work?”

“How are you feeling about the team dynamics?”

Sounds touchy feely and non-business focused? You bet it is. After all, we’re human beings not human doings.

But there is one important key to making these one-on-ones effective:

Safety. In other words, people don’t feel they have to be guarded.

So if you’re thinking about implementing this best practice from “best places” with your team members or board members—or even your spouse or kids—here are four critical elements for making one-on-ones safe:

  1. Commitment. Consistency, dependability, showing up…When people see that you value this appointment enough to drop other things, they see that you value them. It’s all-too-easy to show up five minutes late or be tempted to multi-task when it’s a virtual meeting. I always remind myself: This is the most important thing I can be doing at this moment.
  2. Transparency. When you talk plainly, openly and directly, it shows you don’t have to hide behind your false self. This requires appropriate disclosure—even showing emotions at times. You also need to encourage others to be candid, reminding them that it’s safe for them to do so and that you have their best interests in mind and won’t judge or shame.
  3. Non-fixing. Solving, minimizing, suggesting and advising are some of the quickest and surest ways to get someone to stop sharing. Certainly, there are times when people are genuinely wanting and ready to get an answer. But when people are talking about their frustrations, fears, insecurities or desires, rarely do they want advice. Across genders and cultures, what people want is to be heard. Here’s one of the best parodies on this truth.
  4. Confidentiality. It may be obvious, but what’s shared is sacred. Vistage calls it the Vegas Rule. Of course, we have to be realistic — it’s limited confidentiality — but full disclosure makes the difference. If someone on the team tells me he’s looking for another job, for example, I might say something like, “I’m going to talk about this with my business partner so we can factor this into our plans. Is that ok?” The minute someone thinks their comments might unexpectedly come back to them through someone else, we’re done.

These are the foundation for safe, unguarded communication. Whether you’re trying to make the Best Book Club, the Best Neighborhood, the Best Board of Directors, the Best IT Department or the Best Family, try leaning into one-on-ones.

What do you find creates a Best Place to Work?



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  • Mike Norman
    December 3, 2014 at 7:10 pm

    Matt, I totally agree with your suggestions on making one-on-ones work. I used to do these and often found myself changing the day or time if something came up that seemed more important and urgent at the time. As you said, the process was not effective and we eventually stopped doing them as a routine. I also found it difficult not to “give advice” which again, led to a less open and a more guarded conversation. Every leader should do these on some level of frequency and read your suggestions before every meeting or we will find ourselves defaulting to the behaviors you described. Thank you.

    • Stacey Steen
      December 4, 2014 at 1:37 am

      Thank you Matt! If your organization is doing all that, of course you are one of the best places to work. Thank you for practicing what you preach. I must say the parody provided a good laugh

      • Matt Norman
        December 4, 2014 at 1:22 pm

        Thank you Stacey! Glad you liked the parody!

    • Matt Norman
      December 4, 2014 at 1:27 pm

      Dad, I so appreciate your willingness to always look for opportunities to improve yourself. Thank you for your specific examples of where this has sometimes not worked as well for you. I can really relate to re-scheduling and advice-giving and have often fallen down myself in this regard.

  • Pat Griffin
    December 4, 2014 at 4:14 am

    As a person who experiences the 1-1 process Matt describes, I can offer that they not only do all the things he mentioned, but also have an added benefit of truly being growth moments. I have had two separate breakthroughs as a result of these 1-1’s in the past couple of months that have significantly reduced my stress level and increased my engagement: one in the way I interact with my immediate supervisor and the other relevant to how I manage my workload. I highly recommend them!

    • Matt Norman
      December 4, 2014 at 1:24 pm

      Pat, thank you for your endorsement of this approach and for relating your personal breakthroughs. Knowing that you are an experienced engineer and process expert, it lends extra credibility that you’d benefit from a more emotional-based dialogue.

  • Shane Griffin
    December 5, 2014 at 3:34 pm


    Not only a great practice but a great reminder of the value of consistency for these meetings. I’ll be the first to admit that I drop this ball for “other important priorities” and I’ve seen the change in the dialog during my one-on-ones due to the inconsistency. When inconsistent, one-on-ones unintentionally become more about random performance checkpoints than maintaining an ongoing, open conversation with employees.

    Your blog prompted me to not only schedule one-on-ones with my team today, but to also NOT reengage the forgotten process with a metric driven conversation. Instead, today’s one-on-ones serve as a means to reignite a truly transparent dialog moving forward. Metrics will reenter the equation once the environment is back in the right context.

    Hope you had a great convention!

    • Matt Norman
      December 5, 2014 at 9:59 pm

      Thank you, Shane. What a great insight about the connection between consistency and depth of discussion. I’m glad that the post prompted you to be more intentional in this area. Thanks again!