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Are you doing 1:1s with your team?

Are you doing amazing 1:1s with your team?

By now, most managers know they should be doing 1:1s. But that doesn’t mean everyone is doing them very well. And a lot of the time, that’s because people don’t know the difference between an okay 1:1 and an amazing 1:1.

What makes a great 1:1 meeting so great? And why should you care?

Ben Horowitz describes the value of 1:1s this way:

“Generally, people who think one-on-one meetings are a bad idea have been victims of poorly designed one-on-one meetings.

The key to a good one-on-one meeting is the understanding that it is the employee’s meeting rather than the manager’s meeting. This is the free-form meeting for all the pressing issues, brilliant ideas and chronic frustrations that do not fit neatly into status reports, email and other less personal and intimate mechanisms.”

One on ones often feel easy to skip or not important to do, because the topics discussed are often small. But the power of regular one on ones is exactly that: that they are ongoing communication that happens in small doses. It’s a chance to give and get low-pressure feedback and communication on everything from personal goals to alignment on big picture priorities.

You don’t want to only meet when big, huge, bad things are happening. That is no way to build a successful, functional team. Plus, one on ones can make those big, huge, bad things less likely to happen, too. Why?

  • 1:1s allow for ongoing performance correction. Catch small errors before they become catastrophic, and reward good behavior that builds a stronger team.
  • Disasters are less likely when everyone is on the same page. 1:1s let you super easily fill people in on goals and priorities so they’re always working on the right things, week to week, meaning fewer surprises and errors.
  • Bad things are less bad when you know how to handle them. By developing a relationship before a disaster, you and your team will be able to communicate problems as they arise, and you’ll work better together when bumps in the road do occur – meaning you’ll spend less time panicking and more time simply getting things back on course.

Doing 1:1 meetings, and doing them well, matters for the success of your team. You work with people, and as much as you might wish that it were just all about the work and reaching peak efficiency, people are more complicated than that.

They have questions, complaints, unsung victories they want to be appreciated for, goals, fears, personal lives, and a million other things that make them up and affect the version of themselves that they bring to work every day.

The more you get interested in that person and invested in their success, the more successful you can help make that person. Which makes you an ally to them, and someone who they, in turn, want to see be successful too.

So how can you start doing amazing 1:1 meetings? Here’s everything you need to know and do.

Always keep the appointment

This one is obvious, but always worth including. While your team member might still say, “Of course it’s okay!” with a smile on their face when you ask if you can cancel this week’s meeting, they are still, at the heart of the conversation, receiving the message that you value something else above your time with them. And that’s not the kind of message you want to be conveying.

If you absolutely must miss a meeting, try to reschedule it for the same day and apologize. Yes, apologize. Make it clear you understand that the 1:1 meeting is a big deal to you and you value your time with them.

Let the employee create the agenda and run the meeting

You don’t know what your employee needs or wants to talk about most, because you can’t read their mind. Which is why you shouldn’t be setting the meeting agenda for your 1:1s; they should.

When you tell your employees you want them to set the agenda, it has two powerful effects:

  • It shows them that you’re serious about making this time being about them.
  • It empowers them to use this time wisely. If they’re expected to run an effective meeting, they’re more likely to prepare and come with important things to talk about and questions to ask that will be really valuable to them.

Most people plan to defer to their boss in a meeting setting, so you will have to *tell* your people that you want them to run the meeting. Make it clear this time is for them. And give them an idea of what a good 1:1 looks like:

  • what things 1:1s are usually used to talk about (goals, questions, high-level talk about company priorities, career development)
  • what your role is as the manager (to listen and offer help)
  • what their role is (the meeting leader, the talker, the person getting value from the time)

Make it about more than status

A status email sent once a week by each of your team members should be all the status talk you do every week. (And don’t think that if you’re already squared away on status that that means you don’t need to do a 1:1.) Your 1:1 time should be used for so much more than that.

