1:1s can be the most dreaded meeting of the week, both for managers and employees. But they are also one of the most important tools in a manager’s toolbox. Properly and consistently executed, 1:1s hold the keys for going from decent to great relationships with your reports. And having a good working relationship with your team members truly makes your life so much easier as a manager. It allows you to catch potential issues before they become real concerns. To build a healthy feedback culture where you both give and receive honest feedback. Address performance issues in a constructive way. Understand what motivates and drives your employees so that you can assign tasks accordingly. It’s an opportunity to explain and give context, resolve conflicts and have crucial career conversations. Basically, all the things that will allow your team to run as smoothly as a well-oiled machine.
And even though you will most likely spend a fair amount of your precious time in these meetings, experience tells me that it is time well spent. In the long run, I think it is actually more likely to save you some time. So I guess what I am trying to say here is: it’s well worth the effort to make good use of your 1:1s.
There are lots of great articles that cover the basics of 1:1s (for example here, here and here), so I won’t repeat that here. However, there are many more details once you go beyond the basics. As a manager, I think it is critical to adopt and adjust to your particular context in order to really maximize the value of your 1:1s. If you’re not sure how or where to begin, start with something as simple as possible based on one of the starter guides. Once you’ve done a few and are starting to get the hang of it, take some time to reflect on what works and where you’ve been struggling. Then adjust as you see fit. Rinse and repeat.
These are a few things that I’ve learned along the way and have worked well for me.
- Rule number 1: It’s not a status update. Why? Because the main purpose of 1:1s is to build good relationships with your team members and trying to achieve that via status updates is simply not a very good way. I think we can all agree that status updates are not especially engaging and they risk putting the employee in a defensive position. In other words, not a particularly good starting point for building a great relationship. Status updates are of course necessary in many cases, but 1:1s are not the right place.
- Be clear that it’s the employee’s agenda and that you expect them to come at least somewhat prepared. For many ICs, especially more junior ones, owning a meeting agenda and coming prepared is not something they are necessarily used to. So it pays off to spend some time explaining the concept and your expectations early on. Be extra observant of this in the first few sessions and give feedback accordingly to get them on the right track early on. This does not mean that you as a manager are not allowed to bring up your own items. Just that your team member’s agenda takes precedence and is the one to start with.
- Consistency is key. Some people need more time to build trust in you before they feel comfortable to open up and discuss the things that are truly important to them. This is ok. Even though the first couple of 1:1s may be painful, the best you can do is to endure and continue. It may take several weeks or even months before things improve and you get a good flow in the discussions, but at some point you will. I promise.
- A good way for you as a manager to lead the way in building trust is to be open with your own doubts and struggles. Sharing your experiences, feelings and failures when relevant is an invite to the other person to do the same.
- Consistency will be hard to achieve if you repeatedly cancel your 1:1s, and that also signals that the meeting is not very important to you. So try to avoid that at (almost) all cost. For the same reasons, rescheduling is not optimal either, but at least slightly better and I’ve found it hard to avoid in practice. Just try not to make it a habit and always reschedule to the same week.
- Be present. Rushing straight from another meeting into a 1:1 is almost never a good starting point for a productive 1:1. This is also the reason why I prefer not to have too many 1:1s back-to-back. I simply find it too exhausting to be truly present for more than two, maximum three, sessions in a row and can literally see how my performance in the later sessions degrades significantly when I exceed that limit. The exact number may be different for you, but I think we all have that limit and it’s important to be aware of it and respect it.
- One way to reset before or between sessions that has worked well for me is to make sure to get a few minutes alone before the 1:1 starts. Close your eyes, focus on your breathing and try to let go of all the other things that bounce around in your head is something that has worked wonders for me.
- Be curious. Ask open ended questions. “What’s on your mind?” is a great starter question. “What conclusions do you draw from that?” is a really good question to follow up with. The cool thing about both of these questions is that they can be repeated over and over again, almost indefinitely, and get you one step closer to the “real” issue or insight on each iteration. The one place where the DRY principle does not hold, I guess. Avoid “Why did you…” type of questions as it tends to put the employee on the defense. Such questions can often be rephrased as a “What…” question instead, which is a better way to frame it in such cases.
Other questions that can unlock a 1:1:
- “What’s the one thing you would change in our way of working?”
- “What’s your main challenge right now?”
- “What mistakes do you think we’re making?”
- “What has been the best/worst that has happened since we last spoke?”
- “What did you think of X?”
- “What’s your main productivity blocker?”.
- Don’t be afraid of silence. In many cases, silence is your friend, especially the slightly uncomfortable one. It means you most likely asked a good question that made the other person stop and think. Don’t ruin the moment by answering your own question, give the other person an easy way out or rush to the next one.
- Don’t save feedback until the 1:1. Always aim to give feedback as close to the event as possible. However, 1:1s are a good time to follow up, discuss and track progress on previous feedback items.
- Embrace the uncomfortable. If your 1:1s are not a bit uncomfortable at times or if you’re not sometimes slightly nervous about bringing up an item, then you’re likely dodging certain topics and not getting into the really crucial conversations. Which is unfortunate since you’re then missing out on the main benefits of 1:1s. So treat overly comfortable and smooth 1:1s as a code smell, it may be a sign that you’re doing something wrong.
- Take notes, preferably on paper. Yes, I know. We live in the digital age and taking notes on paper feels a bit ancient. Plus, it’s really a pain to transfer to digital form, which you likely may want to do to keep your notes organized and searchable. But the truth is that opening up your laptop during your 1:1 doesn’t really signal that you care and that you listen. For all the person on the other side knows, you might just as well be browsing through your emails or responding to your latest Slack messages (which can be tempting also). And this is certainly not the message you want to convey in a meeting that is all about listening, caring, building trust and having deep conversations.
- Do you need to take notes at all? Well, you might be a mastermind champion, but at least I have problems remembering what I did yesterday. Keeping notes of each 1:1 has been very helpful for me when following up on topics that were discussed in previous 1:1s or to spot trends over time the conversations that could warrant a conversation on its own.
- Individuals are different and I think it is good to adjust the exact format to suit the person you are having the 1:1 with. Some guides tell you to stick to a strict agenda. That has not worked very well for me and nowadays I’ve come to believe that it is perfectly ok to allow the format to be a bit different depending on what works best for the employee. As long as you don’t make it a status update (rule number 1, remember?) and let your report own the agenda (rule 2), you should be fine.