A lot has been said about the famous 1:1 meeting, and still many managers have very different views on what it is and how to do it.
It’s one of those “management things” that are rarely taught, and new managers often blindly copy what their manager did with them.
Before specifying what an effective 1:1 is, I’d like to share examples of non-effective ones that I have had and seen. As an exercise, after reading this post, come back to them and identify why they are not effective.
Not having 1:1s
Managers not conducting 1:1s due to ignorance or actively refuse to have them, e.g. because it wastes their time, or doesn’t benefit them.
Another reason is despite acknowledging the need to spend time with directs, they assume that they already do it, merely by being in the same building or working together occasionally.
A classic mistake is to announce an “open door policy” and expect directs to approach when they need to. In reality this rarely happens, as we’ll see later on.
I think it’s gonna rain
Some 1:1s can be solely about random generic topics, like the weather, sports, cool new technologies or the latest twitter storm.
The whole 1:1 is about asking directs about the status reports from small tasks to big projects, turning it into a project management meeting. Some require their directs to prepare slides in advance.
The manager uses the time to teach their direct their life experience and recent discoveries, trying to “convert” the direct. Examples I came across were about religion, meditation, spiritualism, workshops they’ve attended, their master’s degree or recent games they played.
Other more work related types can be coaching a specific skill, for example test driven development.
1:1s that are not scheduled, rather “happen from time to time”, or are scheduled, and seem like something the manager tries to avoid. Those are usually cancelled, postponed or shortened, and almost always on a very short notice, due to “important things that came up”.
1:1s where the manager never takes notes or follows up, has to be reminded of previous items, doesn’t come with any topics, only asking “what do you want to talk about?”
Sometimes micro-aggressions join the party, in the form of periodically looking at the watch, or asking the direct to repeat because they didn’t listen.
By the way
Having 1:1 while doing other activities, like doing emails, responding to urgent slack messages, unblocking the team, resolving an incident, deploying code changes, monitoring the system, etc.
Having 1:1 once per month (and if it’s a vacation to holiday, need to wait another month).
The manager’s purpose is to have results and retention. This is the meaning of being an effective manager.
Having results without retention means short-lived results and a negative atmosphere that deters others from working with this manager.
Having retention without results is not bringing value to society, the organization, the team and the direct.
The purpose of 1:1 is to build trust.
It is the most important managerial tool, and is the basis for all the other managerial tools, which I will write about in the future.
Types of power
The term “power” is freely used here to indicate influence on another person to act in a certain way.
We can divide power into three major types:
Role power — people act because a person is higher in the hierarchy
Expertise power — people act because a person is an expert on the topic
Relationship power — people act because they have good relationship with a person
The claim is that relationship power is the most effective one (getting to results) and is used in the majority of the cases.
You can probably think of examples where you acted only because a manager told you to do something, and you did the bare minimum, and how different it was when someone at work you have good relationships with asked you to.
That is not to say that we need to disregard ‘role’ or ‘expertise’, rather to not forget ‘relationship’ and invest in them, also as managers and experts.
It’s also advised to anyone, manager or not, to have both results and relationships for that reason, also if you’re not a “people person”.
The actionable part — how to do it?
Schedule weekly recurring
As the manager, schedule a 30 minutes recurring weekly 1:1 meeting. Schedule on a time slot that is less likely to be difficult, like very early, very late, after another meeting that tends to run late, or a meeting that tends to generate urgent work.
Why recurring? Why weekly?
- Signal the directs they are important. In case of a rare need to reschedule, the next one is only a week away in the worst case.
- Stability, knowing what to expect, is important to humans and reduces anxiety.
- Many think of life and work in units of weeks (e.g. weekly piano lesson, weekly staff meeting, weekly check-in of OKRs, etc.)
- Relationship is not only quality, it’s also quantity — having a deep and meaningful discussion that occurs infrequently has “less value” than a frequent one. You can probably think of examples with your colleagues, friends and family.
- Communication will occur early and often, which ensures small increments of information, early head-ups and allows taking action on time. A useful metaphor is driving a car and constantly adjusting the steering wheel, not waiting to almost fall off a cliff.
If we discuss infrequently, we’d only discuss the major things, and usually after they had already happened. An example is meeting your extended family once per year, talking about the major life events that had happened.
- Directs tend to not make use of “open door” and accumulate stuff for too long, and it may be too late. Maybe think how many of your colleagues make use of it, or how many times you went to your manager with topics to discuss.
- Time is gained back — one reason managers or directs avoid 1:1s, is the perceived waste of time.
For the direct, it’s 30 minutes (plus preparation) out of 40 working hours, or 1.25% of the week.
For the manager it’s weekly 30 minutes (plus preparation) multiplied by the number of directs.
We don’t waste time, we invest the time to get it back as more output and outcome, i.e. results and retention, focus, growth, soft skills, etc.
- According to data collected over 3 decades in various countries and organization types, having 1:1s weekly is 80% more effective than bi-weekly (measured as results and retention), where monthly is even worse than not having at all.
- The meeting is for the direct, not for the manager and not for status updates. If you need them, you can schedule a meeting for that. As some say, “you have two ears and one mouth, use them in this ratio”.
- Shut down distractions — email, slack, phone, find a quiet location. Focus on the direct.