Good one on ones should be a time to grow your employee, touch base on big picture stuff that’s hard to convey over email, build trust, and coach them through career development and any situations they’re dealing with.

Ask, don’t tell

A good 1:1 is an opportunity for your employee to get value from you, but that doesn’t mean you should do all the talking. Instead, you should be listening 90% of the time.

Use questions to push the conversation along, and to help your employee find their own answers. Listening is a powerful tool for empowering people; when you listen, you show respect to your team, which builds trust.

When you ask, instead of tell, you also get a huge insight into what this person thinks about, what they know about, and just as importantly, what they aren’t thinking or talking about. You get to find out where their gaps are, so you can help them fill them in. And you get to find out what’s on their mind that you might never have known about otherwise, which means you can work with them better.

In this post on asking good questions, there are a few suggestions for how you can still let the other person run the meeting even as you guide them towards answers, to get you started. It’s much more effective to let the employee come to the right answers than to simply lecture them on what matters.

Take at least 30 minutes for each 1:1 and make them valuable

Whether or not the employee actually walks in needing all 30 minutes, it’s better to give people extra space, rather than to tell them right off the bat that you only have a certain amount of time for them and you are counting down.

Feel like you don’t have time? Make time. Making sure the people on your team are engaged and doing amazing work should be your number one priority as a manager. So this is a meeting that deserves your attention and time; other things should get pushed to make your 1:1 meetings work.

Most 1:1 meetings will run fairly smoothly and predictably, but that doesn’t mean you should cut them short after a brief “how’s it going” and enjoy your extra 15 free minutes. Instead, this is your opportunity to spend the rest of your time together digging deep and really building the relationship or adding lots of value to the employee.

Rands in Repose suggests these 3 strategies for turning a plain old “things are fine, nothing much to talk about” meeting into a valuable 1:1:

Move #1 – Three Prepared Points. While I believe part of a good organic 1:1 is improvisation, I usually have three talking points in my back pocket that have shown up over the past week regarding you or your team. If we can’t find a good thread of conversation in the first 10-15 minutes, I’ll start with one of these points and see where that takes us.

Move #2 – The Mini-Performance Review. You read that right. If we’re 15 minutes into a lifeless, redundant, status-based 1:1 and I don’t have anything sitting in my back pocket, I’m going to turn this into a performance review.

It won’t be your actual performance review; it’s one aspect of your review that somehow strikes me as more appropriate conversation than an update on your bug counts. I see you’ve got a handle on your bugs, but one thing we talked about at your last annual performance review was getting a better handle on the architecture. How’s that going?

Move #3 – My Current Disaster. Chances are, in my professional life, something is currently off the rails. It’s selfish, but if you’re leading with status and I can’t find an interesting discussion nugget, let’s talk about my current disaster.

Do you know how many open reqs we have that we can’t hire against? Who is the best hiring manager you know and what were their best moves? The point of this discussion is not to solve my Disaster, the point is that we’re going to have a conversation where one of us is going to learn something more than just project status.


Oh, and while all of this is happening, don’t watch the clock. If you’re tempted, put your phone in a drawer and take down any wall clocks before your meetings. Watching the time tells the other person that you’re not listening and you’re waiting for this to be over; at the very least, seeing your eyes dart over to the clock is a distraction.

Schedule more time than you think you need, so you’re not worried about being late to a meeting. Give the 1:1 all of your attention.

Split time between personal and work

At the start of every 1:1, as simple as it may seem, it’s great to start out with a general, “How are you?”.

People don’t get asked very often how things are going by someone who is really listening. So simply giving your full attention to someone when they are telling you about their week is a great way to kick off your 1:1s on the right foot.

Make notes of people’s spouses’ and kids’ names when they mention them, so you can ask about them later as well. When you ask about people’s loved ones it means a lot because, well, they love them! So the more you remember and acknowledge that your team members all have lives outside of the office, the deeper your relationships with your people will go, and the more trust you’ll build.

