What’s the ROI on a Good Conversation?

5 Ways to Maximize the Value of Your One-on-Ones

Return on investment (ROI) is a performance measure that quantifies the efficiency of an investment and determines the best use of limited resources. It drives many, if not most, business decisions because of its utility and conceptual simplicity. For example, if you spend $10 on ingredients for lemonade and generate $100 in revenue from selling cold drinks on a hot summer day,  you will create a 900 percent return on your investment. That makes the lemonade business seem pretty appealing!

Of course, some ROI calculations aren’t so easy. Deciding whether to invest in real estate or to buy a new piece of equipment for your business requires a lot more thought. Do you take out student loans to go to grad school or stick it out at your present job? In these more complex examples, there are a number of variables that must to be considered. Let’s leave those questions for another time, but here’s a ROI question that should grab your attention.

Have you ever tried to calculate the ROI on a good conversation? Maybe not, but it’s worth the effort. Andy Grove, the legendary former Chairman and CEO of Intel, estimated that ninety minutes of a managers time “can enhance the quality of a subordinates work for two weeks.”  If Grove is right–and he usually was–that’s a really good ROI.

Since time is everyone’s most precious resource, it pays to make the most of it. Here are five ideas to help you maximize the value of time spent in one-on-one meetings:

1. Be focused on what matters most.

While one-on-one check-ins should allow for open, free-flowing conversations, the primary reason to have them is to make sure that people are working on the right things, making appropriate progress toward their goals, and fixing things that are broken. To do this, there needs to be clarity around goals, priorities, and expectations. With clarity, you can focus the conversation on matters that move the needle and collaboratively address sticking points. If there is uncertainty about what matters most, you’re at risk for having a meandering conversation that accomplishes little.  

2. Be present.

There are few things more disrespectful than to be in a meeting with someone who is distracted. Distractions steal emotional energy, diminish creativity, and send the signal that the other person in the room isn’t important. To combat distractions during one-on-ones, try to schedule them at times when you’re less likely to be disturbed or distracted. For some, this might be first thing in the morning or late in the day, and certainly not just prior to your big presentation to the Board. Silence your phone and keep it in your pocket. Consider turning off your computer or at least turning your back to it. Finally, get out of the office if possible. Have a “walking meeting” as you stroll around the campus  and allow the fresh air to stimulate your brain. Sit in the cafeteria over coffee. Better yet, leave the building and go to lunch. Even a busy restaurant provides less distractions than most offices.

3. Be curious.

Being curious is about mindset and approach. Of the two, mindset is most important. Don’t assume that you have all of the answers; be humble and open to learning. The approach part involves asking good questionsthen shutting up to listen to the answers. Some organizations suggest a series of standard questions to ask during one-on-one meetings. If yours doesn’t, identify four or five questions that will encourage team members to share what they’re working on, reveal what’s frustrating them, how you can be more helpful as their manager, and how they’re making progress toward their personal and professional goals.

4. Be consistent.

No doubt, managers are pulled in a lot of different directions and there is usually no shortage of fires to extinguish. However, developing a regular rhythm for one-on-ones with each member of your team and prioritizing those meetings will let everyone know that they matter and the work they are doing is important. You decide on that proper rhythmweekly, every other week, or monthlybut stick to your schedule.  

5. Be open to two-way feedback.

If you’re a manager, ask for feedback from the folks on your team. Do they need more or less of your attention from you? Do they feel empowered or constrained? What can you do better? What should you stop doing? Likewise, if you’re a contributor, be respectfully honest with your manager. Tell him or her what you need in order to be your best. Great one-on-one meetings require two-way conversations.

Of course, one-on-ones are ultimately interactions between people. The most productive interactions are based on an authentic connection where those involved feel understood, valued, respected, and safe. Creating these authentic connections requires self-awareness, insight into the motives and strengths of the other person, and the ability to communicate in a style that brings out the best in everyone involved. In short, bring your humanity and honor the humanity of othersthat’s always the starting point for good ROI. 

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mike-headshot Dr. Mike Patterson is a principal at Core Strengths and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology. He is also the co-author of Core Strengths: Results through Relationships training and the highly acclaimed book, Have a Nice Conflict: How to Find Success and Satisfaction in the Most Unlikely Places. Contact him at

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