- Direct always start — they talk about their topics. A good way to frame is roughly 20 minutes for direct’s topics and 10 for the manager’s. Remember that for the manager it’s much easier to get time from their direct when they need it.
- Directs can talk about anything, e.g. their family, career aspirations, requesting help on work, growing opportunities, bureaucratic challenges, their vacation. Remember that the purpose is to create trust.
Learn about your directs, also non-work related things.
- Take notes, whether you have the 1:1 out on the street, in a café, in the office or over a video call. They are mandatory for trust building and to be able to follow up proactively instead of being asked again and again for a response. After the 1:1 you can potentially add such tasks into your task tracking system, analog or digital.
Taking notes digitally during the 1:1 has the disadvantage that the direct might think that you’re doing other work, like writing an email, not focusing on them, and it’s noisy.
Referring to these notes can be also useful for conducting official performance reviews, as it documents the topics and progress.
- You’re not their therapist — you do listen, support and suggest solutions when needed, and yet, the 1:1 is not a therapy session, even if you are a certified therapist, this is not your role in this constellation.
- It cannot be 100% confidential. You need to keep things that are said in the room in the room, and create an environment where the direct feels safe.
Exceptions are when the directs wants a topic to be handled in public, or you ask for their permission, or when things will have effect on the team or plans, for example, not assigning a new project to a direct that declared their wish to take a one year sabbatical, or reporting about illegal behavior.
- For documenting the 1:1 topics, it’s possible to use pen and paper, a designated tools, or a shared online document.
I’ve been using a shared google document per direct for the past years, where we have the date, direct’s topic and my topics.
- When management lines change, the contents of the 1:1 are NOT shared with the new manager. As said, they are kept in the room.
As explained above, there is also time for the manager’s topic. Let’s see what they could be:
- Topics you had noticed during the week and decided not to address on the moment
- Proactively follow up on previous questions, action items and tasks
- Give feedback, positive and negative (I will write about it in the future)
- Purpose — align on company mission, team goals and OKRs
- Give interpretation, heads-up or updates (industry, team, company, people, technology, business)
- Check-in on the direct’s IDP, their individual development plan (I will write about it in the future)
- Seek mastery, growth or coaching opportunities — specific gaps that would help the direct
- Talk about their inner motivation
- Talk about team dynamics and stakeholders
- Talk about tactical challenges and ideas to resolve
- Push down work
- Allow direct to vent, acknowledge their frustration and check whether help is required
Questions are an effective way to get information and to start conversations about various topics. Open ended questions are better than a discussion-closing “yes/no” or a number answer.
- How do you like to be praised? (In public or private?)
- What was your level of interest this week between 1 and 10?
Then ask to elaborate.
- What can I do to help you?
- How can I support you to be more effective?
- What has frustrated you in the last week?
- What do you like to do more that you’re not doing, or less of that you are doing?
- What are your career goals?
- What obstacles do you currently have?
- What was the best moment in the past week?
- When you want to get into the details of a specific topic, do not ask generic “how is it going” — the answer is usually “fine” (same as asking a child “how was your day at school”). Rather ask specific questions, like what is the next milestone, what obstacle is holding us back.
The “Coaching Habit” book suggests to have a “set” of questions:
- What’s on your mind?
- And what else?
- What’s the real challenge for you there?
- What do you want? (to do/achieve/prevent)
- How can I help?
- What are you saying “no” to?
- What was most useful for you in our conversation?
What is trust anyway?
Being reliable, what to expect from each other, knowing [intimate to some extent] things about each other, knowing that the other person has your best interest at heart, and being vulnerable, like admitting mistakes or asking for help.
There are also cultural differences, for example in some countries trust is built by hanging out together after work, and in others it’s observing repeated demonstration of work competence. See “The Culture Map” book below.
You can think of trust as a bank account, where you can invest (trust building actions) or withdraw (trust-ruining actions).
First 1:1 with a new direct
Explain the “rules”, mainly the frequency and content, the “stays in the room” psychological safety, and ask them to come prepared.
Either request or decide together on the format — location, shared document, repeating agenda items, etc.
What if my direct refuses or avoids?
- Explain the direct the purpose of the meeting
- They must show up for the meeting, otherwise give negative feedback
- Keep showing up on time with agenda and follow up
- Ask questions
- Repeat, persist. This can sometimes take months
I never did 1:1, how to start?
Let your directs know that you will start having 1:1 in 2 weeks. Give time to adjust to the idea, don’t surprise them.
Explain how 1:1 will work and that it is a safe place and things stay “in the room”, but not confidential in case you have to take action for the benefit of the company.
What if my direct takes up the whole time?
If the direct keeps using the full 30 minutes for their topics, it’s possible to extend the meeting on a regular basis.
Probably better would be to have the direct work on becoming more concise or prioritizing their topics in order to keep the 20 minutes.
One-on-Ones — Part 1 podcast — Manager Tools (then parts 2 and 3). Manager tools run their weekly, actionable podcast for over 16 years. They have conducted various researches and base all their advice on them, not on anecdotes.
The Effective Manager book by Mark Horstman, Manager Tools
The Coaching Habit book
The Culture Map book
Now test yourself
Go back to the 1:1 examples at the top and identify the problems.
Call for action
I hope you realize how actionable it is and you see the benefits, so all that’s left is to try it out!