June 25, 2024

Dos and don'ts of one on one meetings for managers

Jess Cooper

Jess Cooper

Don't let conventions dictate how you run one-on-one meetings as a manager.

Dos and don'ts of one on one meetings for managers

One on one meetings are one of the main ways for you as a manager to stay connected with your reports. They provide an opportunity for growth, problem-solving, and mentorship. However, it's common for them to feel more like a status update than a productive conversation.

Many managers blindly adopt the conventional way of running one on ones. The agenda usually looks like this: small talk about your weekend, status updates, and surface-level problems/blockers. Held once a week for 30-60 minutes.

Everything in the above agenda is important. However, it shouldn't be discussed in a one-on-one. One on one meetings can be introspective and dare we say it, transformative if you focus on the right things.

Here are some reasons why conventional one on ones may not be appropriate for your team:

  • Junior, new team members or those struggling may need more frequent, but shorter opportunities to connect.
  • Senior-level, independent team members may need to connect less often, but for longer to discuss nuanced, advanced topics.
  • Remote teams may flourish with frequent connections since spontaneous in-office conversations aren't happening.

Aside from understanding each person on your team's unique needs, these unconventional dos and don'ts can help enrich your one-on-ones and become a true mentor to your reports.

Break the 1:1 meeting mold

Do focus on being a mentor, don't get tactical

Managers, put on your 'mentor' or 'coach' hat. Your goal is to support and empower your report to keep moving in the right direction with their contributions to the team.

1:1 meetings are a great forum for topics like:

  • Career goals and aspirations, like working toward a promotion
  • Progress on implementing and actioning feedback that was received
  • Feedback on how the team is working together and progressing towards goals
  • Broader challenges the employee is facing with managing the workload, team dynamics, or complexity of projects
  • Exploring the direction of the company, decision-making, current objectives, and how the team member fits into the big picture

The purpose of a 1:1 meeting is not for you as a manager to get updates on work in flight. We suggest using other meetings, like stand-ups or project meetings, status dumps, or referencing your project/work management tool for that.

Discussing project status in one on ones creates unnecessary information silos. As Karri Saarinen, CEO of Linear, called out in a recent LinkedIn post, "Not only do 1:1s take a lot of time, they also don’t do a good for spreading information, or even having different angles of the discussion." Project updates should be surfaced in a group/team environment, so don’t spend time on this. You’ll have to repeat yourself later.

If you find tactical discussions are creeping in, redirect it to a discussion 'parking lot' doc so you can revisit it later.

Do use themes, don't use a templated agenda

1:1 meetings shouldn't feel repetitive. Using conversation themes, instead of a templated checklist agenda, can help inspire deeper and less superficial conversations.

Here are some ideas for 1:1 topics and conversation themes for managers:

  • Goal setting: E.g. What are you hoping to achieve in your role in the next two years? What are you currently working on that's helping you move toward that goal? Can we help you do more of that work?
  • Team dynamics: E.g. How do you think the team worked together on X project? Is there an opportunity for better communication? Did you notice any friction?
  • Team processes: E.g. Are there structures/processes in place slowing you or the team down? Are you noticing silos occurring between functions?
  • Satisfaction at work: E.g. Are you feeling supported by management and your team? Are you feeling energized at work? Is your work giving you satisfaction?

Add your theme to the agenda in advance, so your report has time to reflect. You should also let them choose topics. Will Larson, CTO at Carta, mentions some great talking points for reports to bring to their managers in his article Partnering with your manager.

"Things your manager should know about you:

  • What problems you’re trying to solve.
  • How you’re trying to solve it.
  • That you’re making progress. (Specifically, that you’re not stuck.)
  • What you prefer to work on. (So they can staff you properly.)
  • How busy you are. (So they know if you can take on an opportunity that comes up.)
  • What your professional goals and growth areas are.
  • Where you are between bored and challenged.
  • How you believe you’re being measured. (A rubric, company values, some KPIs, etc.)"

While we suggest you avoid talking tactically about projects, if something does need to be discussed privately, address it after covering your theme.

Do show up on time, don't be the one to cancel

Have you ever had your manager repeatedly reschedule or cancel your 1:1s? It doesn't make you feel very prioritized. On some teams, 1:1 meetings are one of the only chances reports have to discuss vulnerable topics. Cancelling or rescheduling might signal to your report that everything and anything else is more important than them. This is not a great way to create a trusting and open relationship.

Be punctual with your 1:1s. Show up right on time and give your full focus for the time allotted. Don't send Slack messages or emails on the side. Never be the one to completely cancel a 1:1. Your report should be the only one to initiate cancelling if they need time back.

If you do have a scheduling conflict, make sure you're rescheduling as close as possible to the original time. Avoid rescheduling at the last minute, too. It's not respectful of anyone's time and last-minute cancellations can waste precious focus time.

As a leader, you should set a boundary with your team and colleagues that 1:1 meetings in your calendar should not be booked over and that they take precedence over other meetings. This will help set the tone across the organization as well.

Do share what you're working through as a leader, don't shy away from vulnerability

A great way to set the tone for open and transparent 1:1 meetings is to open the curtain on what you're working through as a leader. Being vulnerable and transparent can build trust and prepare your reports for what senior-level roles like yours are like.

Some ideas of what you can share with your reports (where appropriate):

  • A trade-off you had to make recently
  • Why and how you reprioritized work that was on your plate
  • A challenge you're struggling with in managing a current project
  • A decision you're mulling over
  • A piece of feedback you received and how you're implementing it
  • Your career goals/aspirations

I once had a manager who was open with me about what he hoped to work towards and achieve in the next level of his career. He wanted to move from VP to C-Suite into a position that didn't exist yet. He shared some of what he was doing to make that happen. He also mentioned new responsibilities I'd likely see him taking on to work towards that goal.

This conversation was powerful for two reasons. I saw my boss as a human who has their own dreams and goals (and insecurities). And, I gained insight into how successful leaders forge a path ahead that I could emulate in my career.

Chris Class also underlined the importance of managers being vulnerable during a recent context-switching panel, noting it's helpful for managers to be transparent about how they're prioritizing and spending their time.

Remember 1:1s are for you to provide mentorship, so sharing is a powerful tool.

Do be an active listener, don't speak the whole time

Being an active listener is an important part of being a good manager, but it’s especially important during 1:1s. You can learn a lot about the inner workings of your team and how people are feeling by listening closely.

Don't assume you know all the answers. Allowing your reports to share their opinion without sharing your perspective first will help you get unbiased feedback. It can help you spot potential issues early, like cultural challenges, blockers, resourcing issues, etc.

It’s even more important to ask the right questions, so you don’t have blind spots. If they briefly touch on something you think might have more meaning behind it, ask questions like "Can you tell me more about that?" or "Is there a specific example that comes to mind?"

The more delicately you treat conversations like this, the more your team will trust you and open up. Always let them know how you plan to action feedback. Some statements you can use are:

"Thank you for sharing this with me. I'm going to think about what this means, and we can discuss it further in our next one on one"

"This is important feedback. Would you like me to share it with [x person or x team]? I can share it anonymously if you're more comfortable."

"How can I support you in addressing this challenge?"

Powerful one to one meetings focus on supporting your team on their career journey. Keep the focus on being a mentor, rather than tactical triage, and don't be afraid to go deep.

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