Finding out you both saw the same movie this weekend is just as effective a way to build rapport as talking about what you’re both working on this week. Create a well rounded relationship with the individuals on your team as much as possible by making their lives a part of your weekly check-ins.

Set a reminder to go big picture on a regular basis

Few people are going to stay in the job they have today for the rest of their lives. And so as a manager, part of your job is to help people get the skills they need to level up in a way that is meaningful to them.

Don’t think about coaching people on career development as a bad thing, or a way to help good people leave you. Remember, the more amazing things the people on your team achieve, the more amazing you look as the person who helped them get there. Their growth is good for your career too.

Schedule time every few months (maybe every 3 or every 6, depending on your preferences) to ask people about their big career goals. Don’t assume you know what they want.

You can also use this time to do a small version of a performance review, for yourself and for them. Ask them how they like working at this company. How they like working on this team. How they like working for you.

You can also talk about their goals and how they’ll need to get there. This is a good opportunity to give critical feedback on things they need to work on in order to achieve their goals. Connect them with people or resources who can help them grow their skills or understand what they need in order to level up.

And if they don’t know what their goals are, it’s good to help them find out. Talk about their favorite parts of their current job, what they wanted to be when they were little, what they think their strengths are, and then offer some directions they can pursue to find the right career direction for the next 1-5 years.

It is always good to be the person who helps other people get what they want.

Don’t use the 1:1 to clear your own to-do list

Having a team member in your office talking about work and priorities often feels like a great opportunity to give them some valuable things to do.

Resist this urge.

Think about it from the employee’s perspective: they should be able to talk candidly and openly, and not worry that something they say might trigger a landslide of extra work from you if they happen to touch on the wrong topic.

Your people should leave their 1:1s feeling recharged and engaged, not overwhelmed and stressed. Which leads to the next point…

Take note of their reactions and moods at the end of each meeting

Your 1:1 meetings should make your team feel better, not worse. Even if they came in to vent about how if the person sitting next to them starts drumming on their desk one more time they are going to lose it, they should leave the meeting feeling like you heard them, like you understand them, and like they are better equipped to handle the situation than when they walked in.

So do a quick assessment at the end of each 1:1. It doesn’t have to be complex; just ask yourself a few questions. Does this person look stressed? Are they smiling? Are their eyes glazed over?

If they seem disheartened or stressed at the end of the meeting, you need to do better next time. Go over the meeting for a couple of minutes and try to remember when they got disengaged or stressed, so you know what behaviors to skip next time. Did you assign them a ton of work when they mentioned a goal? Did you interrupt them? Did you dismiss an idea they had or ignore something they wanted to talk about?

Remember, above all else, this meeting is about them. Not you. So if they don’t leave the meeting feeling excited and motivated, then you need to do a better job making the meeting feel refreshing and motivating for them next time.

Follow up that same day

Did they have questions you couldn’t answer? Did they mention something awesome they did that you are so proud of or thrilled to have done? Write them that same day to make sure they hear what they need to hear from you.

Do it that same day, or if it’s something you need to research and can’t handle quickly, make sure to follow up that week.

Anything that can’t be immediately answered (say you are a fast-growing company where big picture priorities change all the time, so you don’t can’t answer “big picture goals” questions this week) then touch base and let them know you are working on it and want to keep talking about it. Just keeping the conversation open and letting them know you haven’t forgotten it can do a lot to make an unanswered question feel a lot more productive.

Want to do more amazing 1:1s?

We built a free tool to help you do better 1:1s. And we called it Better One On Ones. :)

You can sign up yourself and your team to receive two weekly meeting topics every single Monday morning to help you have more amazing, more productive one on one meetings. Did we mention it’s free? What are your best tips for doing great 1:1s? Let us know in the comments!

 Want to improve your professional conversations overall?

How You Can Talk to Anyone in Every Situation Conversation Transformation Conversations About Job Performance

Tags: better leader, communication, growth, improvement, leadership, leadership practice, management, one on ones, team, trust,

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